The Birthday Party were a terminal act. They were, indeed, too weird to live and while they may also have been too rare to die, the only thing saving them from the grave was the ghoul of their mangled legacy. If, however, The Birthday Party’s musical journey was a glorious tailspin to the grave, The Bad Seeds’ one has been a jaunt that deals with eternities. 37 years ago, Nick Cave and his revolving coterie of cronies took their first strange step, planting a seed that has flowered untold fruit ever since.
“Songwriting is all about counterpoint,” Nick Cave once said, “Putting two disparate images beside each other and seeing which way the sparks fly.” No finer example of that, albeit a meta one, comes from the way that one of the most original bands in history chose to open their debut album – with a cover. The cover, however, was befittingly so far removed from Leonard Cohen’s original, at least sonically, that he labelled it a “butchering”, but in a good way. The late songsmith declared: “I guess you could say Nick Cave butchered my song, ‘Avalanche,’ and if that’s the case, let there be more butchers like that.”
For Nick Cave, his arrival at the first ‘Bad Seeds record seemed like the culmination of a journey. In The Sick Bag Song, he describes the first time he heard ‘Avalanche’: “Leonard Cohen will sing, and the boy will suddenly breathe as if for the first time, and fall inside the laughing man’s voice and hide. The boy will grow older, and over time there will be other songs – not many – ten or maybe twenty in a lifespan, that stand apart from the rest of the music he will discover. He will realise that not only are these songs sacred, they are ‘hiding songs’ that deal exclusively in darkness, obfuscation, concealment and secrecy. He will realise that for him the purpose of these songs was to shut off the sun, to draw a long shadow down and protect him from the corrosive glare of the world.”
Following the break-up of The Birthday Party, that inviolable sanctity of music that he speaks of, seemed like one he would be apart from in a creative sense. The mutiny of his Promethean band seemed so absolute that getting behind the wheel of the wreckage was out of the question. He spent some time in Australia during a period where he is retrospectively portrayed as some sort of mystic wayfarer wondering the outback in search of aimlessness.
Then his old bandmate Mick Harvey managed to track him down. As Cave explained: “Mick Harvey rang me one day and said, ‘I think The Birthday Party should split up’ and that was it for me as far as music went. I went back to Melbourne. Then I met Mick again and he said, ‘well don’t you think we should start another band?’ So, he was very important in keeping that aspect of things alive.”
Following the fracas that lay behind them, both Harvey and Cave wanted room to breathe creatively, thus they sought the service of the one man atmosphere machine, Blixa Bargeld from Einstrürzende Neubauten. “Well, I guess we weren’t kicking people in the teeth anymore. I mean, it just became different. I wanted it to be more lyrically orientated,” Cave once said, “And getting Blixa Bargeld in the group made an incredible difference. He’s a complete kind of atmospheric guitarist and incredibly economical and it gave me room to breathe.”
They might have wrestled some space away from their past glorious misadventure, but the echoes of the chaos still ring out in the work. From Her to Eternity has all the howls of heathenry that The Birthday Party cultivated, but there is ineffably something new, undoubtedly that something new was still finding its feet, but it was clear even from the first tentative step that it had the legs to take them to where they are now.
In short, the record is far too good to be merely cast off as an interesting relic from the past that foreshadowed a glowing future. What speaks volumes about the album is that the reissue liner notes contain a Cave quote saying, ”No-one knew what the songs were”. Imagine, if you will, crawling out from under the wreckage of your last band, facing the wilderness of creative oblivion before you, boldly entering a studio to try and reclaim some foothold in the industry and producing an album that draws forth the paradoxical superlative of madness. It sounds like a hippo is behind the piano and the sole purpose of Bargeld’s off-beat syncopated guitar work seems to be to terrify and disturb.
It is that same boldness and creative zest that has thrust Nick Cave towards terms like ‘the greatest living songwriter’ in the golden years that have followed. With from Her To Eternity the needle might not have been out of the arm yet, but the seed was planted in a fertile patch where the visceral edge of rock ‘n’ roll meets with a long drawn shadow that welcomes people in and makes such beautiful sense of the world that you’re almost glad life is a mad comedy.