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Music

The passage of literature that changed Nick Cave’s life

If there has been a more literary songwriter than Nick Cave, then I haven’t heard them. The fact that he has published two full-length novels and an epic poem, along with an assortment of other literary contributions is testament to this.

Not that he’s the only songsmith to delve from the songsheet into printed word, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and his close friend and collaborator Patti Smith, have all done it to name but a few. However, nobody I can think of has ever leant on the world of literature quite as frequently, frankly, and fastidiously as the vampiric librarian.

Whether it be subtle hat-tips to Philip Larkin, commandeering Miltonian constructs for ‘Red Right Hand’ and ‘Song of Joy’, justified Charles Bukowski bashing on ‘Call Upon the Author’, or rattling off the ailing great and good from Willmot to Thomas in ‘There She Goes My Beautiful World,’ the bookshelf is never far from the back catalogue when it comes to Nick Cave.

There is an undoubted profundity to printed text and the hefty tome that it constructs. It is this that Cave must grapple with even in a meta sense. “I am dancing on water lilies when I write,” he once poeticised, “and one’s heritage can have a terrifying tonnage. I must remain one step ahead of the songs, optimistically hopping from lily pad to lily pad, and doing my best to ignore the great dark wave of work that is building up behind me.”

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The dark wave was first crested by a classic text itself. As Graham Greene once wrote: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” For Cave, that moment was when his father read him the opening paragraph of the ever-controversial but always stirring Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Frequently misread and often under fire, the text has the same unflinching approach to art as the young boy who it inspired. 

“I was 12 years old at the time, so I didn’t understand half of what I was hearing. ‘Fire of my loins’? What on earth did that mean? And some of it made me very uneasy. But more than anything else, the words he was reading excited me. I knew nothing would ever be the same,” Cave once recalled. 

That opening stanza continues: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” It is an opening indicative of an expressive profundity that both Cave and Nabokov share in their writing—and it is defined by a certain Spanish word. 

In 1999, Nick Cave delivered a lecture on love songs in which he dusted off and donned the old Spanish word ‘Duende’, which was defined by poet and (perhaps) purely platonic love interest of Salvador Dali, Frederico Garcia Lorca, as exalted emotion unearthed from within, “a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained. The roots that cling to the mire from which comes the very substance of art.”

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