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Music

In their own words: Exploring the relationship between Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

@TomTaylorFO

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey were the poster couple on every young goth’s bedroom wall when they burst onto MTV 2 with ‘Henry Lee’ and the besuited Polly Jean crooned to her vampiric-looking lover, “You won’t find a girl in this goddamn world that will compare with me.” Aside from the allure of the Alaskan ghost complexion, opened necked perfection of their matching outfits, and a gaze that couldn’t be broken by the sight of the Queen in her damned undies as the fella says, was a song of sultry, dramatic magnificence. It was during the making of the ‘Henry Lee’ video that they fell in love. 

Prior to the pair meeting in the mid-1990s, Cave’s drug use had started to spiral once more. In a move that he describes as “totally mad” he would sit through a church service in the morning before visiting his dealer in the afternoon, as if to say, “I’ve done a little bit of good, and a little bit of this, ‘What’s problem?’” Naturally, as he said himself, the problem was self-evident and that would soon manifest in the relationship he had with PJ Harvey. Despite the flowering artistry and the fact that they were the aspirational dream couple for adolescent goths the world over, there was trouble in their paradise lost.

Nevertheless, there was indeed a patch of paradise for a fleeting moment. As the following love letter from Cave will attest: “Polly Jean, I love you.  I love the texture of your skin, the taste of your saliva, the softness of your ears. I love every inch and every part of your entire body. From your toes to the beautifully curved arches of your feet, to the exceptional shade and warmth of your dark hair. I need you in my life, I hope you need me too.”

PJ Harvey likewise would craft touching pines to her lover, muse and troubled torment. “Like many musicians, I came out of art school,” Harvey recalls, “and drawing has been an ongoing part of my life. Nick Cave and I made a lot of drawings for each other.” Continuing: “I made this collage for Nick during the time I was writing [Is This Desire?], and in some ways, the words of the collage went on to inform the song, Is This Desire?, and indeed the whole album.”

The collage in question sports a polaroid of the pair looking suitably solemn and the following beauteous scattered prose: “’It’s not far now. We are almost there,’ she said. He saw stars and stars and stars in the sky. They had never seemed so bright. Far away he seemed to hear happy voices singing. ‘Even the skies seem to be happy tonight.’ And outside, the bright stars shone, and the happy voices sang.”

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This turn towards the magical is evident in both of their back catalogues during the period. However, that sweet romance would all come crashing down when Cave received a phone call from PJ Harvey saying she wanted to end the relationship, the quip that Cave offered up when recalling the incident is a hint as to why – “I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe.” In his Red Hand Files entry on the star, he added:  “Deep down I suspected that drugs might have been a problem between us, but there were other things too.”

However, he then concludes: “I think at the end of the day it came down to the fact that we were both fiercely creative people, each too self-absorbed to ever be able to inhabit the same space in any truly meaningful way. We were like two lost matching suitcases, on a carousel going nowhere.” But inevitably, those wandering muses would rub off on each other and in the welter of their output is a solid pinch of their bittersweet past together. Despite this troubled end, both the stars remain friends. 

As it happens, the breakup would also send the duo into creative purple patches as Cave recorded the heart-on-sleeve masterpiece of The Boatman’s Call while Harvey pined on Is This Desire? Both remain two of the finest albums that the 1990s as love-lost was transfigured into something beautiful. What’s more the split and pains of the loss would even encourage Cave to clean up. If that isn’t nice, what is?