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(Credit: Henry W. Laurisch)

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From Leonard Cohen to Nina Simone: Exploring Nick Cave’s greatest influences

@TomTaylorFO

Nick Cave has one of the most diverse back catalogues in music. Undoubtedly, this gilded sonic odditorium comes from the diverse range of influences that curates and harnesses aloft for amber inspection and what he gleans is transposed into his own gleaming song where artistic originality renders the backdrops obfuscated as all great art does; just as one of his literary heroes Stevie Smith once said: “A great artist takes what he did not make and makes of it something that only he can make.”

To tread into the murky songwriting swamplands and go spelunking into the inspired depths of Cave, clutching only a few fellow musicians from all the art, life, metaphysics as influences is a daunting act of daring. He is an artist, however, who eulogises the power of creativity to such an extent that you will find nuggets of his heroes throughout his work.

As he said himself via the constantly reliable voice of wisdom The Red Hand Files forum: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude towards appropriation… it’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes towards the advancement of rock music – the great artistic experiment of our era.”

In turn, he has inspired others and as one of his great influences, Bob Dylan, once said: “Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”

So, without further ado, let’s look at a collection of artists who have done just that for Nick Cave himself. 

Nick Cave’s greatest influences:

Leonard Cohen 

A songwriter who has felt the boon of inspiration emanating from Cave’s work is Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and he once declared: “There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15 years old that manages to hit you in just the right the way and changes your whole perception on things.”

For Nick Cave, that wasn’t necessarily a band with a dazzling attitude that titillates a youngster’s imagination, but the rather more introspective wonder of Leonard Cohen. As Cave declares in his epic poem The Sick Bag Song, he found a vinyl of Cohen’s masterpiece, Songs of Love and Hate, plunged the needle into ‘Avalanche’ and everything changed. 

“Leonard Cohen will sing,” he writes, “and the boy will suddenly breathe as if for the first time, and fall inside the laughing man’s voice and hide.” He goes on to say that the boy “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.”

In beautiful symmetry, that boy would go on to be Nick Cave and offer up the same insular honeyed belle to millions to such a gilded extent that upon the sad passing of Cohen he led the tributes by saying: “For many of us Leonard Cohen was the greatest songwriter of them all. Utterly unique and impossible to imitate no matter how hard we tried.”

Johnny Cash

Prior to the aforementioned life-changing wallop of that first band or artist who seems to turn the black and white world of your youth into bohemian technicolour, there is always that first daring artist who somewhat scares you. Growing up in the 1960s, the Johnny Cash Show was a ubiquitous presence in newly modernised lounges around the world, and for many, his man in black ways proved quite daunting, including a young Cave. 

“I lost my innocence with Johnny Cash,” Cave wrote in a Guardian obituary. “I used to watch the Johnny Cash Show on television in Wangaratta when I was about nine or ten years old. At that stage, I had really no idea about rock ‘n’ roll. I watched him and from that point, I saw that music could be an evil thing, a beautiful, evil thing.”

In the songs that flowed from Cave in later years, a lot of that same cloaked ether can be found, particularly in tracks like ‘Mercy Seat’ which Cash would go on to lend a searing cover of. As Cave would later celebrate: “It doesn’t matter what anyone says, Johnny Cash recorded my song.”

David Bowie 

While there is a lot of the songwriting chops of Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash in the work of Nick Cave, you don’t get to be in a band like The Birthday Party or the manic early Bad Seeds records without a swig of otherworldliness slugged into the heady brew. However, what makes both Bowie and Cave truly transcendent artists is their ability to find some commonality and humanity even in the further reaches of creativity. 

As Cave declared of Bowie: “In his first life, he did what most of us do and put himself forward as an individual, then later he looked for something communal and collective. It’s what happens to us all… I think we’re united by suffering.”

As someone who also first set out to be a painter before being roped into singing by his The Boys Next Door / Birthday Party bandmates, Bowie’s ability to couple art with music was also an inspiration. In fact, one of the first covers that The Boys Next Door managed to cover aside from Alice Cooper and The Alex Harvey band was apparently ‘Andy Warhol’.

Bob Dylan

It would seem that ever since Bob Dylan reinvented the wheel of songwriting back in the early 1960s, every songsmith who has followed has in some way been stirred up by his strumming. However, few musicians share as many traits; from the wavering back catalogue, biblical imagery and songs that simply seem bigger than themselves, there is a direct kinship between the two. 

And Cave celebrated his songwriting hero when he met him at Glastonbury back in 1998. “It was raining heavily and I was standing in the doorway of my trailer in the band enclosure, watching the water rise quicker and quicker, so that now it was running into my trailer,” Cave writes. 

Adding: “There was a crack of thunder, I looked up and saw a man in a hooded windcheater rowing a tiny boat across the enclosure toward me. The water is now up to my knees. The man pulls the boat in and extends a hand that has a long thumbnail. His hand in mine feels smooth and cold, but giving. The man, who is Bob Dylan, says something like, ‘I like your stuff’, and before I can reply, he turns the boat around and rows back to his trailer.”

Nina Simone

There are few people that Nick Cave has celebrated more than the legendary Nina Simone. His Bad Seeds bandmate has even recently penned a book about lifting her discarded chewing gum and towel from the piano she vacated after rocking the rafters, and their worlds, at a Cave curated concert. 

In the film 20,000 Days on Earth, Cave recalls the concert in question: “Nina Simone is hugely important for me. She is the real thing.” He continues: “We’re far from the experience of the blues people. But for me, from a literary point of view, there was a haunting and beautiful use of words.”

Her performance that evening is something that he has aspired to emulate ever since. “As the songs progressed they got more and more beautiful and she became inflated with the whole thing,” he says. “It was just an absolutely chilling thing to see. By the end of it, she had been kind of transformed and redeemed in some way.”

Mark E Smith

As the brilliance of the sixties and seventies finally began to wane into synth saturated sedation, and Cave stood on the precipice of artistic uncertainty, The Birthday party came slithering out of the Australian outback into the glare of the wider world in a benevolent maelstrom of adrenalised chaos. They were as perfunctory an incendiary attack on the mainstream as a Molotov cocktail hurled at the riot police.

Soon, however, that head spin was out of control and the precipice loomed larger for Cave than ever before. When they moved to London they were greeted as junkie pariahs that only The Fall and The Pop Group were bold enough to mingle with. “We were very isolated in London,” Nick Cave tells ZDF, “We were friends with The Fall, and we were friends with The Pop Group, and these were great English bands and, particularly at that time, they were the saviours of the music scene because there was so much shit that was happening at that time. Terrible, boring kind of stuff. And Mark Smith’s lyric writing was just incredible, so they had a huge impact, but we weren’t involved in a scene we just knew them.”

In many ways, this inspiration came at the most vital moment for Cave. Mark E Smith’s singular lyricism proved to be a beacon that shone through the murk of creative obscurity that followed the demise of The Birthday Party and loured Cave back into the beam of the creative boon that songwriting has evidently become for him since. 

Lou Reed

If there is one artist who shared the same kaleidoscopic encapsulation of the light and shade, madness and meaning, of life and society in their back catalogue as Nick Cave, then it may well be Lou Reed. And as it turns out, Reed was instrumental in imparting this lesson in boundless creativity to Cave himself.

As he explains: “He taught me that you can put the most sonically aggressive music and put it side by side by some of the most beautiful ballads that anyone has ever written,” Cave said upon the passing of Reed back in 2013 in an interview with Channel 4

“There was something that Lou started when he did his stuff,” he adds, “Which was that kind of punk ethic that he still held true to himself until the end.”

Alas, there are no doubt many others; from the American blues heroes of his youth to the likes of Bryan Ferry, Karen Dalton, Elvis Presley and no doubt a million others. The ones listed above merely shine on the brightest for now.

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