Nick Cave is tapped into the darker, wicked part of the human psyche and knows how to connect with that corner of a brain on a simply unmatched level. As a child, the Australian was indoctrinated by an artist who knows that path all too familiarly, and Cave’s coat of innocence dissipated.
Although Cave’s musical partnerships have altered throughout his lengthy career, where he initially found success with The Birthday Party, his intrinsic ability to pull on the heartstrings of a listener by instinctively connecting is something that has never wavered. Whether he’s back with his Bad Seeds, accompanied by Warren Ellis, or sat by himself at a piano in the middle of Alexandra Palace, his artistry is primal and never misses.
Nobody is distinctively similar to Cave, but a few musicians are comparisons despite the definite differences. Perhaps none more so than Johnny Cash, who is somebody Cave has openly discussed his admiration for, and the energy he provides is a reincarnation of the ‘Man In Black’.
He’s always worn his love of Cash on his sleeve. When The Bad Seeds performed on The Tube back in 1986, Cave led his former band through a pulsating cover of ‘The Singer’, and the late country legend has been a part of his life ever since he was a child.
“I lost my innocence with Johnny Cash,” Cave wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian following the heartbreaking death of Cash in 2003. “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.”
Adding: “For me it was very much the way he began the show. He’d have his back to you in silhouette, dressed all in black, and he’d swing around and say: ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Cash’. There was something that struck me about him, and about the way my parents shifted around uncomfortably.”
Towards the final days of Cash’s career, Rick Rubin revitalised him, and the partnership was the Indian summer of his career. On their third collaborative album together in 2000, Cash even put his own spin on ‘The Mercy Seat’ by Cave which was somewhat of an out-of-body experience to hear his idol cover his song. “I got a call from [Cash’s producer] Rick Rubin that Johnny Cash wanted to record it and was that all right,” Cave continued. “That was pretty exciting. The version is so good. He just claims that song as he does with so many.”
Adding: “There’s no one who can touch him. I wrote and recorded that when I was fairly young, but he has a wealth of experience which he can bring. He can sing a line and give that line both heaven and hell.”
The pair even played Hank Williams’ track ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ together in Rubin’s studio just a matter of months before Cash’s death. That day will never leave Cave, and seeing the power of music light up Cash’s body even when he was severely ill is an image that is engrained on his mind forever.
Cave poignantly concluded about that hallowed day: “When Johnny first came down those stairs into the studio he looked really frail and sick, but once he started singing he was really brought back to life. It was an incredible thing to see.”
Out of every achievement, Cave has under his belt, few, if any, will be sweeter than earning the right to share the stage with the man who proselytised him into the darkness. For him, that is likely the ultimate honour and more precious than any award or acclaim.