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Music

The real reason Nick Cave moved to Berlin

@TomTaylorFO

Music transcends our lives in such a way that we rarely think about the practicalities behind it. When Covid-19 came around and albums were delayed due to bands being unable to meet up or limited access to recording studios hampering plans, we were reminded that artists, like the rest of us, are governed by the everyday unfurlings of life. This can often prove somewhat of a revelation. Sure, we understand where a musician was at emotionally at the time an album or song was written, that much is self-evident, but the nitty-gritty day-to-day business of circumstance seems far too nebulous to consider.

As the story goes, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds moved to Berlin and soon found themselves top of the subterranean artistic tree. So much so, in fact, that when Wim Wenders sought to portray the city in Wings of DesireCave and Co. were the group that he turned to. As Wenders explains: “Making a film in Berlin, for me, was almost synonymous with having [Nick Cave and Roland S Howard] appear in it because they were cutting edge, and they were grunge before anybody knew the word for it. That was where Berlin was.”

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His first band The Birthday had been too rowdy for, well, just about the whole world and were rejected from London. They returned to the dustbowl ambivalence of home. It was there that a fateful phone would ring and bring about the next chapter. If Cave’s first outing had been a highspeed joyride, then The Bad Seeds’ journey that followed has been a jaunt that deals with eternities. As Nick 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.”

With not much of a musical scene at the time in Australia, they sought a spiritual home and the dilapidated bohemian hub of Berlin seemed like the right fit. Thus, the official narrative that they wanted to cement a creative identity surrounded by pioneers like Blixa Bargeld and the decaying post-War Christopher Isherwood aesthetic was born. However, this idea of finding a geographical muse was only half true it would seem. 

When we recently spoke to Mark Reeder who oversaw the Berlin scene like some spiritual numen with his band Die Unbekannten, and his covert Factory Records dealings, his tale was touched with rather more realism. “When Nick decided to move to Berlin in 82, he first stayed with me in my shabby little Nostitzstrasse flat,” Reeder tells me, “A squalid hovel boasting one and a half rooms packed into 20 square metres and crammed with crap, consisting of records, books and model aeroplanes.”

Adding: “My rent was 80DM a month (40 Euro), slightly more expensive than my previous abode, which cost nothing, as I was squatting an empty – soon to be torn down – six-room apartment. After outlining the advantages of living in Berlin compared to living in London, I managed to lure him with the promise of cheap drugs, cheap drink and cheap living and finally, I thought I had convinced him to move by offering him a place to stay, while he searched for his own apartment.”

Cave didn’t need much convincing on this front considering he had already been just about creatively barred from London. The Birthday Party had previously been 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 told ZDF. Thus, luring him away from ‘The Big Smoke’ was rather easy for Reeder, but he would soon find that Cave had an ulterior motive for choosing Berlin over the rest of the world. 

Reeder continues: “In reality, he had fallen in love with Elisabeth Recker, the girlfriend of Thomas Wydler, who was the drummer with my band Die Unbekannten, and another band called Die Haut. I was working as a live sound engineer for Die Haut, who were supporting the Birthday Party on tour and Nick was insistent I tell him everything about living in Berlin.” No doubt, Cave slipped in questions like, ‘And how are Wydler and Rekcer getting on?’ and ‘Does Elisabeth live nearby, just in case I run out of milk or something?’

The draw of a muse proved stronger than any alternative for Cave. Thus, naturally, Reeder concludes: “He had obviously made up his mind, as a few weeks later there he stood on my doorstep.” Details of whether anything came of Recker and Cave are lost to either the sands of time or secrecy, but what is undoubted is the explosion of creativity that the misplaced Aussies enjoyed thereafter. As Reeder happily recalls, “Yeah, the Berlin arts scene really embraced Nick, as he was accessible.” Maybe even too accessible for poor Thomas Wydler’s case.