Friday, November 1, 2013

That Hideous Strength in Nick Cave's Face

Seeing Nick Cave perform live in Glasgow last night strangely brought to mind a passage from C. S. Lewis's science fiction novel That Hideous Strength.  Cave sauntered onto the stage in his inimitable way, lean as a rakish rake, attired in one of his tailored pimp-gangster suits, to uproarious applause (my own voice added lustily to the throng).  But what struck me right off was how young he looked.  I mean, it was like a revenant of the youth he was in his early 80s The Birthday Party or From Her To Eternity era.  The fact that in more recent years he has sported various styles of facial hair and last night he was clean-shaven no doubt contributed to this impression.  But it felt like more than that.  I genuinely felt a jolt of the uncanny.  In only moments I could see him for the well-preserved 56 year old man he really was.  Yet the young man was still there too, hovering scarce millimetres beneath the old man's skin, sometimes coming fully to the fore in a flash, then receding again to a mere haunting.
(Image © Blast Products™. Taken at Glasgow’s Nightmoves on the Birthday Party’s farewell tour c.1982. Found HERE)

When I noticed this youth-in-age quality to Cave's appearance, I immediately thought of Jane Studdock's impression of first meeting Dr. Ransom in THS (Chapter 7, 'The Pendragon'), where she is flummoxed as to whether he is a boy or a man:

On a sofa before her, with one foot bandaged as if he had a wound, lay what appeared to be a boy, twenty years old... But all the light in the room seemed to run towards the gold hair and the gold beard of the wounded man.  Of course he was not a boy - how could she have thought so?  The fresh skin on his forehead and cheeks and, above all, on his hands, had suggested the idea.  But no boy could have so full a beard.  and no boy could be so strong  she had expected to see an invalid.  Now it was manifest that the grip of those hands would be inescapable, and imagination suggested that those arms and shoulders could support the whole house.

Cave too seemed possessed of immense strength, flailing his gangling yet graceful limbs in arcs and kicks that would surely have drawn blood and cracked bones if contact with his fawning fans had been made (which, of course, the consummate showman always carefully, if narrowly, avoided).

When I got home and looked up this reference, I realised it went on to resonate in yet another way with Cave's performance.  From the moment he stepped onto the stage Cave came across as extremely friendly and generous and, heck, downright sweet.  Yet he sang with soul and sometimes a terrifying fire, very intimidating and menacing when he inhabited one of the evil characters that populate his songs, very disturbing when inhabiting one of the mad characters.  Or, more amazing still, he came across with grave yet good-humoured benevolence when inhabiting the character of a lover, perhaps even a Divine Lover, singing assurances, 'Yeah, we real cool...'  (and I note that he added a line at the very end of that song that's not in the album version:  'from the beginning of the world to the end of time, we real cool').  And all the while the boy and the man continued to haunt each other across his face.  But I saw that the alternating emotions in Cave's countenance as he sang different songs also echoed the description of Jane's encounter with Ransom:

Pain came and went in his face:  sudden jabs of sickening and burning pain.  But as lightning goes through the darkness and the darkness closes up again and shows no trace, so the tranquillity of his countenance swallowed up each shock of torture.  How could she have thought him young? Or old either?  It came over her, with a sensation of quick fear, that this face was of no age at all. 

I mean, man!  That could literally be a description of Cave's performances.  It's something that couldn't have been so readily said of him in the heroin-addicted, spiritually dark days of his earlier career.  I think there was more burning pain than tranquillity.  He would never claim that he has now 'arrived', spiritually or otherwise.  But he is more at peace and able to pass on that shalom in equal measure with the demons he also still gives voice to.  There's as much heaven as hell in his output now.  And the darkness is not all the darkness of being lost, but is also the darkness described by Lewis above, a more holy darkness that can swallow the lightning of pain without a trace each time it strikes.

There's one more resonance with Cave's performance as Lewis's passage proceeds.  It will sound like I'm overawed by Cave, exalting him to idol status.  But that's not what I mean.  Frankly, I am in awe of Cave as an artist.  He is one of my main inspirations and I am humbled in his presence and in the presence of his work. Like all great art, its excellence and originality has the potential to reflect greater glories.  And that is humbling and shattering, which is just what Jane experienced in the presence of Dr. Ransom, a man who had undergone awful and marvellous adventures in another world and, though he was permanently wounded by them, lived on to tell the tale.  Coming into contact with such august persons has the potential to unmake you, and thereby open you to anything ('why not, why not' Cave whispers in the song 'Mermaids').

The following description of Jane's feelings in the presence of Ransom could in a way describe my (and many another's) 'fan boy' experience of my hero, Nick Cave.  But Cave, like Ransom, knows he's only invested with these terrible powers and is himself a mere mortal.  He plays the kingly priestly part and we play along, and in such ludic pageantry we may for a moment forget ourselves and find our worlds unmade and open again:

She had (or so she had believed) disliked bearded faces except for old men with white hair.  But that was because she had long since forgotten the imagined Arthur of her childhood - and the imagined Solomon too. Solomon - for the first time in many years the bright solar blend of king and lover and magician which hangs about that name stole back upon her mind.  For the first time in all those years she tasted the word King itself with all linked associations of battle, marriage, priesthood, mercy, and power.  At that moment, as her eyes first rested on his face, Jane forgot who she was, and where, and her faint grudge against Grace Ironwood, and her more obscure grudge against Mark, and her childhood and her father's house.  It was, of course, only for a flash.  Next moment she was once more the ordinary social Jane...  But her world was unmade; she knew that.  Anything might happen now.
(Nick Cave, The Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 31 October 2013, ©  flannery o'kafka)

(Nick Cave, The Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 31 October 2013, ©  flannery o'kafka)