Ciarán Treacy

Self-Destructive Desire

Ciarán Treacy

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     My work on the theology of Nick Cave work has primarily focused on two concepts: apocalypse and the self. The two are inherently related, since apocalypse as a genre tends to inhere around a single narrator – both of the canonical Biblical apocalypses, the second half of the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation (or the Revelation of St. John), are presented as visions experienced by a particular individual and related in the first person. But more than this, within Cave’s work I’ve found that there’s a particular affinity between the two around the concept of desire. Desire is doubly apocalyptic; it acts as a kind of revelation [1], especially by the kind of theology Cave espouses, wherein earthly love and divine love are intertwined; but in Cave’s world, it also frequently leads to decline and destruction.

     Desire may well be Cave’s greatest preoccupation. As an illustration of its prevalence, here are some lines from the first song in Cave’s Complete Lyrics, ‘Zoo-Music Girl:’

     The sound of her young legs in stockings

     The rhythm of her walk, it’s beautiful


     My body is a monster driven insane

     My Heart is a fish toasted by flames


     If there is one thing I desire in the world

     Is to make love to my Zoo-Music Girl

This kind of obsessive sexual desire is particularly characteristic of Cave’s Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds lyrics. [2] A different kind of desire can be glimpsed on ‘Skeleton Tree,’ some 35 years later:

     I call out

     I call out

     Right across the sea 

     But the echo comes back empty

The longing expressed here is, if less visceral and more abstract than that of ‘Zoo-Music Girl,’ still palpable. Regardless of its specifics, desire is, at root, an expression of the subject, the attempt to bridge the gap between subject and object. Cave has said that “the Love Song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre.” [3] So desire, as expressed in the love song, is, for Cave, the impulse towards deification (and/or self-deification), while the love song, as a creative act expressing this impulse, enacts the process of deification.

     Here, however, a complication arises. As Steven Barfield observes, desire in Cave’s work is frequently destructive, rather than procreative [4]. Barfield likens Cave’s ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ to William Blake’s [5] ‘The Sick Rose,’ with the former enacting the allegory of the latter:

     O Rose, thou art sick!

     The invisible worm

     That flies in the night,

     In the howling storm,


     Has found out thy bed

     Of crimson joy

     And his dark secret love

     Does thy life destroy.

‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ relates what appears to be the beginnings of a courtship, which ends after three days when one of the narrators of the song murders his lover with a rock as a direct result of his “dark secret love” for her:

     As I kissed her goodbye, I said ‘All beauty must die’

     And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth

The violence of the act is less unnerving (especially in its context on Murder Ballads) than the tenderness surrounding it. Unlike in the song’s twin, ‘Henry Lee,’ [6] this murder is not motivated by jealousy of another lover, but by desire and aesthetic appreciation. Indeed, apart from these two examples, two other songs on Murder Ballads (‘Song of Joy’ and ‘Lovely Creature’) feature the murder of one lover by another, while, on an equally nasty note of destructive desire, ‘Stagger Lee,’ ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ and ‘Crow Jane’ all prominently feature rape. In all of these songs, then, desire, the impulse towards divinity, directly results in the violation of others when that desire is, in some capacity, forced upon them. Apart from casting said divinity in a morally questionable light (to put it mildly), this also accounts for the staggering number of women who meet violent ends in Cave’s early work [7].

     Yet there is another aspect to this focus on desire which strikes at the heart of what the self is in Cave’s work. Cave’s narrators are frequently isolated, whether by choice or otherwise – think, for example, of the wanderers of ‘Up Jumped the Devil,’ ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry,’ ‘When I First Came to Town’ or ‘Song of Joy,’ all first-person narrators. This does not, however, deprive them of desire; it may only sharpen its edge. But without an external locus for this desire, its destructive force can only be directed inwards, and become self-destructive. ‘From Her to Eternity’ plays on the obsessive desire of its narrator for the woman in the room above his:

     O ah hear her walkin

     Walkin barefoot cross the floor-boards

     All through this lonesome night

     And ah hear her crying too

     Hot tears come splashin down

     Leakin through the cracks

     Down upon my face, ah catch em in my mouth!

The unsettling image of the “lonesome” narrator drinking the leaked tears in an attempt to connect is carried forward in further verses; in the second he climbs into the woman’s room and steals a page from her diary, while in the third he presses his ear to the ceiling and fantasises about the stockings she is wearing. By the end of the song, though, the narrator proves to be surprisingly self-aware:

     This desire to possess her is a wound

     And it’s naggin at me like a shrew

     But ah know that to possess her

     Is therefore not to desire her

The characterisation of the desire as “like a wound” is telling. The narrator’s increasingly extreme behaviour is a reflection of an internal torment. Yet he refuses to reach out to the woman in any meaningful way, preferring to bask in his obsession. This is, it is very clear, an entirely self-inflicted wound.

     ‘From Her to Eternity’ is one of Cave’s signature songs, performed at almost every Bad Seeds performance, and so it ought not be surprising that the self-destruction it depicts is another motif across Cave’s entire career. ‘Slowly Goes the Night,’ (hereafter ‘Slowly’) from the 1988 album Tender Prey, is a particularly clear illustration. Like ‘From Her to Eternity,’ ‘Slowly’ externalises internal violence, but where that song’s manic energy gives it a cathartic feel, ‘Slowly’ is a dirge-like song of internal entropy. In a familiar scene for Cave songs (not to say popular music in general), the song’s narrator melancholically  laments his recently departed lover. To begin with, the loss is figured primarily by way of emptiness:

     Next to me lies your body plan

     Like the map of some forbidden land

     I trace the ghosts of your bones

     With my trembling hand

Here only the doubled reference to death (“ghosts […] bones”) is even remotely suggestive of destruction. Yet as the song progresses, it develops a cyclical emotional violence:

     I watch the moon get flayed each night

     Until the moon becomes the skinning knife.

The moon here stands in for the narrator himself, subject to emotional turmoil and pain such that he identifies himself with an instrument of destruction. Like the narrator of ‘From Her to Eternity,’ he understands that the misery he suffers from is self-inflicted; his tragedy is that this understanding does not help him escape his plight. By the end of the song he is choosing to retreat into fantasy, in a state explicitly likened to death, to continue playing out his endless desire:

     Call it sleep, call it death, call it what you like

     But only sleep

     Only sleep brings you back to life

At the other end of Cave’s career from ‘From Her to Eternity,’ released in 1984 [8], is ‘Girl in Amber,’ from Skeleton Tree in 2016. Cave has a fondness for playing with frozen apocalyptic timescales; [9] ‘Girl in Amber’ takes this principle and compresses it down to a personal level:

     Girl in amber trapped forever

     Spinning down the hall


     I knew the world it would stop spinning now

     Since you’ve been gone.

The idea of “spinning” recurs throughout the song, a hypnotic motion whose stilling (“the song it spins, it spins no more”) stands for a broader stasis. It is broadened out over the course of the song from the (absent? Former?) lover to the world itself; hence the significance of a romantic relationship is exaggerated out to planetary scale. [10] Like the assault on the moon in ‘Slowly,’ this gives the sense of loss on which the song is built cosmic significance, at least in the mind of the narrator. The entire world has come to a standstill in the absence of his lover.

     The prime example of this kind of self-annihilation must be ‘Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?,’ which combines elements of the previous examples into one whole. ‘Nowhere’ is yet another song about a narrator with an absent lover, but here things are rather less clear-cut than previously. The song involves two time-frames, present and past (there is, significantly, no use of the future tense in the song – any sense of future has been annihilated). Yet the way in which they are presented to the audience differs sharply. The song begins with the words “I remember a girl,” and the same words begin the fifth verse as well. Throughout, the present is invaded by memories and images of the past. The time-frames are in fact balanced: five of the song’s ten verses are broadly to do with the present, the other five with the past. Yet the present is “clean, antiseptic,” “chemical,” while the past is associated with the energy and spectacle of a carnival, seen in the first and ninth verses. The song’s tenth and final verse, meanwhile, expresses the narrator’s desire to revisit the past:

     If I could relive one day of my life

     If I could relive just a single one

     You on the balcony, my future wife

     O who could have known but no one

Notice how the narrator expresses no desire to change anything in the past, but simply to “relive” it, to replay it. The past is where vitality can still be experienced; the present is frozen, lifeless.

     The clearest image of this disconnect between present and past comes with the two glimpses of a child in the song. The first comes in the fourth verse:

     Across clinical benches with nothing to talk

     Breathing tea and biscuits and the Serenity Prayer

     While the bones of our child crumble like chalk

This arresting image is given no immediate context, at least until the figure of a child recurs in the ninth verse:

     From the balcony we watched the carnival band

     The crack of the drum a little child did scare

     I can still feel his fingers pressed in my hand

The apparent existence of an alive child in the past of the song and a dead one in the present seem to suggest, if not quite a causality, at least a narrative. But the pieces offered by the song are far too fragmentary for this. Rather, the child stands in for the narrator and his lover’s relationship; alive and in a position of intimacy (holding hands) in the past, dead and decaying in the present. This is the most vivid expression of the kind of imagery of violence and death seen in ‘From Her to Eternity’ and ‘Slowly,’ which here all belongs to the present. The former lover is referred to as a “ravaged avenger” who brings a cake “full of glass and bleach and my old razor blades”; earlier in the song she has been a “kitten that […] now swipes at my face with the paw of a bear”. This kind of past/present (kitten/bear) contrast recurs in the song’s fifth verse:

     I remember a girl so bold and so bright

     Loose-limbed and laughing and brazen and bare

     Sits gnawing her knuckles in the chemical light

The harmony evoked by the alliteration of the first two lines plays against the harsh glare of the “chemical light” and the stark, visceral image of the lover “gnawing her knuckles,” an act of self-harm that also suggests a kind of devolution or entropy. Here, unusually, the audience is presented with two characters who have been ground down by desire.

The role of desire in this slow self-destruction is made explicit in the second verse:

     In a colonial hotel we fucked up the sun

     And then we fucked it down again

     Well the sun comes up and the sun goes down

     Going round and around to nowhere

In this instance, the phrase “fucked up the sun” is used with pointed ambiguity; it refers here to the sheer length of the lovers’ sexual liaisons, yet “fucked up” also bears its usual of something being destroyed or rendered useless. Here, as with the moon in ‘Slowly’ and the wider world in ‘Girl in Amber,’ the lovers’ relationship is given a cosmic significance, linked to the diurnal cycle. And here, very clearly, the acting out of desire is linked directly to its consequences for the lovers themselves.

     There is a further theological significance to the isolation from which the narrators of all of these examples suffer, one underlined by Cave himself. His radio lecture ‘The Flesh Made Word,’ delivered the year before the release of ‘Nowhere,’ begins:

Jesus said, "Wherever two or more are gathered together, I am in their midst." Jesus said this because wherever two or more are gathered together, there is communion, there is language, there is imagination, there is God. [11]

So if community has this inherent connection to the experience of grace, it follows that lacking it puts one further from God. The narrators of these songs do not experience direct communication; communion, in Cave’s theologically loaded wording. The narrator of ‘From Her to Eternity’ is unwilling to communicate with the object of his desire, while that of ‘Slowly’ cannot. [12] As seen, the narrator of ‘Girl in Amber’ receives no communication from the outside world – “the phone it rings no more.” The narrator of ‘Nowhere’ seems to have his former lover with him, but they are explicitly described as having “nothing to talk [about]”. Lacking the experience of community and communication, these narrators fall into an abject state of disintegration, hopelessly distanced from God. Their melancholy is a trap from which they cannot escape. They become the damned, the goats on Christ’s left, falling away from salvation. Here, Hell is not other people – it is only oneself, forever.

[1] “Apocalypse” deriving from the Greek apokalúptō, meaning “to disclose/unveil” – our modern usage comes directly from Revelation, or “The Apocalypse of St. John,” as it’s also known.

[2] Further examples from his early career include ‘Kewpie Doll,’ ‘Wild World’ (sometimes rendered ‘Wildworld’), ‘Wings Off Flies,’ ‘Sad Waters,’ ‘Hard On for Love,’ ‘Watching Alice.’

[3] Nick Cave, ‘The Secret Life of the Love Song,’ The Complete Lyrics, 3rd edn. (London: Penguin, 2013), 7.

[4] Steven Barfield, ‘“The Time of Our Great Undoing:” Love, Madness, Catastrophe and the Secret Afterlife of Romanticism in Nick Cave’s Love Songs,’ The Art of Nick Cave, ed. John H. Baker (Bristol: Intellect, 2013), 239-260.

[5] Blake being one of the poets cited by Cave as his favourites on his Q&A blog The Red Hand Files.

[6] Both songs are collaborations by Cave and a female artist (PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue respectively) which feature the murder of one narrator by another, though the positions are reversed between the songs.

[7] Examples, apart from the aforementioned: ‘6’’ Gold Blade,’ ‘Deep in the Woods,’ ‘Your Funeral, My Trial’ (by inference, at least), ‘The Mercy Seat’ (again, by inference), ‘Loom of the Land.’ Elsewhere, women are associated directly with violence as cause or instigator: ‘Deanna,’ ‘John Finn’s Wife,’ ‘Swampland’ et al. For the covers album Kicking Against the Pricks Cave and the Bad Seeds covered John Lee Hooker’s ‘I’m Gonna Kill That Woman,’ which I’ve often thought would make a good title for a retrospective of Cave’s career.

[8] A date referenced in the lyrics of ‘Girl in Amber,’ presumably on the basis that it was the year of the Bad Seeds’ first release.

[9]Higgs Boson Blues,’ which compresses all of time down to an endless present by erasing both past (“can’t remember anything at all”) and future, is probably the best example.

[10]There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ does something similar in its chorus by implicitly playing on the “girl/world” rhyme which is a cliché in pop music, but ‘Girl in Amber’ lacks this playfulness.

[11] Nick Cave, ‘The Flesh Made Word,’ King Ink II (London: Black Spring, 1997), 137.

[12] The song itself is directed to the erstwhile lover, but there is no sense that this line of communication may be reciprocal.