Kirsty Allison on Nick Cave’s Stranger Than Kindness

I received this saint-soaked, blood-splattered book from the publisher, Canongate, before lockdown, before Everything stopped.  I arrived home from stalking south London on my birthday, tussling for dried beans that I still have no idea what to do with, scoring seeds which are yet to germinate, wondering whether I could get one of Anthony Price’s live chickens, that I could always sacrifice, get voodoo on when necessary, and yes, I wanted a gun – like the one I once bought on a shop in ol’ Bethnal Green Road.  

The gift of this book became an act stranger than kindness.

It has become my Prepper’s Handbook, wrapped in a pale blue sky cover (yeah, to push away), with a painting of one of my heroes, Nick Cave atop, holding a dummy of himself, almost saying not to worry about spilt ink.

My life was in a freefall – the magazine that pays me pittance but takes up half my life sent me to the foodbank that very birthday.  My other paid work was off, and gigs were fucked.  I had an unmixed album, studios were shutting, and my debut novel, scheduled for the autumn was in the hands of distribution being possible.  Cave’s world surrounded me as I began to indulge in the deliciously heavy pages of a man who grew up in Nevil Shute and Graham Greene country, haunted by a particular kinda religious blues, and gothic obsession.

Locking myself down, his life, a spirit guide: his solace as an artist, imitating the one I’ve been travelling around looking for, writing, looking for an older, wiser time, before the annihilation of a never ending rain of emails, and scrolling towards the grave. Cave’s Camus-esque cave carries the purity of isolation – the intensity of a vision-filled walk, hauling arse, a saint through the guttered desert, from Australia, to London, writing lists of aesthetic requirements: lists of winklepickers, Artaud readers, n Kensington Market trips that turn the devil of youth n vanity on its head.  So young.  So fresh, hungry as a blood-lusting vampire, ready to howl in drama from the idyl of image. There’s humour in the purity of curating the self-conscious pretence, the irony that any awareness of representation is itself contrived, but so fantastically necessitous.

Euchrid’s Crib 1, Nick Cave in Yorkstrasse, West Berlin, 1985 by Bleddyn Butcher

Within Stranger Than Kindness lies a limited palette of pre-internet life, when Elvis was king, and Catholic morality tales were told in poetry, porn and fine arts. This is a catalogue for fans.  It is a life offline – in the midst of free writing, and lyrical exploration – the kind that happens in solace, with the company of Books as bibles, not a series of Wiki biogs about the Writers of Books, and the index of Insta-likes for the simulacra of Cool.  It is a statement which at its heart is honest – bearing the fragility of identity, and what informs it.  We are who we follow. This comes from a time when flea markets weren’t rambles of bidding wars on Fleabay, and Kanye wasn’t having a plastic God complex.

Via an array of stunning collages, riffing on religion – half the pain is edited out, the mundanity, the hustle – and a series of factotums carry a comic symbolism to the journey of an artist, long before Doherty was squirting a needle like De Quincy, Cave was spraying Mutiny towards Burroughs, and past rock n roll saviours.  Laced with locks of hair, and romantic spells from Faulkner’s understanding of Keats’ negative capability (so beloved by Marianne Faithfull, who we made a zine on, written by Kris Needs, featuring interviews with Cave collaborators, Warren Ellis and Rob Ellis), this book runs aside a retrospective exhibition at The Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen, now held in this numb Quiet void, until the times when this plague has reduced us all to soil.  

The book is centred around Cave’s sketchbooks, and 300 objects, many of which began at art school, with photos running up to then.  It carries shades of the romance of Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, played out in Just Kids, with his sweetheart and debut muse, Anita Lane.  The title of the book, coming from the brilliant 1986 lyrics of the eponymous song by Anita Lane and Blixa Bargeld of Einzsturzende Neubauten. This is an edited biography – as all of ours are.  Our stories of our lives reflecting the people we see ourselves as, actions being reactions to junctures, meetings, moments, and a greater satellite image of purpose.

Handmade book by Nick Cave, 1987

 Nick Cave is the daddy Vampire and the Devil’s holiest disciple.  In Mark Radcliffe’s recent book – Crossroads – he poses the mythomanic value of exchanging your soul to play guitar – he concludes it only matters if you’re following the scripture.  You gotta believe in the devil, to dance to his tune.  This selected mythology of channelling the Artist’s life through bloodied squats in Berlin, The Birthday Party, crawling the tortured path, becomes the spectre of his performance – this is textbook Artist.

The arc is about Nick Cave developing as a performer – as only he has – flourishing in latter years, to be the best stadium preacher there is.  We have followed his story through the tragedy, 20 000 Days On Earth, and One More Time With Feeling.  Through the Red Hand Files, Cave has swathed in the fan and artist relationship, turning chatroom discussions into performance, bypassing the media – aware he is now his own medium. 

I think of the writers I like.  I think of the showmanship in their writing.  The pleas to be important.  The drama of writing.  To be noticed.

This has been by Iso-bible.  

Many have tried to put me off the scent of Cave – but he first began to enter my soundtrack in Old Street with Stagger Lee, and that legendary Jack Barron piece of journalism, which is fabulously symbolic, mixing with my own self-hatred of being the voyeur with a notepad, not the star, when working as a music and style journalist.  The Birthday Party was not pop enough for my 80s born taste, but the raconteur folk tales I grew up with, blended into the wonder of Grinderman.  They are always on my playlists.

I remember a well-known literary agent telling me “None of us take Cave seriously” – and being horrified at her cuntishness to block people into separate arts, a singer never being allowed on her turf – he is greater than she could dream.  And Black Spring Press, the publisher who put out his Ass And The Angel book, better than most of the ephemeral shite she’s attempted to industrialise.

At the gala for Alexander McQueen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I stood with hairdressers, who judged his look, and it prevented me from approaching him, to just respect him.  I think of the Alister Mackie cover of Another – I C O N I C as fuck.  I think about wearing a Vampire’s Wife dress (made by his wife, Susie Bick), feeling like I’d entered the cult.  The magic is sometimes to keep your heroes heroes, and just be victim to their astral offering, ignore the hilarious determination – and drive the hearse right into the wall.  His creativity offers some sense of a bar to raise drinks to, so I do that, with the pigeon blood I am drinking each night here, in London lockdown, praying for all of us, to veer through the insipid fascism, and find beautiful truth through making art – as we stare down the barrel of ourselves in the lens of how powerful the honour of life really is.

Please do support your local bookshops when ordering this for ÂŁ35 in the UK, or finding the digital version for ÂŁ19.99. Many indie bookshops are delivering, and one of our faves in Bermondsey also is offering beer and gin.

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If you’d like to read more by Kirsty Allison, she is sharing short stories on Substack, and a series of podcasts will premiere there. Subscribers, generous enough to pay, will be sent a free book in due course.

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