The Monthly discusses the writing of a biography with Mark Mordue, author of “Boy on Fire:The Young Nick Cave” – Part 3 – The Key Themes

part two of this interview is here

If we move on to the key themes of the book, the element of the book which in some ways is surprising is how Australian Nick Cave’s early life was?

There are some pretty important framing chapters, but in narrative terms I actually start the book with Nick Cave being inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame where he is effectively being accepted, finally, as an Australian artist. And where, in many ways he was asserting himself as an Australian artist, after many years of perhaps rejecting that label.

Part of that early spirit of rejection was, I think, fundamental to the the notion of being Punk. Within that movement everywhere in the world there was an orientation where you rejected the establishment version of what you were meant to be; “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen” were rejections of the establishment in England.

I think there was a similar defining feeling in Australia with The Saints’ song “(I’m) Stranded”. It might be that spirit of rejection runs even deeper and marks some quality in what being Australian means? Anyway, there was this process of attempting to create a Year Zero going on globally – which of course was an illusion, but it still powered the gear shift for a lot of bands and artists at that time, and “being Australian” fed into that for Nick and many others.

You situate Nick Cave very much as a rural Australian, yet there is also this sense of being separate from that background?

Well, I think even now there is a contrary Australian attitude which develops because of Australia’s position in the world. Australians tend to look for validation overseas because we are caught between two large cultural empires: the US and the UK. And this was particularly true in Nick Cave’s life from the 1960s on growing up.

Those huge external cultural influences which impact Nick’s development – and of course they impact the many people around him – tend to direct certain Australian artists in such a way that they are producing work which speaks more to those influences than to anything they might have picked up at home. It’s that paradox of proving oneself to the world which can mean losing oneself in the world too.

Sidney Nolan – Ned Kelly Series

You also document the local artists who were influential at that time, so there are Australian influences as well?

Oh yeah, Nick has stated that there were local influences. Not just the landscape, and his upbringing; but Australian painters like Sydney Nolan, who deals heavily in myth; or another Australian artist like Brett Whiteley, are very influential. Bands like The Saints, and other bands in the various punk scenes around the capital cities, who inflamed the music scene for a whole generation in the late 1970s.

Then there is the mythology of the outlaw Ned Kelly and his story, and beyond that Nick’s hometown Wangaratta. I always refer to the song “Red Right Hand” the lyrics of which are like a map pf the town. You can see Wangaratta unfold in front of you when you are walking through it with that song your head.

Establishing the rural Australian roots of Nick Cave’s life seems a vitally important part of the book?

Yes, I wanted to capture the rougher elements, the occasionally brutal nature of rural life, the coarse humour, the way masculinity is defined, and beyond that the other influences in his early life. His father was a major influence, he was an important figure in Wangaratta, he was an educator, an English teacher, loved Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, produced plays in the local theatre. His mother was a violin player, a librarian, a lover of the poetry of W.H. Auden and T.S Elliot. With all the roughly hewn influences of country Australia, there were also the refined middle-class influences of his parents.

The theme of the role of fatherhood is prominent in the book. How did that emerge?

That came out of the research. Every member of “The Boys Next Door”, which later became “The Birthday Party”, had either a dominating father or had a very difficult relationship with their father. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising given the nature of life at the time: the idea of the father being distant from the children, pursuing their careers and working to support the family, or being closed off emotionally, unable to agree with either the changing nature of society from the 1960s on and or the paths their children were taking from that period on into the 1970s and beyond.

I found that it became increasingly interested the roles of – and relationships with – the fathers when I spoke to various people… Phil Calvert; Tracey Pew’s mother, Nancy; Dawn Cave, Nick’s mother; and many others… just how they viewed one another’s fathers as well as their own. It became clear that there was an impact of the various fathers on everyone, a substantial impact.

Does that influence the artistic output of those people?

Sure. Just look at “The Birthday Party”, a band which exuded and embraced a demonic machismo, and equally, an assault on it. They were exploring all sorts of ideas which, in part, were a product of those extremely fraught relationships. In many ways it was the undoing of that group, because only one element of their investigation of these ideas, the more aggressive and ultimately violent element seemed to be translating to the audience.

The band attracted a lot of aggression towards them and so the more subtle or sophisticated undercurrents of the investigation were lost on many in their audience. That eventually lead to the collapse of the relationships within the band and eventually the band disintegrates.

That leads to a new chapter in Nick’s creative endeavours which I hope to write about soon. I’m just in the process of signing a contract now with HarperCollins Australia and Atlantic Books UK for what will be volume 2. It’s called “Dark Star: Nick Cave in London, Berlin and Sau Paulo”.

For more information about Marks Mordue’s work see the following link:

part four of this interview is here

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