Tonight I’m going to see Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in Philadelphia at the Mann Music Center. It’s interesting to me, in light of my comment yesterday about the parallel between January and July, that I saw a concert in the dead of winter—sub-zero temps as I recall—around this time of the month in January and posted about Neutral Milk Hotel accordingly. Now it’s sum-sum-summer time, and Nick’s turn.
I’ve posted already about two Nick Cave songs—one from 2004, the other from 1997. I thought about posting on the song I would most like to hear at tonight’s show but then thought, “Nah, how about a song I know I won’t hear—the song that first got me into Mr. Cave, way back in the late 1980s.”
The album was Your Funeral, My Trial (1986), not that I heard the album at the time—or even shortly thereafter. In fact, I didn’t hear it till my daughter Kajsa (who will be at the show with me, and was with me both previous times I saw Cave live) got interested enough to get the CD. I was a bit sluggish on picking up on Nick, you might say. But I never doubted the quality of today’s song. And on the same album is “The Carny,” but that’s too much to go into now.
“Sad Waters” was on a tape my friend Tim gave me and it stayed with me. I still find it one of Nick’s most haunting songs. The double vocal is part of the reason, and that high whine in the background (no version online I found does it much justice, aurally). The strum is insistent too
Mainly, though, it’s the fact that I heard in this song a very poetic lyricist, and Cave’s double vocal does the lyric full justice. The background voice sounds more plaintive and ghostly; the forward voice, in Cave’s deep register, sounds profoundly troubled. The troubling aspect: the beauty of innocence, the heart-captivating quality of a “child’s world.”
Down the road I look and there runs Mary / Hair of gold and lips like cherries—It opens with two lines cribbed from “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” that song of a felon dreaming of returning home before he is awoken, in prison, to be hung. Cave keeps that association alive with the song’s most striking image: “And then I ran my tin-cup heart along / The prison of her ribs.” The ribcage of children or of child-like (in stature) women is, in that vulnerability that exposes all structure, quite arresting. The idea of a tin-cup heart scraping along it the way men in prison scrape their tin cups along the bars—where, here the bars are her ribs, not the speaker’s—is a bit unsettling, but fully within the frame of reference the song exploits. Is this a man in prison remembering (as in “Green, Green Grass”) or is it a scene of watching the girl with the kind of sadly chastened associations that make one think of prison?
Mary, we may hope, isn’t really a child, but is childlike. We can say she’s a girl on the verge: “O Mary, you have seduced my soul [that line alone made this song leap out to me] / And I don’t know right from wrong / Forever a hostage to your child’s world.” Yes, this could be about the attractions of an underage girl, and so prison might be a real consideration for pursuing that forbidden love. But there’s poetry aplenty: “Take a naked root for a lovers’ seat” is beautifully delivered (in both voices with a wonderful overlap) and “Bound to the ground by creeping ivy coils”—the delivery on the last three words is chilling.
And if you want an image that will stay with you (if you’re that type) the way it stays with the speaker, go for: And then with a toss of her curls / That little girl goes wading in / Rollin her dress up past her knee [and listen to how he draws that out] / Turning these waters into wine / Then she platted all the willow vines. That’s the story of, that’s the glory of, folks.
If this guy hasn’t wrung your heart enough, if you can’t imagine how delicate his touch is on this image/memory, push it a little further: Mary in the shallows laughing / Over where the carp dart [ohhhh] / Spooked by the new shadows that she cast / Across these sad waters and across my heart. This guy is a goner.
Why so sad? What can ail thee, knight-at-arms? Is it Margaret you mourn for? Is it for Mary in the shallows laughing, her dress up past her knees, bearing platted willow vines? Do you need a more poignant image of doomed youth—not because she’ll die (though she will, eventually), but because her youth will. And the speaker will, and so he presses his prayer into these images. As we saw in “Brompton Oratory” and “Till the End of the World,” Nick’s the kind of guy who prays to images of women/girls. And why not, I’d like to know. They used to paint perfection and call it a Madonna, or sculpt it as a nymph. Is it coincidence that the mater dolorosa lends her name to this nymph of the reeds, this naiad?
OK, off to see the wizard, aka Mr. Cave. The song I most want to hear? “More News from Nowhere.” But, whatever, Nick, bring it on.