As we shuffle our way through the excitable Nick Cave stans (mostly middle aged professionals with their spouses, clutching plastic cups of red wine), we find out that tickets for this evening’s conversation were £70 at face value. 70 quid and no Warren Ellis? Nick better be able to hold the show on his own.
The Barbican theatre is sold out, and there’s even intimate round tables on the stage behind Cave’s piano, lit with Halloween style fake candles. It’s this kind of decor that reminds us of the ‘tacky vampire’ vibes he has going on, as he strides onto stage like the long limbed creature that he is.
We’re not quite sure what to expect, and turns out (during an almost stand up comedy-esque intro) this is an extension of The Red Hand files, an evening designed to be ‘terrifying’, in Cave’s own words. The fear of him putting himself out there, bare (apart from the now eponymous suit), and the audience members having the guts to stand up in the middle of an overcrowded theatre to ask him questions, could understandably, fill some with dread.
Cave, for such a dark personality, carries a surprisingly humorous rapport with the crowd. One of the first questions asks him if he’s had therapy, to which he admits that he did, but didn’t find it helpful. Someone asks about heartbreak, his voice quivering. Cave questions if he’s asking about his son’s death, and rather poignantly replies that, “the difference is that you can’t say ‘there’s more fish in the sea’ to someone who has lost someone.”
Grief is a topic which he’s not afraid to delve straight into when conversing with the audience, despite the fact that few people directly ask about it. When speaking about one of his heroes, Leonard Cohen, he mentions that despite never meeting the man, Cohen emailed him after hearing about his son’s death simply saying, “I’m with you, man”. “It was compassionate,” Cave declares, explaining that compassion is more important than empathy to those dealing with bereavement. He cites Warren Ellis as a “powerful force” around this excruciating time, someone, who just “understood”.
When discussing his relationship with God, he compares it to the fact that he feels the presence of his son, but doesn’t know whether he’s there or not. “But whether he’s there or not isn’t the point, it’s the connection. Of course ghosts and spirits aren’t real, but people who are grieving are doing whatever they can to survive." His most articulate point, where his songwriting skills shine through his speech, is almost an epiphany. “We build the thing that we think we are, and something comes along and smashes it. The suffering is a desperate attempt to put the pieces back together, but in a different way, so it makes us a different person. If you get to the other side (of grief), there’s incredible beauty you find in the fragility of other people.”
Cave struggles more with lighthearted questions, diverting from his natural pontificating state. When asked about his favourite smells, he declares he has a “pathological disgust for perfume”. We learn that “rockstars don’t have a clue about real people”, that he’s struggling to decide if Brexit is “the worst or nearly the worst thing that’s ever happened” and that he’s a firm believer in legalising drugs, due to spending ten years trying to quit heroin. On his creative process, Cave states that he gets up in the morning, kisses his wife, puts on a suit, goes into the next room, and works until 5pm. “It’s an office job”.
The musical interludes are well placed, just as the audience are beginning to be bored by each others’ questions (at one point when a man who thinks that repeating the word ‘suit’ constitutes a question about Cave’s wardrobe, we wish they’d been vetted a little more.) We hear the nostalgic melody of ‘Jubilee Street’, the crescendoes quick and magnificent, moving from piano to forte in great legato leaps. Old favourites such as ‘God Is In The House,’ and ‘Papa Won’t Leave You Henry’ are met with adoration from the crowd, as well as a dramatic, foot stomping rendition of ‘The Mercy Seat’. A dramatic piano arrangement of ‘Stagger Lee’, complete with sonorous, vibrato heavy “ahhs” to replace the screams of the middle eight, steals the show, going down even more favourably than the closing combination of ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Skeleton Tree.’
It seems he has a quiet fascination with his audience, which can be seen from his caressing of punters at concerts, through to his creation of The Red Hand files in order to create a dialogue between him and his fans. This mildly obsessive intrigue is mutual, as person after person stands up declaring their love for him, his music, how it got them through dark times, how it had been the soundtrack to their marriage, at times almost drooling over him to the point of discomfort. They’re like a band of past misfits, who’ve now all grown up, and united by Cave’s music been stuffed into the Barbican. No one apart from Nick Cave stans would appreciate this evening, and it’s the perfect remedy to sate their lust for his every word, whether spoken or sung.