On September 27th, 2019 I drove to Montreal to see Nick Cave. I almost didn’t go – a couple of times – but I’m really glad that I did.
First off, when the show was announced I was very close to being wholly unfamiliar with Nick Cave. The sole exception was a track called O’Malley’s Bar that someone had played for me years before, a graphic murder ballad that details a random mass shooting told in the first-person. It’s an extremely creepy (perhaps vile, certainly evil, maybe even disgusting) song and I was genuinely weirded out by just how much I loved it. I mean, I couldn’t stop listening to O’Malley’s Bar. I even wrote out the five pages of lyrics with the intention of adding it to my party-jam repertoire, though fortunately I thought better of the idea before I got the thing memorized.
It probably would’ve gotten me kicked out of a lot of parties.
The question stands then as to how I could be so overwhelmed with a song and yet not seek out any (and I mean any) other music from the same artist. The only reason I can think of is I that was a little afraid that all of Nick Cave’s music was going to be creepy (and vile and evil and disgusting) and that he was going to become my hero (like, say, Bukowski). So I kept my head down and stuck to my Rolling Stones records.
So when the Montreal date was dropped I strongly considered giving the show a pass because a) I could hardly call myself a fan, and b) I was quite fearful that I would become one. But at the same time I was well aware of his respectful place in the underworld of popular music and I was loath to let the rare opportunity of falling in love with someone’s music in a live setting pass me by. So I bought a ticket. Nobody else I know did.
Secondly, out of the blue the largest Canadian climate protest featuring an appearance by the great Greta Thunberg was scheduled in Montreal for the same day of the show, which left me feeling quite guilty about driving 400+ kilometres round-trip alone in my car and burning thirty litres of fuel in the process just to attend a concert, not to mention a bit concerned about the potential traffic nightmare I’d be driving into if I did, so I seriously considered selling my ticket to a real fan and just bailing.
In the end I gave myself over three hours to make a two-hour journey and I drove my car as efficiently as it would drive. Baby steps, I know. Turned out there was no traffic at all and I got to Montreal well before the doors opened. No worries (thought I), I’ll just go straight to the Saint Jean Baptiste church nice and early and get a good spot in the general-admission balcony. Ha!
I lucked out finding parking right next to the church and was amazed at the crowd. I mean the lineup was already out the door, around the corner, up an entire city block, round the back of the massive church to the other side and around the corner again, where the line was starting to stretch back towards the entrance. It was easily seventy-five minutes to showtime, and still people kept coming.
After a strong wait I got inside and found a good spot in the second row of the balcony. I noticed immediately that this was the same room in which I had seen St. Vincent and David Byrne several years ago. I recognized it by the pipe organ at the back. After a few moments of reverie the person next to me surprised me by calling me by name…what a coincidence, I had plunked myself down to a friend from Ottawa and her boyfriend. Hellos and handshakes all ‘round, the lights went down, and the recorded voice of Nick Cave came out of the speakers, reading poetry.
Turns out he’s Australian. Who knew?
Cave stalked out of the back and onto the stage very well dressed, wearing his signature (it turns out) suit and strolling the stage with a towering confidence. He was tall and he was thin, of an enviable height, and he looked to be quite handsome at a certain angle, in a certain light*.
He started by playing a song on the piano, which stood alone in the middle of the large stage, behind which sat a smattering of cocktail tables, each surrounded by a pocket of extremely lucky fans who watched the entire performance from the stage.
After the song Cave took to the microphone and told the room that they had sixty seconds to take all the pictures they wanted. He comically mugged and posed showing off imaginary muscles for a minute and then asked everyone to put away their phones for the rest of the show. Great start!
Then he explained that the idea behind the tour was to have unmoderated conversations with his audience. Throughout the crowd were a half-dozen ushers with lights and microphones. If you had a question you motioned to an usher, when Nick was looking for a question the ushers would flash their lights, and Nick would pick one and deal with whatever was thrown at him.
It was incredibly unique and brave, and I found it continually enthralling.
Strangely, most questions were of a philosophical nature. Cave had lost one of his children fairly recently (a fact everyone in the room except for me seemed to know) and there were many questions about life, God, and especially grief. And Nick answered every single query with obvious thoughtfulness and honesty. It got really, really heavy at times.
One guy started his question by saying, “The first time I saw you was in 1989 in Yugoslavia. It was life changing concert. On the way home from the concert I lived through a car accident in which my friends all died…”
Along the way Nick said some really insightful things. I wish I remembered more of it. Heck, I wish I had a transcript of the evening. One lady asked whether she should go back out on the road or stay in Montreal where she had a job. He asked if she was a songwriter and finding the she was he answered, “You have a duty to go out there and do your job. There’s a whole world out there that needs saving.” That resonated with me.
Oh, and every fifteen minutes of so he would play another song on the piano. Very few were by request, several (but not all) were on the murder ballad spectrum, and they were all brilliant. I became a fan, and he didn’t even play O’Malley’s Bar.
In the end the thing that stood out the most for me was the juxtaposition between the man who wrote something so nasty and dark as O’Malley’s Bar and the thoughtful, caring, insightful, almost serene man who stood on the stage brazenly opening himself to an onslaught of obsessed, curious fandom.
I really should pick up one of his albums.
*These are the opening lines of O’Malley’s Bar.