Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads
When I am asked who that person is tattooed on my right shoulder, I say “Nick Cave” and I am usually met with confused looks… “Who is that?”
If you haven’t heard of Nick Cave or his music, I empathize. I didn’t know who Nick Cave was either until I met Alan in 1995. Alan was an entomology grad student at Purdue. Long hair and wire glasses… he was my type: smart, mild mannered with a touch of nerdy. He was quiet except when it came to his attraction to me. He courted me persistently at Von’s, the record store where I worked nights, amid rows of vinyl records, CDs in plastic cages, punk rock t-shirts, giant subway posters for the hippest films, artists, bands and albums in collegiate memory. It was the source of All Things Cool on campus.
Alan was direct and sweet. He asked me about some of the jewelry in the glass cases, which meant I would have to go get the keys to open them up and spend some time with him, pulling out velvet trays of skull rings, chatting as we passed them back and forth. He inquired about renting our copy of Wings of Desire – a gorgeous film about an angel who watches over a circus performer. I said, “Oh, I love that one.” He said, “Maybe we could watch it together. What time do you get off?” I was his first lay since his wife left him a few months prior.
Alan loved amaretto coffee, playing bass, drosophila flies, live music and my blow jobs. I studied his taste regime and, being 19, his opinions filled me easily. I am from a small section of Indianapolis and part of my reasons for going to college was exposure to “the world.” I was fascinated by films and music but I knew there was more out there than what crossed my path in Smallville. And Alan seemed to know everything about everything.
Alan did not love me. But Alan loved Nick Cave. He wore late 80s, paper-thin concert t-shirts and he had quite a collection from his shows. At my record store, I special ordered Nick Cave bootlegs for Alan’s birthday. For Christmas, I hand stitched insect-inspired designs onto a blanket for his couch. I brought over art films and brownies after my shifts at Von’s. We had a whirlwind six month dalliance, which is all that can realistically happen between a 19-year-old college sophomore and a 26-year-old divorced asshole.
We were both white trash from the Midwest, seeking escape from the markers of our social class through education. But Alan was better at hiding than I was. Alan regularly scolded me when my roots were exposed. When we visited the home of his friends, a married couple, the wife pulled Alan aside and said she noticed that when I used their bathroom, she didn’t hear the sound of water rushing into the sink, meaning, I had not washed my hands. (I grew up washing my hands in public restrooms but didn’t see the need when at my home or a friend’s home). He berated me when I failed to take my shoes off after walking in the snow and into his home. Even when I got it through my hick brain to wash my hands, Alan lectured me about why I should dry my hands with a cloth towel rather than paper towels. Didn’t I realize how wasteful I was, using paper towels to dry my hands?
I couldn’t afford to go anywhere for spring break and I always worked forty hours at Von’s since no classes were held then. The snow was melting and I remember rushing over to his place after work to tell him exciting news – and I forgot to take my shoes off. He didn’t even hear me, just slammed his book closed and said, “How many times do I have to tell you, take your damned shoes off?” I left my shoes on, immediately turned around and walked right back out.
I stormed back to my apartment on foot, smearing away angry tears on my sleeve. Yeah, I’m a rube. But so are you, asshole. Ironically, his wife had left him because she didn’t think being married to an entomology grad student was glamorous enough for her tastes.
I knew I was unsophisticated but Alan made me feel like I was pure, worthless trash. My young heart was crushed. I rented videos from the video rental section of the store to keep my mind occupied. I raided the store rotation CDs for melancholy albums to cradle me through my nightly sobbing. Each of us had mailboxes as employees and a week into my heartache, a free, not-for-distribution-or-sale demo copy of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads showed up in mine.
Shit. I’d ordered those damned bootlegs as a gift for Alan and the shift supervisor thought I was the Nick Cave fan.
At first, tears burned my eyes. We would never listen to this album together. Without Alan, what good was Nick Cave to me? I almost tossed it back into the pile of store CDs when I suddenly realized: this was something he didn’t have. Something he couldn’t have. This album wasn’t released to the public yet but I had it in my hands. Who’s unsophisticated now, motherfucker? For a jilted 19-year-old lover, this was gold. Another look in my mailbox revealed a matching promotional poster for the album. Even better. I thanked the shift supervisor on my way out and took my prizes home. The poster went up on my wall and I popped the CD in to have a listen.
Murder Ballads delivered exactly what its title promised: a gory, vengeful and satisfying set of stories of making wrong into right. It became my grieving ritual to listen to the beginning bars of “Song of Joy” to get me started… “Have mercy on me, sir/Allow me to impose on you/I have no place to stay/And my bones are cold right through…” For me in those weeks, Murder Ballads fully articulated the tension between my pangs of nostalgic love and simultaneous pleasure in imagining him in some sort of pain.
I connected with the feral energy of (the bad motherfucker called) “Stagger Lee,” who commands Billy Dilly to blow him before Stagger Lee blows him away for good. To take a song with deep roots in the Midwest and South, reimagine it as a balls-to-the-wall orgy of guitar and organ and piano and Nick’s growl – complete with screaming at the end – well, it was just the sort of rebirth I was looking for myself.
I especially loved the duets. I imagined myself as PJ Harvey, crushing skulls with river rocks and disposing of Henry Lee’s body. “You won’t find a girl, in this damned world, that will compare with me.” You’re damn right. I imagined myself as Eliza Day (Kylie Minogue) in “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” whose lover kills her because “all beauty must die…” She was my naivete bleeding into that river where I killed Henry Lee…
It was this album that gave way to full-blown Nick Cave fandom. My shift supervisor kept ordering everything he could find internationally and domestically, including biographies, collections of his lyrics, posters, bootlegs. I joined an email list for fellow enthusiasts (that’s what we had in the late Nineties) and made new friends. With my employee discount, my CD collection ballooned to include The Birthday Party (his punk band), The Boys Next Door (his other other band), and side projects by other members of the Bad Seeds such as Einsturzende Neubauten and Die Haut. I cozied up to Crime and the City Solution, The Cramps, The Stooges. I put Johnny Cash and Elvis back into heavy rotation.
It’s been nearly twenty years and Nick Cave has since released multiple albums, film soundtracks, screenplays, various new projects, more novels and, of course, toured. I own every album and I value some of them more than others but I will listen to and read anything he puts out there. I’ve never regretted my Nick Cave tattoo but its meaning has definitely changed for me over these 20 years. At the time, this was a step towards creating my own life, as a grown woman, with my own mind and experiences. As I added more tattoos, Nick became part of a larger context – one for each of my academic degrees, one for my sexuality – the story for how Nick got there never became simple or shortened. It just evolved. Now, I get to bring Nick out for special occasions – like his shows. A friend asked, “With that ink of his face on your arm, do you kinda feel… entitled to be in the front row of his shows?” and I looked him in the eye and said, “Yeah… I really do, actually.”
In 2008, my husband Mark and I met him in person, by some miraculous accident, outside the venue after he had performed in DC. Under the street lamp at the corner, a small gaggle of fans swarmed around him, squeaking and fluttering in our excitement. He was silent, signing whatever people put in front of him. As the swirl of fans washed over me, Nick stood in front of me, wordlessly. I could do nothing except to turn and point to my tattoo, exposed by my sleeveless (and paper thin) Your Funeral My Trial tour t-shirt. It conveyed everything my vocal chords could not in that unforgettable moment. He paused and all those nearby seemed to go quiet too. I thought it was a function of improvised memory but my husband confirmed: they all backed up, clutching their albums and concert shirts while Nick stayed with me as long as I could keep my legs under me. He placed his hand on my arm, touched my tattoo gently with his thumb and said, "Aw, did you get that, now?" He helped me turn towards Mark’s camera as I shook with fangirlness. Nick cradled me in his left arm and silently kissed the top of my head while I wept. I'll never forget how kindly and thoughtfully he treated me during an intensely emotional moment for me.
It all started with Murder Ballads in 1996. I’m proud to be overeducated Indiana trash. Thanks for being an asshole, Alan.
Michelle Carnes is a public health anthropologist, filmmaker and independent scholar specializing in cultural taboos and their impact on health disparities. Her current writing focuses on taboo/queer strip performance spaces in Washington DC and New York City. Her current community-based work focuses on confronting historical trauma/taboos to reduce/prevent American Indian/Alaska Native youth suicide, bullying and violence via cultural transmission and artistic expression using digital media. She is proud, stubborn, overeducated white trash from Millersville, Indiana. Michelle lives with her poker player/audio engineer husband (Mark Anduss) and their cat (Espia) in Bethesda, Maryland (just north of Washington DC).