December 13, 2009

This desire to possess her is a wound: Nick Cave and masculinity as pathology

Just a brief word in response to Anwyn's two bracing attacks on Nick Cave.

I agree absolutely with Anwyn that "From Her To Eternity" was Cave's solo masterpiece. One of the great values of those early Bad Seeds songs, and those of the Birthday Party, was the way that they pathologised masculinity. Masculinity was no longer some invisible normativity, but came into view as something diseased, grisly. As I've often remarked, if women want to know what it is like to be inside the body of and brain of an adolescent male, they can do no better than listen to these songs. This is crucially not just about (lyrical) content but also form - the lurching funhouse-cum-torture chamber topographies of the music capturing the chaos of a seething reptile brain stewed in hormones and programmed by pornoscopic junk, the whole racket kept from devolving into the totally inchoate by the dumb implacability of drive, impersonated in the BP and the Bad Seeds by Pew and Adamson's bass.

All of this reaches a point of acute focus on "From Her To Eternity". This desire to possess her is a wound.... That's forensically precise: it's not her that's causing the pain, but the desire to have her... Desire emerges here as a miserable, humiliating pressure, a mocking throb as unrelenting and unforgiving as migraine; a dulling intoxicant that overwhelms sense, as the testosterone tension of the bass builds, builds, but never releases, only loops round in interminable purgatorial circuits, while Bargeld's guitar, tuned and rewired to sound like some scouring machine, screams for some kind of release, even if that means (self)destruction. Desire is a cruel mistress, but Cave's character is nothing if not a masochist who wants to remain wracked, wrecked and wounded forever .....

I hear her crying too, but that's no basis for any sort of rapport. All Cave and "the girl" share is unhappiness, but they must endure it separately, since neither one is in the position to salve the other's pain. The space the song projects - the woman in the room above him, he "shinning up" and down the drainpipe to defile her empty apartment - is an almost too perfect psychoanalytic geography. There is no sexual relationship, only an onanistic shuttling out of her nightmare and back into mine: she - a concoction of fantasmatic part-objects ("she's wearing those blue stockings I bet!") - for him; he (as Anwyn says), not even an non-entity for her.

The interesting question is what role fantasy plays in Cave's lustmord. Are the characters to be understood as fantasists who resolve the deadlocks of desire by fantasising the killing of their object of desire? (In this case, they would be like the Martin Scorsese character in the back of Travis's cab in Taxi Driver, the cuckold who enjoys his abasement while simultaneously fantasising overcoming it with a gynocidal act of violence: "have you seen what a 44 Magnum can do to a pussy?") Or are they to be thought of as actually having carried out the fantasy ... which immediately becomes a hell once it is acted out - while also not ceasing to be a fantasy?

Cave's abjection was most powerful not when he took on the role of high Romantic Outsider or a swaggering Staggerlee, but when he came out as a pathetic fantasist, the anti-cool figure of fun (this persona, and Cave's whimpers and gibberings, owing a great deal to Pere Ubu's David Thomas; I'm tempted to venture the hypothesis that Cave's music weakens to the degree that the Thomas influence is exoarcised.) Listen I know it must sound absurd... Ridicule and the ridiculous stalk Cave's characters. Take "Six Inch Gold Blade", whose first few moments sound like the rehearsal for a fantasy - a fantasy, furthermore, that consists in the recounting of the killing, which itself may well be nothing more than a fantasy. What's the point in killing a woman unless you have a (male) Other to brag and confess to? "I stuck a six inch gold glade in the head of a girl.... No laughter, no laughter". Who is this (imploring and desperate) "no laughter" directed to? The woman who has "betrayed" him? (I use quotation marks here, because it's not clear that there is any betrayal, that the "pretty redhead" was ever his in anything other than fantasy.) Or is it aimed at us, the listeners, the big Other who won't accept his tall stories as anything other than fantasy? Does it mean "no laughter" as in "don't laugh" or "no laughter" as in "that will stop her/ them laughing"? Such questions remain fascinating and disturbing while the BP and The Bad Seeds paint lurid sonic pictures of a male mind damaged and deranged by desire. At this point it's not possible to universalise or naturalise the pyschopathologies; but with the 'mature' turn to 'proper' music, things change rather. Cave's career trajectory - which gradually interested me less and less, to the point where I became indifferent and then vaguely hostile to him - is summed up by Mark E Smith's aghast vision of an alternative future in which The Fall's songs are made radio-friendly. "They'd changed it with a grand piano and turned it into a love song. How they did it I don't know." The class dimension that Anwyn points to - the snobbish self-loathing - becomes important here, because, as Cave moves from being bomemian-addict Junkyard king to middlebrow fixture, the attainment of a certain kind of respectability is in danger of making the misogyny respectable too.

(Note: sadly, I couldn't find either a version "From Her To Eternity" by the original and best Bad Sees line-up or a live version of "Six Inch Gold Blade", so you'll have to make do with "I Put A Spell On You" and "She's Hit".)

Posted by mark at December 13, 2009 12:56 PM | TrackBack