Arts: Life after rock'n'roll

With his arts festival mixing Nina Simone, Arvo Part, Samuel Beckett and Barry Humphries, Nick Cave has gone way beyond his post-punk roots.

When Nick Cave leads the Bad Seeds on to the Royal Festival Hall's stage this evening, it will signal not just the opening concert of the two-week Meltdown music festival led by him but also, arguably, a drawing together of the disparate strands that have so far shaped the performer.

The festival's line-up - Cave himself in at least two musical events, the jazz giant Nina Simone and (courtesy of the artist formerly known as Barry Humphries) the Australian cultural attache Sir Les Patterson among them - should be familiar to the thousands who have been jamming the ticket lines, making this, incidentally, financially the most successful Meltdown since the festival's inception. Given that Cave has his roots in an iconoclastic band called The Birthday Party and a rock music arena once described, with deliberate pungency, as "the anus of culture" by the band's bassist Tracy Pew, you can begin to measure how far the 41- year-old Australian writer and musician has come.

You suspect also that the festival is a culmination of sorts for Cave himself, a vindication (and a most public one at that) for his breaking out of the rock-star mould. He has always cut an uneasy figure as a rock star - indeed, the greater the adulation for albums such as Let Love In or, most recently, The Boatman's Call, the quicker his recoil.

The hint was that rock was a corrupt form and any praise for it, or participation in it, was tainted by association. If this was so, Cave had a point. Rock critics are not a generous bunch and the development of a critical body of writing, capable of making links between other media and extrapolating ideas, is still undergoing an uneasy passage.

Enter Cave, with a precision for words and a highly developed sense of verbal resonance that fused performance and raw emotion in home-hewn poetics, and you knew that clashes were unavoidable. That this Meltdown is happening at all, suggests Mute Records' owner Daniel Miller, is because Cave has come full circle.

"Two years ago, he would probably have passed up the chance to do this," Miller believes. "The change has been a growth of confidence in his ability to succeed in other areas and, perhaps, an ability to relax."

Cave's published writings, a high Victorian novel, The Ass Saw the Angel, some brave essays concerning religious beliefs and a foreword to a new edition of the Gospel of St Mark, have been well received.

Miller might also have added that Cave has lowered his guard sufficiently to allow his programming to speak. And when it does, there are extraordinary links: Simone, with the US cult Suicide; Arvo Part's music paired with the wide-open soul of the Dirty Three; two live art performances from Einsturzende Neubauten's frontman and Bad Seeds' guitarist, Blixa Bargeld; and, most significantly of all, the all-star finale to the entire festival, an exposition of American folk music.

But it's also possible to locate the origins of this Meltdown, as indeed, Cave's art, in the Birthday Party, a Melbourne-created band. Named after the Pinter play, the Party - Cave with Mick Harvey, Roland Howard, Phil Calvert and the aforementioned Pew - came to London in 1979 and, in their four-year history, managed to earn a reputation as one of the most dangerous bands since the Stooges.

If ever there were an art to be found in rock, it was here - in the form of an absurdist, terrible theatre in which the visceral pointed the way towards experience. It's hard to capture such power on a recording, but The Birthday Party Live 1981-82, released next month by 4AD, comes close to expressing what Ivo Watts-Russell, owner of the first British label to sign them, remembers as "maniacal ferocity". Aided by prodigious amounts of booze and drugs, the Birthday Party gigs were experiences that made the Sex Pistols look like Boney M.

"It was like being at the wheel of a juggernaut with the accelerator pressed down and no brakes," says their former publicist, Chris Carr. "Fortunately, we managed to run out of petrol just before we crashed, but it was amazing no one was killed."

In fact, the only death was to be Pew's, back at home during an epileptic fit that had no bearing on a rock'n'roll lifestyle; but the stresses, inside and outside the band, grew too great. They combusted, in 1983, on the point of leaving 4AD to sign with Mute. That the Party members survived creatively both Carr and Watts-Russell attribute to the Mute's stewardship.

"Independent labels tend to stick with their artists and encourage them forwards. Miller gave them a space where that was possible," says Watts- Russell, "and one can't imagine a major label giving them such a safety net."

Miller himself pays tribute to Mick Harvey's ability to keep things together in the fledgeling Bad Seeds. But there was also a difference in attitude that contributed to their individual and collective survival.

Carr had been around the British scene long enough to note the things that made the Australian band stand out. "They were always far more literary than their contemporaries," he says. "Art was vital to them in whatever shape or form. Even when Nick was at his most strung-out, he was always reading. Books, cinema: it was like food. Everything was to be devoured and then cut up and used in every which way. Tracy, whom many regarded as this neanderthal, was the same. Whenever he got any money, he'd go first to the off-licence, second to the bookstore and spend it."

The facility with which Cave, Harvey and, to a lesser extent, Howard, moved forward into various new areas of work (Cave worked on Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, a film written with Evan English, Gene Conkie and the director John Hillcoat, and Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire) had much to do with one significant Continental contact. Bargeld, a Berliner who had started out with a neo-Dadaist outfit called Die Geniale Dilletanten beforecreating Neubauten, introduced a context in which Cave could operate without the constant expectation of violence that attended his every British move.

"Blixa showed them how to survive within a European sensibility," recalls Carr. "He brought a sophistication; he's been like a twin to Nick, a brother. Nick helped free up Blixa, to give him a good grounding in a reality that was beyond the art, and vice versa.

"During the Berlin years in the mid-Eighties, when Nick disappeared to Blixa's home town, wanting to escape this country, he gained roots within a larger European context. It's helped him immeasurably. If you look at Roland Howard, who's back in Australia, you'll see that he hasn't developed in the same way that Nick and Mick Harvey have. I think Blixa was a passport to an idea that the Birthday Party had: it's just that there was no one giving them the route. Blixa opened those doors; he said, these are the riches of Europe."

So is this year's Meltdown a summation of Cave? Don't bet on it, is the answer.

"There's a whole lot more to come from Nick," says Carr. "I don't know in what particular form, but he's Art with a capital A. Who else, honestly, is there out there with the similar chance to succeed? With that same kind of licence? No one."

Nick Cave's Meltdown runs at the South Bank Centre from tonight to 2 July. Box office: 0171-960 4242. `The Birthday Party Live 1981-82' is released by 4AD Records on 5 July

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