Death, you might say, is his specialist subject. The strapline of his first film script to reach the screen, The Proposition, which opened here yesterday, reads: "Three brothers. One lives. One dies. One decides." In an Outback Western that's been described as "uncompromisingly brutal", Ray Winstone's police captain presents Guy Pearce's outlaw with the either/or of the title: see off his murderous elder brother (played by Danny of the Huston dynasty), or the younger brother will be executed.
Since he came to London more than 25 years ago, Cave has been singing about mortality. With the look of a Wild West card sharp, all velvet jackets and thin moustaches, he's a Van Morrison keening laments, Leonard Cohen with a blistering backing band, Tom Waits without the gravel in the voice but with all the melancholy in the soul. Perhaps his finest song is "The Mercy Seat" from his 1988 album Tender Prey, an extended ballad from a murderer on death row.
In 1995 he sang with Kylie Minogue on Top of the Pops - "Where the Wild Roses Grow", a charming little ditty in which he stoves her head in with a rock. And a couple of years before that, he remarked to Melody Maker, "I've always enjoyed writing songs about dead women. It's something that crops up that still hold some mystery, even to me."
A believer in the Manichean notion that good and evil are present in each of us, he has a prodigious appetite for violent death. Typical of his output is 1996's Murder Ballads, a dark, haunting album with a body count, apparently, of 37. One track, "The Kindness of Strangers", he has described as "simply an exercise in cruelty, sitting down and writing a character and making her so naive and virtuous, and then wiping her out. I can't define this, but there is a certain satisfaction in doing that".
Before growing bored with it, he was a connoisseur of crime fiction, with a particular taste for James Ellroy, who gave Cave a copy of one of his novels with the inscription: "Nick, feel those evil rock'n'roll chords of doom." He has described writing violent material as enjoyable, yet he describes himself as a "hopeless romantic, reactionary and conservative by nature".
In the 1980s, his lifestyle matched his lyrics for darkness and excess: he was once spotted on a London tube train writing a letter using the blood in a hypodermic syringe he'd just ripped from his arm. He was ferociously productive but frankly all over the place, attacking a journalist who asked one question too many about heroin and enlisting the help of his band The Bad Seeds to wreck a gala show at a German film festival. In 1986, he was busted for heroin in New York, and a week later was robbed at gunpoint in Los Angeles, trying to score in one of the city's less salubrious areas.
But he was also capable of acting with a certain overblown style. He turned down an MTV award, refusing to "harness myself to this tumbrel, this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes". Indeed, language has always been his prime obsession. The son of a teacher and a librarian, Dawn, Cave was born in Warracknabeal, a small town 180 miles north of Melbourne in September 1957.
His father Colin, who taught maths and English and was director of adult education in Victoria, was passionate about language and literature. He would call his son into his study to listen to scenes from Coriolanus, or Crime and Punishment, or Lolita. When he was 12, he asked the young Cave what he had done to assist humanity. (Cave answered, "What have you done?")
He was a pre-teen choirboy at Wangaratta Cathedral, where he found Anglicanism not entirely to his taste. Thereafter, for all his father's infusions of literature, Cave kicked against the pricks, to use one of his album titles. He was obsessed with Ned Kelly, and grew up near the scene of his capture. He and his friends would get sick drinking cheap sherry; at 13 he was expelled from Wangaratta High School for trying to pull down the knickers of a 16-year-old girl. (Her parents wanted to press charges of attempted rape.)
He was the town wild child, making a name for stripping off at parties - a good apprenticeship for his subsequent stage persona. In an attempt to keep him on the rails, he was sent to board at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, where he joined a covers band called Concrete Vulture.
He had a brief stint studying painting at the Caulfield Institute of Technology, in 1976, but dropped out after a year to pursue music. And then, in 1978, his father died in a car crash. When the news came, Dawn was bailing out their son from St Kilda police station yet again, this time on a charge of burglary. He has said he has no memories of the funeral, but remembers well that "he died at a point in my life when I was most confused". He later wrote that "the loss of my father created in my life a vacuum, a space in which my words began to float and collect and find their purpose".
Concrete Vulture mutated into a new wave band, Boys Next Door, whose name was presumably intended ironically. They trashed their way round eastern Australia, getting banned from venue after venue. They made one album, then came to London and changed their name - and Cave's career exploded.
Nihilistic and deranged, located somewhere between punk and goth, The Birthday Party marauded their way round the city with a series of notoriously riotous gigs, which tended to feature Cave shrieking and howling as he hurled himself about the stage, and they were soon part of the legion of bands that had John Peel to thank for a leg up after Peel named "Release the Bats" as the best record of 1981.
They relocated to Berlin and lasted until the summer of 1983, when they fragmented into The Bad Seeds - who did a sterling job of maintaining the levels of mayhem, while on stage and in the studio they were evoking a dystopia of disease, sex crimes and visions of hell. In his fine book Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock'n'Roll, the critic Simon Reynolds described Cave's songwriting as "the fullest, most hideously voluptuous flowering of the abject in rock".
The gargantuan consumption of drink and drugs did nothing to staunch the creative flow - indeed, he has said that he would sometimes self-medicate to give himself a break. In 1988 a collection of his lyrics and other writing was published as King Ink, and he had a stab at a screenplay, Swampland, which concerned a mute outcast called Euchrid Eucrow, the product of an alcoholic mother and sadistic father, who is pursued by a lynch mob in the Deep South.
That didn't work, so he turned it into his 1989 novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, which one reviewer described as Faulkner crossed with Whistle Down the Wind. While he wrote - it took five years - his tiny room was filled with religious and pornographic images and a wig of a young girl's hair. It has sold more than 100,000 copies to date. "I think the whole creative process saved me from going down the toilet," he said last week.
By the mid-1990s heroin and speed were far behind him, and he had even knocked his heavy drinking on the head. The outcast had cleaned up his off-stage act, even if on stage and on record he continued his headlong pursuit of his inner demons.
Although he has said he considers cinema an inferior art form, in 1987 he appeared as himself in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, and later featured in the distinctly poor Johnny Suede, one of Brad Pitt's early works. And The Proposition and the abortive Swampland are not his only attempts at screenwriting. Three years ago, Russell Crowe asked him to write Gladiator II, and he spent six months on an anti-war script whose final reel took place in Vietnam and the Pentagon. "It was so completely unacceptable they didn't even ask me to do rewrites," he said, not without a tinge of satisfaction.
The Proposition's director, John Hillcoat, met Cave in Melbourne in the late 1970s, and they worked on Hillcoat's violent 1988 prison allegory Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead. Hillcoat then planned a western for which Cave would supply the soundtrack. Five years ago, there was still no script, so Cave stepped in to provide a treatment for a proper writer to work with. Three weeks later, he'd written a complete screenplay - he found it much easier than songwriting, he told Jonathan Ross on Film 2006 this week.
He has also given public lectures, telling the Vienna Academy of Poetry, for example, that his songs are "lifelines thrown into the galaxies by a drowning man". And a few years ago, he gave a religious broadcast on Radio 3, and has written an introduction to St Mark's Gospel in Canongate's pocket edition of the Bible. He has also curated the Meltdown festival at the South Bank.
Nowadays he lives a contented family life in Brighton with his partner, the former Vivienne Westwood model Susie Bick, and their five-year-old twins Earl and Arthur. (He also has a son Luke, who was born in 1992, by the designer Viviane Carneiro, with whom Cave lived in Sao Paulo for a while, and another son, Jethro, of about the same age, who lives with his mother in Australia.) He loves weepies and rom-coms, though he's developed a distaste for children's films. He says: "I'm still searching for the inner adult."
Now he's working on another script, set in Brighton - and there may be a part for himself. He describes it as a grim sex romp "without much sex in it. And not a lot of romping either". One of the characters is a man who thinks he's the devil, and actually is the devil. "I might be able to handle that," he says.
A Life in Brief
BORN Warracknabeal, Victoria, Australia, 22 September 1957.
FAMILY Son of Dawn and Colin Cave, brother of Tim (born 1952), Peter (born 1954) and Julie (born 1959). Married to Susie Bick, with whom he has five-year-old twins, Earl and Arthur. Two other teenage children, Luke and Jethro, are by different mothers.
CAREER The Birthday Party 1980-84, The Bad Seeds 1984-present. Published collections of his writings, King Ink, in 1988, and King Ink II in 1997. His novel And the Ass Saw the Angel was published in 1989.
HE SAYS "Looking back over the past 20 years, a certain clarity prevails. Amidst the madness and the mayhem, it would seem I have been banging on one particular drum. I see that my artistic life has centred around an attempt to articulate an almost palpable sense of loss that laid claim to my life. A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father when I was 19."
THEY SAY "He taught me to never veer too far from who I am, but to go further, try different things, and never lose sight of myself at the core." - Kylie Minogue
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