[photo credit: Scott Newton, Austin City Limits]
Like many, I only heard of Nick Cave because of his iconic performance in Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire. During those late Cold War days, a mere two years before the Wall finally fell in the German capital, seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds pour their hearts out in “The Carny” and “From Her to Eternity” was the essence of Berlin, of Europe after the War, and of a world gloomily divided between East and West, not to mention faced with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Little did I know back then, as I watched the movie on VHS with some friends, that twenty-five years later I would see Nick and his band perform in a very different time and place from the one captured in the Hotel Esplanade.
The occasion was a taping of Austin City Limits, an historically important American public television program, which has been the source of numerous live music performances since the mid-1970s. The place was the Moody Theater on the northwest corner of Lavaca and 2nd Avenue, in downtown Austin, Texas. The time was this summer, specifically Sunday, July 20, 2014, starting at 8pm. As for the performance, it was nothing short of astounding, as if Wenders were directing the light and movement from somewhere off-stage.
At precisely 8 pm the house lights lowered and the throbbing beat of “We Real Cool” started bumping, sending a wave of excitement around the room. A cameraman standing on stage suddenly pointed his handheld lens at the hallway leading up to stage left. As I sat on the second-to-top row of the floor-level bleachers, I waited intently for the band to appear. The beat continued as the Bad Seeds walked toward the stage single-file, in the middle of which I spotted Nick Cave, whose combed-back straight black hair made him instantly recognizable, even from behind. As the band members took their positions, a roar of exhilaration erupted from everywhere in the theater. “I can’t believe I’m actually here!” I thought to myself as Nick Cave swaggered to center stage, smiling and pointing at the audience.
“Who took your measurements
From your toes to the top of your head?
Yea you know
Who bought you clothes and new shoes
And wrote you a book you never read?
Yea you know”
This was better than anything I imagined. This was even better than what I saw in Wim Wenders movie. This was real life, and it was mine to experience.
[photo credit: David Martínez]
From my vantage point I could see all of the Bad Seeds clearly from back to front. George Vjestica on twelve-string guitar stood closest to me, behind whom was Barry Adamson on keyboards, to the left of whom was Martyn Casey on bass, then Jim Sclavunos on drums, in front of whom stood Warren Ellis on lead guitar and violin. Nick Cave, of course, covered all the lead vocals, as well as playing occasional piano. Conway Savage sat in periodically to play additional keyboards, as well as lending his voice. Together they performed as a single organism, pulsing with a primal life force that wreaked beautiful and sonorous havoc throughout the roughly ninety minute set.
At the same time, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are a force of nature that also possesses a poetic and, some might say, a religious conscience, which was especially evident in “Jubilee Street,” another track from Push Away the Sky (2013). What begins as a ballad to a prostitute turns into an exuberant cry for redemption, as the beat transforms from a languid tempo to a raucous climax, which worked the audience into a revivalist frenzy.
“I am alone now, I am beyond recrimination
Curtains are shut, the furniture is gone
I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing
I’m flying, look at me
I’m flying, look at me now.”
Speaking of the audience, one of the facets of the night’s performance that I could see with fascination were the reactions the audience members were having to every song and every move that Nick made on stage. Everyone was ecstatic and they were ready and willing to go wherever each song sung led them, be it the spiritual heights of “Jubilee Street” or the contemplative tunes of “Mermaids” and “God Is In the House.”
For me, though, my life was complete when Nick announced in the middle of the show, “I wanna tell you about a girl.” My spine tingled with elation as the thumping chords of “From Her to Eternity” filled my heart and ears. “It’s the song from Wings of Desire!” I excitedly told my wife, Sharon. She smiled and said “Oh,yeah!” when she recognized my movie reference.
“I read her diary on her sheets
Scrutinizing every little piece of dirt
Tore out a page and stuffed it inside my shirt
Fled out the window,
And shinning it down the vine
Out of her nightmare and back into mine
Mine! O Mine!
From her to eternity!
From her to eternity!
From her to eternity!”
As the song reached its melancholy end I sincerely felt special. It was not simply that we had won tickets, although it was mind-blowing to know that we were among over 4,000 people who requested tickets, out of which only 200 were awarded. It was also more than the fact that we were attending a taping of a show, Austin City Limits, which I had heard about since I was in high school. On the contrary, it was the realization that I had waited my whole life for this particular experience. In other words, I did not know how much my spirit needed the medicine of this music, performed live, until I was thoroughly engulfed by it all. In a word, I felt transformed.
[photo credit: Sharon Suzuki-Martinez]
For an account of my experience at acquiring tickets to Austin City Limits, please see “The Limits of My Austin City Experience: Attending the Taping of a Classic American Public Television Program”