On August 27th, at the second of two “Conversations with Nick Cave” events at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki, I was one of about 30 people seated on the stage about 15 feet from Nick Cave and his piano. Yes, on the stage. And between a couple songs in the second half of the event, I got the chance to ask him a question. In truth, as the event material promised, it was more like we had a conversation, albeit a short one.
All this might not have happened. Two months earlier, the shows sold out before I was able to buy a ticket. (Both shows sold out in minutes!) Then, a few weeks before the show, my wife connected with a work colleague who had an extra seat and through her efforts I was able to obtain it for myself.
Then, on the night of the show, luck piled upon luck when I was standing in the lobby and was was randomly selected by the roving stage manager to be one of the lucky few to be seated on the stage. These special V.I.P. seats are not for sale, making stage seats even more of an honor as they do not simply go to people willing to pay more.
Many who asked questions seemed to have come prepared. By contrast, before asking my own, I had only loosely formulated it in my head. Retrospectively, the question seems to have derived from my fear of death as a creative person. When I turned 50 five years back, my wish to become a practicing poet and (to use an old cliche) express myself became greater. I more fully realized my time on earth is limited, and if I am to have my say, or even find out what I might have to say (part of understanding my life and giving it meaning), I needed to do it now.
My question to Nick Cave went something like this: As a creative person who has been producing work across almost 5 decades, do you feel like you’re any closer to saying what you might have had to say, or does the finish line keep moving, i.e. do you still feel like you still have “everything to say” as you likely did at the start.
I introduced my question…
Me: Hi Nick, I’m David. As a person who has loved music my whole life, more often as I have grown older, I have experienced the deaths of my musical heroes. Two big ones recently were Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, two artists who were active up until the very end who spoke in late-life about their plans to produce new work. I miss them dearly now that they’re gone almost as if I had known them, as if they’d been close friends. You, yourself, are someone I’ve been listening to for about four decades. You’ve been making music in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and continue now in your early 60s. And I think you are still getting better.
Nick Cave: (Cleverly) Thank you for confirming my suspicions.
Me: My question is: Do you feel now as you are getting on in life that you have gotten any closer to expressing what you set out to express, or does it still feel a long way off as if you still have “everything to say” as you might have when you first started making music?
Nick Cave: (I need to point out I was so nervous standing there holding my microphone it was difficult to take it all in, so I roughly and probably inaccurately characterize the response he gave, all the while looking directly at me as if he and I were the only two in the auditorium which at that time seated about 1,700 people.) I don’t think of things as having a sort of predefined narrative where I would know at the start what I set out to do and what I wanted to say. Certainly, in most people’s lives there come defining events which shatter or destroy their original concept of who they thought they were, and and that may entirely change what they feel they have to say. For me, the death of my son was one such event. So instead of having had a sort of clarity about that I want to communicate, it’s been far more chaotic, and my songs have been more a response to what was going on at the time. There’s been a lot of flailing around. Does that answer the question?
Me: I hear you saying that chaos and flailing around is inevitable in life, that’s maybe a good thing, and we should even welcome it.
Nick Cave said some additional words I can’t remember at all as the conversation ground to a semi-awkward end.
I can recall only replying “Thank you” before I sat back down.
I wish there was a recording to see what actually transpired in the exchange. I know people listened and maybe even took it to heart as someone later referred back to Cave’s answer to me as part of their own question.
To give you an idea of the intimacy brought by sitting on the stage, below is an elicit video of Cave’s performance of “Stagger Lee” I found taken by another attendee that night. (Technically, no photography or video is allowed at these events, but as you might expect, Google still turns up a handful from each show.)
And here’s a link to the full set list of songs Cave performed on this particular night.