My Strong Feelings About the Nick Cave Film 20,000 Days on Earth

Against my otherwise cautious nature, I was recently compelled to go to an indoor, Covid-era screening of 20,000 Days on Earth. I’m sure I could have found another way to watch this film, which came out in 2014, socially distanced and insulated from the rest of humanity. But I was willing to risk my life to truck it over to Zebulon to watch it amongst other humans, to treat it like a movie event.

Sure, I was mildly tense the whole night about the variety of loose interpretations of “keep your mask on and only remove it while eating and drinking.” But it felt great to celebrate a common music love, to chuckle with the other people at the same knowing moments, to clap together at the roll of the credits. As I watched the legacy of Cave in the making, I thought about my nearly lifelong relationship to his music. I also couldn’t help but wonder how the story of a classic musical legend fits in amongst the millennial cultural whiplash and carefully-curated personal branding of our current era.

Like a string trio about to fall off the edge of a cliff.

Without knowing it, I first discovered Nick Cave when I was about fifteen. A shy boy at school had been making me mixtapes. I told him I especially liked the ones with the Dirty Three. Their music made me think of a string trio about to fall off the edge of a cliff. The sad, soaring, endless jams were artfully matched to the gray, temperamental Portland skies under which my adolescence tumultuously unfolded. After years of piano lessons, the undulating phrasing and raw, plain feeling of their music my otherwise classical understanding of instrumental music began to crack open. Those tapes showed me the power of sound unto itself, a sound that didn’t even need lyrics.

The boy gave me more Dirty Three tapes. Some of the tracks featured a haunting, knowing voice, soaring in between the cracks of the washes of instrumental experimentation. These ones had more form to them, and lyrics (they were, in other words, “songs”). But I just assumed they were the same band. The names of the songs and the albums they came from were all scribbled in the same, scrunched, pensive teenage boy scrawl on the tiny lines on the back of the tape insert, and thus mostly illegible.

One of the joys of 20,000 Hours on Earth is seeing Warren Ellis and Cave still collaborating on new stuff all these years later. Ellis conducting a school choir for an upcoming session, Ellis in his kitchen retelling the story Cave had just told in an earlier scene, about Nina Simone’s frightening performance on a tour, her wad of gum hastily slapped onto the piano. (Ellis saved it in a napkin.)

Though the film is not exactly a biopic, like any music biopic it gives plenty of time to tasty behind-the-scenes band banter like this. And though 20,000 Hours doesn’t provide a linear narrative of Cave’s life, we gradually absorb the general arc of how his musicianship developed and his personal life.

By my twenties, a coworker had introduced me to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds proper. Again, his unmistakable voice came to me with carefully-curated mixtapes, again with names of songs spelled out on the inserts. Finally someone mentioned something about how they preferred the Bad Seeds versus the Dirty Three, and a conversation in which I felt like a hopelessly un-hip nincompoop ensued. Finally it all came together: that grisly voice gliding through the Dirty Three jams was THE SAME DUDE!

I had a tape deck in my 1991 Jeep Laredo. It had one of those little plastic molded compartments behind the emergency brake that was perfect for storing exactly four tapes, and there was always one with the Bad Seeds in regular rotation.

“That moment before a song is tamed and known, when the song is still in charge, before it becomes another song in the stable.”

Nick Cave, 20000 Days on Earth

Finally, I graduated to a car with a CD player, a 2002 Hyundai Elantra GT with which I racked up four speeding tickets in about 6 months. This shift to a new technology, tapes to CD’s, could have been a moment when I forgot about one of my favorite bands. But the Bad Seeds came with me again. Let Love In, No More Shall We Part. And even destruction and health risks did not dampen my fandom; after years of heavy usage, the canvas cover of Abatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus got covered with black mold after it had been stored in a basement for a while; I made sure to copy the CDs to my iTunes before throwing the cover out.

As a performer, sometimes I get the hankering to cover a Nick Cave song. But when I go listen to the album, to get a fresh feel for it, I usually just lose myself in listening to his version. I don’t know if anyone can hammer a simple chord progression that many times and make every phrasing sound like a new revelation: torture and redemption, communion and loss.

As a songwriter I loved hearing Cave talk about the silent agreement between him and his wife, Susie Bick: that he will forever cannibalize their innermost experiences together for the sake of rendering them into songs. Maybe the balance is to not let your penchant for gleaning songs from your life experience completely devour the relationships and experiences that define and give meaning to your life. But the part I liked most about his artistic musings was the part that also left me with a question.

When Cave describes the ferality of a new song, before it is tamed, known, practiced, domesticated, “when the song is still in charge, before it becomes another song in the stable.” That visceral feeling of a hunt, or having a wild horse on your hands. Who wants to feel like they’ve neutered the spirit out of something that is wild and free? Some people deal with this conundrum by veering towards improvisation, but the truth is, everyone has a bag of tricks, everyone works from memory to some extent.

In total, this film is a refreshing approach to traditional music films. But I couldn’t help but think there was something about the way in which it was so obsessed with telling us the narrative that it could put Cave’s own story, itself, in danger of becoming another “song in the stable.” I felt this in particular when Cave goes to visit his archive, pouring over his personal artifacts and discussing their significance with his archive keepers. Or, when his faux “psychologist,” Darian Leader, performs a combination of fame-lauding interview and psychoanalysis. Obviously, some of this is ironic, and the viewer is very much being winked at and in on the joke. But it was still there, the laying down of layer upon layer of artist story like shellac.

Whenever anyone is beset with the task of tackling their own narrative, the idea is to render it, to make it repeatable, to crystallize what their life, their performances, their songs, have all been about. And for better or worse (I reckon, for worse) that is also what all of us are expected to do these days. We are to put our “personal story,” our “personal brand,” out for consumption, coated in social media-curated plastic, its meaning prepackaged and easily digested.

It’s not that this conundrum renders any part of Cave’s music or legacy lesser. I just wonder if a story can get oversaturated if the artist is telling the story twice (both in the music, and in their narrative). In so much story-rendering, I wonder if that space between the listener and the story gets a little crowded. It’s often the sideways discoveries, the songs that sneak in through your car speakers, the unexpected brilliance of an entirely new act, the handing of tapes (er, playlists) from one person to another, that invites the listener to have their own winding pathway of meanings with an artist. I didn’t need to know Cave lives under the gloomy skies of Bristol to feel them in his music. While those skies mean something specific to him, to me, that feeling will always be the soundtrack to my tortured adolescence, my meandering twenties, a soundtrack that has now been with me for more of my life than not.

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