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.

DEAR JONI

It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan of Joni Mitchell. More like devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning. I even had a dream once where Joni, my mom, and my grandmother and I were all sitting in a circle talking, and Joni turned and looked at me, like, “What are you up to in your life?”; though I’ve never even been in a room with her, she is family to me, connected through that silver cord of sound that can link the heart and thoughts of one person to another across time and space. 

I still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, which for the most part had the real tunings she used for each song. I never looked back. 

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums Clouds, For the Roses, Court & Spark, and Miles of Aisles: each album an entire world to get lost within. In addition to the distinct musical sound, there was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics: her frank account of multiple love affairs, her independence, her politics, her commentary on the various pop culture movements and the cultural revolutions of the times. None of this is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, whether in the 70’s or today.

Of course, I didn’t understand all of it as a preteen, and today when I hear any of it, but when I hear any of those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses,” “Blue, “A Case of You,” (it’s too long a list)–I can’t hear any of them without crying at some point. The video of that brilliant “Clouds” performance from her 2000 tribute concert is for some reason not playing from YouTube, but you can watch it on her website: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/video.cfm?id=7; if you’re built like me, it’ll be waterworks within about four seconds as she walks onstage, before she even starts singing. 

This is music that stays with you and grows with you over a lifetime, and it points us to the whole point of music in the first place: connecting with something beyond the mundane, materialistic, ego-driven goals of the everyday world (and, definitely, beyond the falsified world of social media stats, most of which are just another form of advertising these days as they’re all paid and have long since stopped representing anything “organic” or “authentic” about people’s relationship to their audience, anyway). Music is about plugging into our souls, and for any generation who wants to listen, Joni has the cord and the outlet.  

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

Please also visit Joni’s website and deep dive into the excellent gallery they offer including all the lyrics and artwork that accompany each of these albums: https://www.jonimitchell.com/music/

Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had. As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday back to standard and then back into my slack tunings too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities. This is the offbeat but enriching musical path that Joni pointed to, like the Hermit holding the lamp on the darkened woods: it may not buy you much purchase with the masses, but it takes you to a real place in your own spirit.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant. First, Joni never had the slew of pop tart radio hits of the bigger rock bands — but music aficionados aren’t supposed to be charmed too much by popularity stats, so to me it has always felt like there are other cultural reasons she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. Some people have argued her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then), which led people to exclude her as a pariah amongst women in some generally sexist way; her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture. 

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni also suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality (which is part of why she’s great). 

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved.

Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that worships profitable carbon copies. Though there is an entire generation of musicians today who have never heard of her, amidst the glut of navel-gazing self-promotion, obsession with metrics, and surface-level swim on offer in today’s music world, Joni represents everything that we need right now: heart, mind, musical chops, poetry, an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what’s-popular mindset, and most importantly, something to say.