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Nick Cave: An artistic life revealed

As the corona crisis forces Nick Cave to postpone his upcoming tour with band the Bad Seeds, a new book gives fans an intimate insight into the life and creative evolution of the singer-songwriter.

Since the 2014 docudrama 20,000 Days on Earth laid bare the inner torments of Australian bard Nick Cave, the former Berlin resident has continued to open up to audiences about the inspiration and struggles fueling his prodigious career. 

Along with The Red Hand Files, a confessional online forum where Cave personally answers questions from his fans, a new exhibition and book titled Stranger Than Kindness presents a detailed archive of the singer, songwriter, author and artist's life and work. 

The namesake for the title is a song from the seminal 1986 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Your Funeral... My Trial, recorded in Berlin at the Hansa Tonstudio, where the likes of David Bowie also created rock history.

Nick Cave performing with his post-punk band The Birthday Party at a concert in 1982 (Imago/I. Ruppert)

Nick Cave in his brash youth with post-punk band The Birthday Party

Show goes on

The Stranger Than Kindness exhibition was due to open in The Black Diamond extension of the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen on March 23, but has inevitably been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis. However, it was possible to release the book version of the show, published by Canongate, worldwide this week. It charts Cave's creative inspiration from childhood to the current day via texts, artworks, handwritten lyrics, photographs and ephemera.  

As Cave writes in the intro to the book: "Beyond the song there is an enormous amount of peripheral stuff – drawings, maps, lists, doodles, photographs, paintings, scribblings and drafts … It is the material that gives birth to and nourishes the official work." 

The 300 objects that have been curated for the exhibition and the book are taken from Cave's own collection, the Nick Cave archive at Arts Centre Melbourne, the Royal Danish Library collections and private lenders.  

'Real and imagined universes'

Despite the delayed exhibition opening, the hard book and e-book version of Stranger Than Kindness means fans can now access these intimate insights into the mind and evolution of the artist — even in isolation.

"Stranger Than Kindness asks what shapes our lives and makes us who we are, and celebrates the curiosity and power of the creative spirit," reads the blurb for a book that allows readers to explore Nick Cave's "many real and imagined universes."

Both the book and exhibition were developed and designed by Christina Back of the Royal Danish Library, and feature commentary and essays from Nick Cave and author Darcey Steinke, among others. The exhibition also features soundscapes composed and recorded for the exhibition by Nick Cave and Bad Seeds collaborator Warren Ellis. 

Watch video 02:33

A comic biography of Nick Cave

Art in the time of corona 

Described as "a journey into the creative world of the musician, storyteller and cultural icon," the Stranger Than Kindness exhibition was cancelled, along with the upcoming Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds tour of the UK, Europe and Israel due to the Corona pandemic. 

When announcing the news, Cave took the opportunity to speak about the coronavirus on the Red Hand Files website. "It has been a very strange few weeks, much has happened to us all, and many difficult decisions have had to be made," he wrote in response to a fan.

"Slowly, we all are coming around to the realization that we will need to lead very different lives for a while — short term, long term, who knows?" he added. "I am working on a more personal response to the hundreds of questions that are coming in regarding the coronavirus."

Heading to Europe

Born in Australia in 1957, Nick Cave met the multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey as a student, and in the mid-1970s they founded seminal post-punk band, The Boys Next Door. A legend quickly grew around the charismatic and highly performative young frontman whose neo-gothic style, baritone vocal wail and bleak lyrics marked the band that changed its name to The Birthday Party in 1978. 

Cave was regarded as the enfant terrible of Australian rock when he and the band moved to London in 1980. They soon caused a stir there with electrifying performances that fused punk, blues and free jazz, and also made an impression on BBC radio legend John Peel, to whose praise the band probably owes their first record deal. 

Cave continued to put his mark on the band with his existentialist angst and lyrics that drew on his strictly Anglican upbringing, and on philosophers and poets like John Milton and William Blake.

Read more: David Bowie and West Berlin's 70s and 80s subculture 

A picture of Nick Cave playing a concert in England in 1982 (picture-alliance/Jazz Archiv/Karsch)

Nick Cave and his band The Birthday Party playing Hamburg in 1982 while living in England

'My second youth'

But when Nick Cave and his band decided to move to Berlin from London in 1982, they finally found a home. "We were received with open arms into this community who reminded us of Melbourne," he said in an interview in 2011. "It was frenetic and anarchic and really creative. We instantly had tons of friends, and respect."  

"It was an incredibly wonderful period of my life. It was my second youth in Berlin," he said of his life in the city throughout the 1980s.

After arriving in Berlin, Cave soon began to collaborate with local performer Blixa Bargeld, whose industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten epitomized Berlin's experimental underground. In 1983, when Bargeld started to play in Cave's new band, The Bad Seeds, it was the beginning of a special collaboration that continued for twenty years. 

The avant-garde music, art and film scene that Cave moved in came together in director Wim Wenders' 1987 portrait of Berlin, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Amid this cross-disciplinary artistic scene, Cave spent months in a Berlin loft writing his southern gothic novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, which was published to acclaim in 1989. He also famously consumed a lot of heroin, a drug addiction he continued for 25 years. 

But the man known as pop's prince of darkness maintained his prodigious artistic output. He has since published several books of plays and poetry, written screenplays, and a second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro (2009). 

Cave and musical collaborator Warren Ellis, who joined the Bad Seeds in the 2000s, have also composed a number of soundtracks for films like 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James, starring Brad Pitt. Stranger than Kindness reveals the creative sparks and flashes that informed this ongoing body of work.  

Read more: Wim Wenders' film searches for the meaning of life

A scene from the movie Wings of Desire” features a performance by Nick Cave (Imago/Mary Evans)

Nick Cave performs with Blixa Bargeld and the Bad Seeds in Wim Wenders' film "Wings of Desire" 

Renaissance and family man 

After Cave left Berlin in 1989, he started a family in Sao Paulo before moving to London and releasing the Bad Seeds' most commercially successful album, Murder Ballads (1996) – which included a duet with Kylie Minogue, "Where The Wild Roses Grow," which remains the band's biggest hit. He also started a relationship with English singer P.J. Harvey, the break-up from which was the subject of the drug-fueled, piano-based album from 1997, The Boatman's Call

By the early 2000s, Cave was clean of alcohol and drugs, and in a new relationship with actress Susie Bick, with whom he had boy twins. But as the songs and the writing poured out, and a day in his life was played out in the film 20,000 Days on Earth, it all came crashing down in 2015 when his 15-year-old son Arthur was found dead at the bottom of a cliff near his Brighton home.

Cave sits on a sofa with his two kids in a still from the film “20,000 Days on Earth” (Rapid Eye Movies HE GmbH)

Nick Cave in "20,000 Days on Earth" with his sons Arthur (left) and Earl

Cave, who until then had been rather withdrawn in his private life, dealt very publicly with his grief on the 2016 album Skeleton Tree and the intimate documentary film One More Time with Feeling, in which he and his wife Susie negotiate their incomprehensible pain.

On the back of the 2019 album Ghosteen, described by some critics as the best yet from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the release of Stranger than Kindness is the perfect chance to dive deeper into this enduring and sometimes tragic artistic journey.