Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave a review
Mark Mordue’s book is a bold and searching account of Nick Cave’s early years, revealing the genesis of the artist he would become.
We all think we know Nick Cave, the slinky vampire, ex-junkie, antipodean raised on American gothic and the blues, a post-punk thrasher who read too much of the bible only to get clean and become a piano man balladeer who after suffering personal tragedy took to the internet to answer questions on his Red Hand Files blog breaking down the walls of rock star isolation and bringing a new openness to the feelings of love, loss and revelation so often explored in his music.
Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave subverts many of our expectations of Nick Cave, and sheds light on others. We see Cave getting into scrapes amid the burgeoning punk scene of Melbourne in the late 1970s and finding his feet as he is inspired by his father reading the first chapter of Lolita to him at the precocious age of twelve, also turning his son onto Crime and Punishment, The Old Man And The Sea, and Lord Of The Flies – even from this short list we can already see key Cave inspirations emerging.
The portrait of the artist as a child who soon grows into a young man paints the image of someone care worn but keenly alert to new experiences, it wasn’t long before Cave would experiment with drugs and alcohol and find himself tangling with the police on a regular basis with gigs broken-up and Cave committing a series of misdemeanours moving from vandalism to breaking and entering.
Mordue is excellent onin Cave’s nascent relationships,from first meetings to first experiences, with the band members who would come to shape his future career, eventually shifting into musical intimacy; that deeper intuitive connection born out of strong friendships. The collaborations with guitarist Rowland S. Howard and bassist Tracy Pew would run their musical course, and Cave would produce many of his most famous records alongside mainstay Mick Harvey who was there at the beginning and only moved on in 2009 due to musical differences though mutual respect remains.
We also learn about many of Cave’s earliest musical influences, alongside the more obvious nods to blues masters, Johnny Cash, and Iggy Pop, we learn how Cave was equally in love with music of his youth ranging from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band to more prog influences such as Yes and King Crimson, with Cave recently stating himself a huge fan of guitarist Roert Fripp’s soloing.
A shadow hangs over the book which Mordue gently hints towards in its beginning and finally reveals with sensitivity but also stripped of a sentimentality which one feels Cave, who has been interviewed by Mordue on several occasions, would no doubt approve of. Colin Cave, the english teacher, but also writer and keen dramatist was something of a hero figure for the young Nick, his untimely death in a car crash came at a crucial point in Cave’s life, aged just 17, he learnt the news of his father’s death when he was bailed out by his mother from the police station. This sense of loss and youthful rebellion seem to be the key sparks which shaped Cave’s music with the Bad Seeds, moving between love and purposeful outrage, we see Cave make his final exodus with the band as he leaves for London and the new life of a working musician he hopes to find there.
Mordue’s prose is elegant and keenly felt throughout, he paints vivid and poetic scenes, such as Cave’s memory of the river back in his hometown of Wangaratta, he explains to the author that this one river is the very same image that occurs throughout his songs, in writing and singing of them Cave revisits the place, a memory, but also a feeling beyond a sense of place. Boy On Fire is a brilliant and thoroughly research account of how Nick Cave became the man and the artist he is today, and how his earliest experiences lit the fuse that grew into a stellar explosion of creativity, in Mordue’s words:
…becoming one of the darkest, and then one of the brightest, of our rock and roll stars.