With Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave, author and journalist Mark Mordue explores Nick Cave’s early years in Australia, before he became the iconic musician, songwriter, and leader of The Bad Seeds. The book ends just as Cave is leaving Australia to try and make his fortune in London.
It’s a poetic and dense narrative relying on years of original research and Mark’s own work as a music and culture journalist for over 30 years. The creation of Boy on Fire is its own story, with the author undergoing his own baptism of fire leading to an even more challenging journey than the average rock biography demands. I spoke to Mark, based in Sydney, over Zoom to find out more about his work and his craft of writing.
I ask Mark how the project came about: “The idea behind the book came from a friend of mine, a writer called Jack Marx, who wrote a great book called Sorry about the Easybeats’ singer Stevie Wright, which is almost like a fable to read. But I wasn’t interested in the suggestion, at first. I was reacting against the idea of subsuming my life under someone else’s, which is part of what biography requires. But by then I’d already interviewed Nick several times and lots of his contemporaries, Wim Wenders, Mick Harvey, all kinds of figures. The first time I met Nick he was not entirely with it, he was out of his head, perhaps more aware than he seemed. It was the mid-1980s. I’m actually of the same vintage as him, so we grew up through the same culture, history and social structures as Australians. I realised I was actually in a box seat to write something about Nick and the times more broadly. Once I committed to it, I had a lot of major publisher interest, unsurprisingly.”
Once the decision had been made to write the book Mordue approached Cave’s management about an interview. They said no, but later on they came back with a “yes”. “I was told I only get a couple of hours with Nick, which was ridiculous, but I took what I could get. I got to Brighton, this became three days straight of talking, then we talked many more times after that on phone and email. I went on tour with Grinderman and travelled with The Bad Seeds up to my hometown of Newcastle. Later on it got difficult, but never totally unfriendly. We’ve kept in touch. But there’s always that complicated relationship born out of doing a biography: it’s not about being friends, ultimately it’s about the work, so I tried to maintain some independence but not necessarily distance.”
This level of access had its own cost as the research behind the project called for a bigger book in order to cover every angle. “There was too much, I couldn’t cover it all. I was suffering under too much material. I’d gone to Wangaratta, Melbourne, Berlin, interviewed his family, bandmates, and even went for dinner with Nick and Shane McGowan. There are so many artistic influences with Nick Cave, so many references that he makes, it’s a struggle to work through it all and crazy to try and live the same life and soak up the same creative energy as the artist. Later on I was dreading people asking me about exact release dates of albums, and certain tracks; your mind can’t retain all the information that requires. I’ve always been better with pattern recognition and putting ideas and links together than those off-the-cuff details anyway that I need written down in front of me to solve a problem and uncover a theme and develop it. I guess that is why I am a journalist who needs to write things down.”
“Anyway, I was prepared to go for the whole epic Moby Dick trip and, to be honest, If I’d gone down that route I still probably wouldn’t be finished now.” As the scope of the project became apparent, Mordue suggested to his publisher splitting the workload and creating a ‘part one’ book, presenting Cave in his own Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man, a nod to the James Joyce novel. The publishers declined and, in Mark’s own words, “The project just went off the rails. The book was stuck between the old publisher, who had it locked away and didn’t want it, and a new potential publisher who couldn’t get to it.”
A couple of years after shelving the project Mark was able to rescue the rights of his draft manuscript and, with the help of lawyer friend, arrange to pay-off his advance and extricate himself from his old contract. Mordue is quick to praise the work of his new editors at Harper Collins in Australia, who helped him to establish the framing chapters that set the main sections apart, pushing a much more refined book through to the finish line: “The joke of it is to say the book took ten years to write. In reality, it was more like four years of work, then a whole fucked-up period where I was moving around a lot, in not very stable situations.” It was only after this period of drift that Mark would spend a final year to blitz through the manuscript with the Harper Collins editorial team.
He was pleased to find the book land with almost entirely rave reviews from readers and critics alike, a payoff after years of work: “The vindicating thing for me was that the work was always good. I knew that and was in some kind of trauma as to why that was not being fully recognised years ago when everything went off the rails. So there is something bittersweet in it all, of course. My original solution was the right solution, a portrait of the artist as a young man. By the time I had got the wheels back on my life Nick had changed his mind about the project and wanted me stop writing. His son had died; a lot of things were going on his life. But I could hardly cease all the years work I had put in and my own struggles. So there was a bit of heat between us. But that eased. Nick preferred to stay neutral by the end of all that; and just let the book happen. Nick messaged me later to say that he liked it, this was really gracious of him. I’m not sure it is possible for anyone to like a biography about them. It is always going to be something of a bent mirror.”
Mordue’s writing in the book brings some of the verve of creative writing to the nonfiction standard of the rock biography’s hard facts and straight arrow chronologies. Mark used poetry as both an escape and an exercise to think about writing in a different way, something you hear within in the text of Boy on Fire: “Poetry has been something that enabled me to write in a more creative way. As I’ve explained, there was that point at which the book project went pear-shaped and everything in my life went belly-up with it. That was when I started to write a lot of poetry, in an almost manic way. I’ve always written poetry but only haphazardly. Suddenly it was one of the things that helped me survive and helped me open up a whole area of creativity I’d never really managed to break through—it improved me as a writer.” He mentions the poetic principle where a closing line might end on a word that echoes an idea from an opening line earlier, call-and-response allusions and symbolism that can enrich the overall thrust of a chapter.
“It’s more that pattern-making thing, like I say, rather than any great top of the head knowledge, for me. Finding how all of the pieces fit together, and how they can echo and weave into one another, much like a poem. In the book I quote Nick talking about the idea of art being like the reverberation of bells, a chiming of realities. That fitted my thinking. I am sure there are plenty of people out there who would slaughter me on a quiz show about details to do with Nick. I’m only as smart as the pieces of paper and research in front of me and how I can make it into a story.”
With Boy on Fire Mark experiments with different voices to tell that story, so that the people he interviewed were telling their own story, in their own way—and, along the way, adding to Cave’s story with their own slants and views: “I love nonfiction writing. In my twenties I was a huge Truman Capote fan and I got into Joan Didion big time too, and of course loads of rock journalism, especially from the NME in the late ’70s and early ’80s, writers like Nick Kent and Paul Morley, people who gave you a vision that nonfiction could be more of an art, they were telling you a good story that stayed with you, sometimes for life.”
“It’s such a strange thing to be a writer, you’re talking to the world, through the book, but more than anything you’re talking to yourself. It’s a weird kind of process, with that dialogue between you and the work going in and out. You’re aware of an audience but you’re also trying to please yourself, and you want that energy to carry over to everyone else.”
Part of that process involved Mark putting his own voice into the narrative thread, much like the New Journalism school, but with more discipline and rigour than the common ‘90s trap where so many writers tried to ape Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzoid freewheeling style: “Apart from the opening and closing contextual chapters, I did not want to write it with a first-person presence. I knew readers were not going to be interested in me dominating the subject. But something else happened along the way of writing Boy on Fire, and all the interviews I did, a sense of it being a social biography. Nick as part of a universe and those in it who affected him. There are straight quotes from Nick and many others. But people and their perspectives can be intimated in the writer’s voice; what technically gets called ‘free and indirect discourse’. The other person’s voice is absorbed into my tone, my choice of words, the attitude or perspective, a flavour, so it becomes a question of where their voice ends and mine begins. There are lines where Nick is talking and my voice picks up the thread after his quotation marks have ended. He is still there in some invisible and felt way.”
“Elsewhere I wanted Nick and the people around him, to sometimes compete and to be at odds with one another, where their version of things differed slightly. Most of these events weren’t happening so long ago so it could be as if they were still talking to one another, for the voices to rise up from the page as if it were all still happening.”
Mark’s almost novelistic approach elevates Boy on Fire above a straight biography or a simple retelling of old quotes, and enriches it with the perspectives of people who were there alongside Cave in Wangaratta, Melbourne and beyond: “I wanted to capture the people around Nick, all their dreams, hopes and aspirations to show Nick was able to move through those scenes and situations while others were not and got stuck or were never able to achieve their own dreams.”
Mark points out that even Cave’s own recollection is not absolute: “I notice that with the Red Hand Files the fanbase wants to take his decisions on things as gospel, which I think can sometimes be problematic; he writes beautifully on spirituality and grief, but less so about people like Charles Bukowski. He’s giving an opinion, not the Ten Commandments. I’m not sure the difference is always distinguished.”
“Things that Nick said in his career in his early twenties are going to be different from how he feels now in his early sixties. And what he said now doesn’t mean that what he said before is wrong—it’s a different time, place and reality that he’s moving into.”
I ask Mark about his focus on looking from Cave’s first serious band, The Boys Next Door and how they evolved into The Birthday Party, still on the cusp of major fame until The Bad Seeds began to get more coverage with a more accessible, less openly antagonistic kind of songwriting of major depth and breadth of material: “Each of those band phases is like a rupture, an atomic break. The danger of looking back too much into the past through the prism of Nick, is that we forget each formation was a band of equals. The Boys Next Door were a high school band and had a lot of camaraderie and a shared juvenile delinquent side—Phil Calvert the lead musician was the genius at the time, he gave them a dynamic swing that other punk bands just didn’t have. Then there was Rowland S. Howard (guitarist for The Birthday Party), one of the premier post-punk guitarists. When Johnny Marr saw him playing in the early Birthday Party he got himself a Fender Jaguar and I don’t think it’s too much to hear the beginnings of ‘How Soon Is Now’ in that intense scraping sound that Howard could bring to a song like ‘The Friend Catcher’. Tracy Pew was an incredible live presence, looking a like a demonic drop-out from The Village People, and his bass sound was the heart of the band. The Bad Seeds are a strong unit, a gang of individuals in their own right alongside Nick, and of course, Mick Harvey brings the best out of whoever he works with, PJ Harvey being a notable example. So you can imagine what an asset Mick Harvey must have been from The Boys Next Door days through The Birthday Party and next thirty years of Nick’s career with Bad Seeds, playing every instrument under the sun, arranging songs, co-producing albums, pretty much running the band at different times.”
A great strength of Boy on Fire is the way in which it uncovers Cave’s Australian roots and his childhood, an aspect of Cave’s personal history which is often overlooked and hard to engage with for UK readers unfamiliar with the Melbourne music scene of the 1970s. As Mordue’s research continued he found more insights into Cave as a fellow Australian, from a rural area with its own specific cultural history and identity: “Nick is from Victoria, the countryside, and he is deeply invested in Australian mythologies, as well as its art and culture.” This offers a strong counterpoint to the narrative that The Bad Seeds’ music is dominated by blues, rock and roll, and Americana, not their own native sense of origin.
“Australia’s music has always been caught in the crossfire between the UK and the US, particularly London and New York, to chase after the fads of their music. Another way of looking at it is the best of both these worlds, as well as what connects us back to the Australian landscape, attitude and voice—a desire, almost an anger even, to prove ourselves, to show that we have our own thing with a different slant and intensity. It felt like this was always happening on the periphery which has to punch its way through, the element of being an outsider. Wanting to be a part of the action and also to smash it all and bring the whole system down.”
We move on to Cave’s more recent trilogy of albums and the recent 2021 album Carnage, recorded alongside close collaborator Warren Ellis which has seen the duo tour the UK and after that America (with plans to return to Australia and perform at Hanging Rock in Victoria later in the year): “Nick is always making worlds as he is going along. He carried those worlds with him, taking his Americana to London and deepening it.” Mordue suggests there is a hybrid world across the songs, infused by Cave’s immediate environment and its history. “For example, his Berlin period has this blue-and-red lit, shadow-sense of the city that meets the Weimar history of the Cabaret movie through blues rock and amphetamines. Cave’s earlier music was more layered in ways that that could be sliced apart and seen maybe; now these influences are more enmeshed and absorbed I think. More cinematic maybe, less theatrically presented.”
On hearing Cave sing on 2021’s Carnage album about sitting on the balcony reading Flannery O’Connor, Mark notes that he could easily be referring back to the balcony of his mother’s house in Melbourne where he likely first read her work. There’s a sense that “here” is also somewhere else, lending a wandering, timeless quality to the songs where the listener is allowed to fill in more of the blanks in Cave’s earlier work: “Across the last few albums Nick is in communication with his boyhood, among other things. The songs have a permeable fabric to allow a feeling of travelling through time and space. A barefoot boy stepping in and out of the song, it is him and it is also Arthur; the song is a work of poetry, but those movements he is making are interesting; it takes the narrator away in some ways and replaces it with this roving eye that is both Cave and not him. It’s music outside of the blues that once influenced him so much, except perhaps for its ghostly qualities; the lyrics are no longer saturated in Western mythology, and overall Nick has unmoored himself from the standard rock song we might know. We are floating inside Nick’s world.”
“For me, Ghosteen is as radical as Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, in terms of composition. I listened to it at first a lot and then put it to one side; now I love it all over again in new ways. It asks for more time, it’s more demanding, it’s a different type of listening than what we’re used to. As an album it’s very much about the listening all the way through it, going on a journey. According to Nick it was meant to close off a trilogy of albums; after that, Carnage seems like he is trying to move on, out into the next world, but is not able to leave the other world behind just yet. Sonically and lyrically I’m looking forward to a gear change with the next record from The Bad Seeds.”
I ask Mark if we cannot expect another book from him in the near future: “I did so much work and spoke to so many people, so I have a ridiculous and overwhelming amount of material, at the very least I certainly have enough to look at the London and Berlin years. So from The Birthday Party era, then the first Bad Seeds album through to Tender Prey, ending with Nick leaving Berlin and going to Sao Paulo. That’s the frame in time. I’d make sure it worked as a standalone book that also ties in with Boy on Fire and functions as a sequel. I’m also working on a novel that looks like being accepted for publication soon too. And my poetry, which never seems to stop flowing.”
Mark Mordue is an Australian writer, journalist, and editor. He is a co-winner of the 2014 Peter Blazey Fellowship, which recognizes an outstanding manuscript in the fields of biography, autobiography, or life writing. He is also the author of the travel memoir, Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip and the poetry collection Darlinghurst Funeral Rites. He lives in Sydney.
Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave is out now in new paperback edition from Atlantic Books/Allen Unwin:
Mark Mordue’s Website: https://electrifiedjournalist.com/
Read more about Mark’s writing: http://neumu.net/needledrops/data/00090_needledrops.shtml