All the songs of my life

All the songs of my life, #7 and #8: “The Ship Song” and “The Mercy Seat” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The story of my meandering yet mighty life-long love for Nick Cave begins here, sometime around my 15th birthday.

During my early music fan years at the beginning of the 90s, I embarked on an experimental jaunt through a myriad of artists and genres, from synth pop to classic rock to lyrical balladry to pop-punk and beyond. Apart from David Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys, most of these would be relegated to my personal fannish history once I discovered the UK indie music scene in 1992 and set up my fandom home there.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are a strange exception to this rule. Anyone who has perused my All The Gigs Of My Life series would know that they are one of my all time favourite bands, and have provided some of the most stunningly brilliant live experiences of my life. But my journey to becoming a fan was a long one.

My first encounter with Nick began in 1990, when “The Ship Song” started to appear on the music video shows I obsessively watched every weekend. Who was this sombre, black-haired man at the piano, singing this sad and beautiful song while tiny kids twirled around him, with his seriously besuited band providing mournful backing vocals? There was something so deeply rich and soothing about this song, this voice, even though the lyrics seemed both calming and unsettling simultaneously, speaking as they do of a time “when I must remove your wings and you must try to fly”.

I bought the song on cassingle. I liked other songs I heard from the album, like the darkly comic “The Weeping Song”, and I remember pausing several times in record stores to look at “The Good Son” and contemplate buying it. So why did I neglect to do so? What stopped me from immediately devouring the back catalogue of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and adding Nick to my pantheon of faves, to stand alongside Bowie as my new rock god?

The answer is this song.

The video to “The Mercy Seat” would often appear on Australia’s weekend music video show Rage in the rustling 2am of a Saturday or Sunday morning. I have vivid memories of watching it at these times, alone in the living room while the rest of the house slept, seeing Nick, staring up emaciated from his prison cell mumbling something incoherent about “dead row”. Those stumbling violins coalescing into that squall like the hinges of an ancient door opening onto apocalypse. Those skeletal piano chords taking hold and then the stuttering machine gun fire of percussion as Nick informs us, in his voice like the certainty of eternity, that “the mercy seat is waiting”. The repeated line “I am not afraid to die” taking us to the terrifying crescendo where it’s as though you can actually hear the electric chair scorching the life out of the narrator. Gentle reader, I was bloody terrified of this song.

Don’t get me wrong – as much as it scared the life out of me, I was profoundly struck by this song’s genius. It may have sent chills through to the darkest corners of my 15 year old soul, but I still watched wide-eyed and riveted whenever it appeared on my TV. I just could not quite yet embrace it into my heart, so that meant I could not yet embrace Nick into the realm of my music collection and onto the walls of my bedroom alongside Bowie.

So it would be a while before my true Nick Cave fandom took hold. In a few years’ time I would get the chance to see the band live at the Big Day Out in 1993, and by this time I was fully able to acknowledge “The Mercy Seat” as one of the greatest songs ever recorded. But it wasn’t until 1998 that I would become a full and fierce fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and begin collecting all their albums. I was in a dark era of depression that year, and so the sounds that had terrified me eight years previously were now transformed into something soothing and comforting. The songs seemed to mirror my inner distress and so, in a small way, set it free from the confines of my mind.

I may never have had a lightening bolt moment with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as I did with other bands like the Manic Street Preachers or Mansun, where all of a sudden they were my new favourite band in the world and nothing else mattered apart from hearing more of their songs. My love for this band, and for the genius of Nick himself, grew slowly and steadily throughout my life. But in some ways, that makes it even more rock-solid. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are without a doubt one of the most important bands of them all to me, and Nick himself remains, to this day, a hugely inspiring figure in my life.

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