Listen to Nick Cave’s Lecture on the Art of Writing Sublime Love Songs (1999)

Let’s take a love song—let’s take Huey Lewis and the News’ “Pow­er of Love,” why not? Catchy, right? And that video? Back to the Future! That takes you back, doesn’t it? Yeah…. Now let’s ask some hard ques­tions. Is this song an accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the human emo­tion we call “love”? All upbeat synths and blar­ing horns? Real­ly? But then, there’s Lewis, who, right out of the gate, acknowl­edges that love, “a curi­ous thing,” can “make one man weep” and “anoth­er man sing.” I imag­ine that love can make a woman feel the same. A curi­ous thing. Huey Lewis’ 80s anthem may not sound like love, nec­es­sar­i­ly, but he’s a smart enough song­writer to know that love often uses its pow­er for ill—“it’s strong and sud­den and it’s cru­el some­times.”

Let’s take anoth­er song­writer, one with a dark­er vision, a more lit­er­ary bent, Nick Cave. The Aus­tralian post-punk croon­er and for­mer leader of chaot­ic punk band The Birth­day Par­ty wrote a song called “Peo­ple Ain’t No Good,” the most uni­ver­sal of laments, after a breakup. See him, in the live ver­sion in Poland at the top, declare in a mourn­ful, soul­ful bari­tone accom­pa­nied only by a piano, the truth of no-good­ness. Unlike Huey Lewis, this song allows for no qual­i­ty, pow­er of love or oth­er­wise, to “change a hawk into a lit­tle white dove.” It’s Niet­zschean in its trag­ic dis­ap­point­ment. And yet, such is the pow­er of Nick Cave, to write a song of no good­ness that sounds like a hymn of praise. The dual­i­ty Cave embraces gets a part auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, part gospel treat­ment in the lec­ture above (“The Secret Life of the Love Song”), which Cave deliv­ered at the Vien­na Poet­ry Fes­ti­val in 1999.

Cave, the son of a lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor and him­self an accom­plished nov­el­ist and poet, knows his craft well. The bal­lads that dom­i­nate pop music have deep­er roots in a harsh­er world, one that pro­duced the “mur­der bal­lad,” not coin­ci­den­tal­ly the title of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record — one All­mu­sic writes Cave “was wait­ing to make his entire career.” Cave rec­og­nizes, as he says in his talk above “an uncar­ing world—a world that fucks every­body over.” And yet… and yet, he says again and again, there is love, or rather, love songs. Quot­ing W.H. Auden and Fed­eri­co Gar­cia Lor­ca, he goes on to describe the form as “a howl in the void, for Love and for com­fort.” The love song “lives on the lips of the child cry­ing for its moth­er. It is the song of the lover in need of her loved one, the rav­ing of the lunatic sup­pli­cant peti­tion­ing his God.”

The love song, then, must con­tain a qual­i­ty Gar­cia Lor­ca called Duende, an “eerie and inex­plic­a­ble sad­ness.” Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Mor­ri­son, Tom Waits, and Neil Young have it. “It haunts,” he says, his ex P.J. Har­vey. “All love songs must con­tain duende. For the love song is nev­er tru­ly hap­py. It must first embrace the poten­tial for pain.” Cave draws on Lou Reed’s “Per­fect Day,” the “bru­tal prose” of the Old Tes­ta­ment, and the most innocu­ous-sound­ing pop songs, which can dis­guise “mes­sages to God that cry out into the yawn­ing void, in anguish and self-loathing, for deliv­er­ance.”

He also ref­er­ences, and reads, his own song, “Far From Me,” from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, the post-breakup record that con­tains “Peo­ple Ain’t No Good.” (Cave begins the lec­ture with a ren­di­tion of “West Coun­try Girl” from that same record.) It’s an album that brought Cave’s “mor­bid­i­ty to near-par­o­d­ic lev­els,” strip­ping the Bad Seeds stum­bling lounge punk down to most­ly piano and voice. This ref­er­ence is not a mat­ter of van­i­ty but of the most well cho­sen illus­tra­tion. Cave admits he is “hap­py to be sad,” to live in “divine dis­con­tent.” His reli­gious exis­ten­tial­ism is ulti­mate­ly relieved by the pow­er of love songs, by his “crooked brood of sad eyed chil­dren” which “ral­ly round and in their way, pro­tect me, com­fort me and keep me alive.” Maybe Huey Lewis had some­thing sim­i­lar to say, but there’s no way he could ever say it the way that Nick Cave does. Read a par­tial tran­script of Cave’s talk here.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Cohen and U2 Per­form ‘Tow­er of Song,’ a Med­i­ta­tion on Aging, Loss & Sur­vival

Tom Waits and Kei­th Richards Sing Sea Song “Shenan­doah” for New Pirate-Themed CD: Lis­ten Online

See Neil Young Per­form Clas­sic Songs in 1971 BBC Con­cert: “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.