For all of the indispensable purposes music has served over thousands of years of human history, at no time before the age of mass produced recorded music was it ever a collectible commodity—something we could own, believing it was made just for us, even when it reached millions of other people. Music has, of course, continued to play a significant communal role, and in some ways maybe even a stronger one in the age of global mass media.
Yet the experience of listening to music has also become, over the course of the past century, an unprecedentedly private affair. Whether you grew up with LPs, tapes, CDs, or streaming digital, you know what it’s like to have a collection of songs that seem like they were written just for you, summing up your life in some uncanny way: songs that feel like emotional refuges, welcoming some displaced part of yourself.
These are songs Nick Cave calls “hiding songs,” and the leader the Bad Seeds and, formerly, The Birthday Party and Grinderman, has written his share for many of his fans; many of the same fans who write him with deep personal questions, hoping to connect. On his blog The Red Hand Files, Cave posts the letters that most move him and offers candid responses generously threading the conversation through his songwriting and musical influences.
In a post from January, when asked to create a list of his “favourite pieces of music,” Cave revealed ten of his own “hiding songs,” but not before explaining them with a quote from his poem, “The Sick Bag Song.”
Leonard Cohen will sing, and the boy will suddenly breathe as if for the first time, and fall inside the laughing man’s voice and hide.
He will realise that not only are these songs sacred, they are ‘hiding songs’ that deal exclusively in darkness, obfuscation, concealment and secrecy. He will realise that for him the purpose of these songs was to shut off the sun, to draw a long shadow down and protect him from the corrosive glare of the world.
Cohen, unsurprisingly, tops the list. Cave may be an old-fashioned songwriter—preserving some of the best impulses of his literary heroes—but he is also an adept hand at the list, a shorthand form that buries its emotions in parenthetical commentary. When it comes to hiding songs, songs about “concealment and secrecy,” maybe there isn’t much more to say.
Maybe we’d like juicy personal details. What was going on in Cave’s life when Karen Dalton’s “Katie Cruel” gave him a place to hide? What about Neil Young’s downbeat “On the Beach” or Nina Simone’s aching “Plain Gold Ring” (hear him cover it live at the top) or Big Star’s incredibly depressing “Holocaust”? We may never know, and we may never need to. Surely we each have such a list of songs that speak to us alone, of feelings only we can understand.
For an artist like Cave, however, the private experience of recorded music has a very public dimension. The songs he lists, he writes, “are the essential pillars that hold up the structure of my artistic world.” The only question left may be, what songs were all these artists hiding in when they wrote the songs below? Hear all of Cave’s “hiding songs,” with a bonus eleventh, “Mother of Earth,” his favorite Gun Club song, by fan request.
Avalanche, Leonard Cohen
Katie Cruel, Karen Dalton
On the Beach, Neil Young
Tupelo, John Lee Hooker
T.B. Sheets, Van Morrison
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, Bob Dylan
Plain Gold Ring, Nina Simone
Holocaust, Big Star
Becalmed, Brian Eno
One Fine Morning, Bill Callahan
Mother of Earth, The Gun Club