It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks

Up those stone steps I climbed. Into its great shadowed vault I stepped. Tall candles flickered at the far end of the aisle. It was quiet inside, reverential, and something in the air made it hard to catch my breath. I checked my watch: still time before Mass. Time to kill. A painted sign said: For confession, ring bell.

I considered it. I glanced around the Brompton Oratory and wondered whether Nick Cave had rung it. Like Thomas, I had my doubts. Cave would have no need. His confession is made in song.

I made my way forward slowly, trying to tread carefully but sure the click of my heels was disturbing the handful of worshippers knelt in their pews. Above me, the apostles gazed down unmoved, as they did on Cave in the song that bears the church’s name: “The reading is from Luke 24/ Where Christ returns to his loved ones/ I look at the stone apostles/ Think that it’s alright for some.”

The apostles fail utterly to comfort him in his time of sorrow and longing. The word “stone” recurs: the steps, the apostles, his own wish to be made of it and so be spared pain. “Very often people are driven towards a spiritual life through the failings of their personal life,” he told James McNair in 1997. “In the Brompton Oratory I was thinking about a particular girl that had left me, and found that the church wasn’t a lot of help.”

Cave came here for the “event”, the Catholic Mass in Latin. I had come here for the same service, in search of inspiration. I’d just spent several days holed up in a room with a record player, a word processor and a Bible feverishly trying to keep track of every time Nick Cave alludes in song to God, or heaven, or hell, or forgiveness, or redemption. This had been a mistake. Cave’s writing is so drenched in biblical imagery I couldn’t see straight – not just a mote but a beam in my eye.

Likewise, every time I opened my Bible I suspected Cave had been slipping murder ballads into its pages. This is the Song of Deborah, from Judges 5:26, which tells the story of Jael: “She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead.”

Shouldn’t that have taken place in O’Malley’s Bar? The lines were blurring. I needed space, and what better place than church? As Cave said in that same interview: “I like the order and ritual of a church service, the way it facilitates some kind of spiritual meditation.” I took a pew and tried to sketch out what I’d learned.

Cave was just a boy when he was introduced to the words of the Lord. He was a choirboy in Wangaratta and would have learned what many forget, that the Bible rings with music. Many of the psalms begin with the instruction: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments,” surely a Bad Seeds reference; and even more are dotted with the word “Selah”, a kind of musical punctuation calling on the reader, or listener, to reflect.

Cave says he started reading the Bible of his own volition at around the age of 22, which would have been in 1979. His father had died in a car accident in 1978. By the time of the first Bad Seeds record in 1984 his absorption of Old Testament vernacular was already apparent. And why not? How could any songwriter fail to be moved by the seduction of the Song of Solomon, or by the raw power of the instruments that brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down? There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and while he dug his ‘Well of Misery’ Cave lamented that “the same God that abandon’d her/ Has in turn abandon’d me.”

The next record, 1985’s The Firstborn is Dead, could have been named to appease Herod. It’s worth noting at this point that the simplistic notion that Cave’s discography can be split into chronological Old and New Testament periods is wrong. Cave called this idea “tosh” in an interview with Mojo’s Phil Sutcliffe in 2004, and described how the story of Jesus hooked him early on: “I was taken away by the life of Christ. Because he seemed, in the Bible, he seems very different to this Christ character who was being pushed at me when I was in the choir – a figure that was deeply human, fallible, and something one could almost aspire to, as opposed to the gods in other religions who seemed to be beyond us as humans.”

Cave identified with the rebel Jesus, and cast him as a sort of wild, tormented proto-punk rock star. In ‘Tupelo’, the beast slouches not towards Bethlehem, but the birthplace of Elvis, to be born: “Where no bird can fly no fish can swim…Until The King is born!”

In the late eighties, Cave began writing And the Ass Saw the Angel, which was published in 1989. He drew from the Southern Gothic aesthetic of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, but more than anywhere else he drew from the Old Testament. Of course, even the titular allusion is to Numbers 22:25, in which Balaam does not see the angel, for he is blind to God’s will, but his animal does: “And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.” Balaam’s failure to witness God’s rehabilitative intervention only leads him to struggle more, heaping on more pain and misery.

This period of immersion in the Old Testament produced 1986’s Kicking Against the Pricks, which draws its title from a warning to Saul, in Acts 26:14, that he should not rebel against the Lord: “And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Cave’s reappropriation of the phrase layers it in new meanings, not least in alluding to Samuel Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks and in aiming a righteous broadside at the band’s perceived critics.

The language of the Bible was thoroughly used, abused, subverted and perverted later that same year on Your Funeral… My Trial. In ‘Hard On for Love’ we get a girl swaggering in looking “like she walked straight outta the book of Leviticus,” and soon our protagonist is “coming at her like Lazarus from above.” The whole of the venerable old Psalm 23 gets thoroughly filthified: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want/ But he leadeth me like a lamb to the lips/ Of the mouth of the valley of the shadow of death/ I am his rod and his staff/ I am his sceptre and shaft/ And she is heaven and hell/ At whose gates I ain’t been delivered/ I’m gonna give the gates a shove/ Hard on for love.” It’s perhaps the least pious and most viscerally alive song ever to take the name of the Lord in vain.

Buried within And the Ass Saw the Angel, once you scrape off the filth and muck, is evidence of Cave tossing aside Old Testament fireworks in search of redemptive truths. The novel’s protagonist Euchrid Eucrow tells us: “God has matured. He is not the impulsive, bowelless being of the Testaments – the vehement glorymonger, with His bag of cheap carny tricks and his booming voice – the fiery huckster with his burning bushes and his wonder wands. Nowadays God knows what He wants and He knows who He wants.”

God, it seems, wanted Cave. As he told Debbie Kruger when he was interviewed for Songwriters Speak in 2005: “I’ve always been more interested in the New Testament. Apart from very early on. The Old Testament to me really has been nothing more than an extraordinary kind of storybook with wonderful tales. But the New Testament spoke in a very different way to me.”

The New Testament spoke to Cave in such a way that he began retelling it in song. There’s ‘Mercy’, from 1988’s Tender Prey, the story of John the Baptist repeatedly prophesying his own death; or ‘The Good Son’ from 1990’s album of the same name, which narrates the tale of the brother of the prodigal son, and his murderous feelings towards his father and brother. Needless to say, Cave could still summon up a vengeful God. When he sang: “He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru/ You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan/ Designed and directed by his red right hand” in 1994, he was talking not about Satan, of course, but invoking the demon Belial’s description of God in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Arguably Cave wrote his most famous religious lyric when he strayed furthest from vengeance. The very first line of the first song on 1997’s The Boatman’s Call was a change of scenery, but the cast remained the same: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God/ But I know, darling, that you do…” Cave himself was changing: he wrote that song while in rehab after returning from church, although it was a visit he’d made as much to get out of the clinic for a few hours as for any spiritual calling.

The same record contains both ‘Brompton Oratory’ and the contemplative ‘(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?’. Matthew 7:7-8 is alluded to in the description of Jesus as “a man who spoke wonders/ though I’ve never met him/ he said, ‘he who seeks finds and who knocks will be let in.’”

In the stone reality of Brompton Oratory, a small bell rang to announce the beginning of Mass. Three priests appeared to perform the service. I could not follow the Latin, but the readings were in English. Not from Luke, but from the “Book of the Apocalypse”, which it took me a moment to realise referred to Revelation. As I listened to the man in robes prophesy the end-times, I thought of what Cave said when challenged about the reality of his beliefs: “In some respects – the existence of a benign God is an impossible notion,” he told Barney Hoskyns in 2004. “But for me that lives quite comfortably in the part of my mind that is about imagination and magic and absurdity and everything that there is no argument for. It’s pointless for me to argue the existence of God, because I’ll lose. In the end I just have to go, ‘Well, it’s just something I feel, it’s just this feeling I have.’”

There is a sense in which Nick Cave is mounting a defence of God. At a time when He rarely finds Himself spoken of aside from being used to justify bloody wars, homophobia, unenlightened creationism or another lunatic’s fury, Cave’s work stands as an alternative both to religious extremism and to the equally tiresome new atheism of Richard Dawkins. These opposing groups have succeeded in making the Bible something of a taboo text among certain readers and writers, but Cave learns from it both as a great work of literature, from which he has stolen countless starbursts of writing, but also as a majestic study of the human condition. Cave is a true believer.

He may not believe in an interventionist God, but he believes in love, and he believes in beauty. His belief in beauty, particularly the redemptive power of art, seems to drive his work. In an interview with Ginny Dougary of The Times in 1999, he even went so far as to say that he felt he’d been “protected in certain ways by God” from an early grave in order that he could keep creating his art.

It is tempting, knowing Cave’s biography, to read his faith in God, the ultimate patriarch, as a direct response to his father’s death when Cave was 19. He inherited a love of literature from his father, and also that faith in beauty. The exchange which he recounts in the opening verse of ‘Nature Boy’ is true, and occurred when Cave was 14 and watching the news coverage of the attempted assassination of presidential candidate George Wallace by Arthur Bremer, the man whose actions went on to inspire Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: “I was just a boy when I sat down/ To watch the news on TV/ I saw some ordinary slaughter/ I saw some routine atrocity/ My father said, don’t look away/ You got to be strong, you got to be bold, now/ He said, that in the end it is beauty/ That is going to save the world, now.” His father told him then that the beauty of the world outweighs the pain and violence, and it’s a belief that Cave seems to have clung to even when penning his most manically violent stories.

He also inherited a scholar’s eye. When he was asked to write an introduction for the Gospel according to Mark, he picked out Mark’s writing style for particularly close analysis: “‘Straightway’ and ‘immediately’ link one event to another, everyone ‘runs’, ‘shouts’, is ‘amazed’, inflaming Christ’s mission with a dazzling urgency.

Mark’s Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence. Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such a matter of factness and raw economy they become almost palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.”

Throughout Cave’s life and work, certain melodies repeat: themes of sin, addiction, betrayal, loss, faith, creativity, love and redemption run through his work like red cords. For all of Cave’s faith, his work, from the violent to the elegiac, rarely inhabits a state of grace. He is constantly searching and questioning, and whenever he looks for a guide the Bible seems as good a place as any to start.

When the service ended the priests shuffled off and the spell was broken. I turned towards the huge wooden doors but the majority of the congregation turned to their left, into the transept, to kneel and pray. I followed them, still looking for some final clue, and found only a prayer whose words were dedicated to St Philip Neri, but whose voice seemed to be unmistakably in the tone of Nick Cave. Selah:

“Steer this little ship of thine… keep us off all the rocks of evil desires, that… we may safely come to the port of eternal bliss.”

Originally published in Read Write [Hand]: A Multi-Disciplinary Nick Cave Reader.