Song of the Week 46: Into My Arms – Nick Cave

This week we’re going back to school. The school of the Sacred Broken Heart. Your teacher is the stern preacher-like Nick Cave, dressed in black. Serious. You wouldn’t want to f*ck with him. Now, you, sit straight in your chair. And you at the back, listen up! If you pay attention you may learn something…

nick-cave_the-boatmans-call

“What I found, time and time again, in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was that verses of rapture, of ecstasy and love could hold within them apparently opposite sentiments – hate, revenge, bloody mindedness etc. that they were not mutually exclusive. This idea has left an enduring impression on my songwriting.” Nick Cave

The song I’m featuring is Into My Arms from the wonderful album The Boatman’s Call.

I’ll be the teaching assistant for today.

Today’s class is about writing love songs. It’s not going to be easy. I can guarantee you it’s going to hurt. But then all the best songs are a little bittersweet. Didn’t Shakespeare say that art holds up a mirror to nature? Brecht countered that it’s not a mirror but a hammer to shape it.

We’ll see if Mr Cave will be using a hammer or a mirror today. Or whether he will be using the hammer to smash the mirror. Art can sometimes shatter our expectations of what life should be. But then life does that too.

What’s missing from music these days? There definitely seems to be something missing. It’s just difficult to put your finger on what that something is. A little gravitas maybe.

There’s very little loss in pop music. Rappers flash their bling and sing about how much they’ve got, how gangster they are. R&B singers show off their goods and strive to have a sexy image, the best things money can buy. It seems like nobody sings about what they’ve lost, unless they’re getting the last word in. “You should have put a ring on it.”

I’ll let Mr Cave take over…

“Midst the madness and the mayhem, it would seem I have been banging on one particular drum. I see that my artistic life has centered around an attempt to articulate the nature of an almost palpable sense of loss that has laid claim to my life.”

The album was inspired by his muse, Polly Jean Harvey, but Cave had had his heart broken long before that. The death of Cave`s father when he was just 19 years old appears to have profoundly affected the young man.

“The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write. My father taught me this as if to prepare me for his own passing. To write allowed me direct access to my imagination, to inspiration and ultimately to God. I found through the use of language, that I wrote god into existence.”

I’d perceived Cave to be an agnostic or athiest writer and Into My Arms an agnostic love song. Maybe it was the first line: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God…”

Well it looks like I was wrong. It seems that he was voicing his spiritual search at the time, mixed in with his love for either Polly Jean, or the mother of his first son…  Cave regularly quotes scriptures and psalms in his songs.

“The Song of Solomon, perhaps the greatest love song ever written, had a massive impact upon me. Its openly erotic nature, the metaphoric journey taken around the lovers bodies – breasts compared to bunches of grapes and young deer, hair and teeth compared to flocks of goats and sheep, legs like pillars of marble, the navel- a round goblet, the belly- a heap of wheat – its staggering imagery rockets us into the world of pure imagination.”

The Psalms

“…It was the remarkable series of love song/poems known as the Psalms that truly held me. I found the Psalms, which deal directly with relationship between man and God, teeming with all the clamorous desperation, longing, exultation, erotic violence and brutality that I could hope for.”

Cave introduces the spanish word duende or suadade in Portuguese …

federico-garcia-lorca

He wasn’t the first to talk about it. In Cave’s lecture he mentions Frederico Garcia Lorca´s The Theory and Function of Duende, where the artist and poet gave a lecture in Buenos Aires “to shed some light on the eerie and inexplicable sandess that lives in the heart of certain works of art.”

“That mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain.” Lorca

Lorca’s interpretation of duende (analgous to “soul”, “spirit”, “magic” or “mojo”) is rarely explained in Spanish art, but in flamenco it has to do with a heightened sense of emotion, expression and authenticity.

duende

It also translates as a fairy/goblin/elf-like creature in Spanish mythology. It is close to Leprachaun, sprite, those mythic mischief-makers. For Lorca it was closer to fairy as a realm of being. That fiery spirit is what makes a great performance stir the emotions in the listener. It could also be the sense of awe that comes from within, a mysterious and indescribable charm. As my Irish Grandad used to say “Divil (i.e. devil) a bit.” In other words, a bit of mischief doesn’t hurt. We turn away from the dark side, but there has to be balance in life, as in art.

“Within the world of modern pop music, a world that deals ostensibly with the Love Song, but in actuality does little more that hurl dollops of warm, custard-coloured baby-vomit down the air waves, true sorrow is not welcome”

Okay, Nick, take it easy now. Put down the hammer.

Kylie-Minogue-Better-The-Devil

“But occasionally a song comes along that hides behind its disposable, plastic beat a love lyric of truly devastating proportions. “Better The Devil You Know” written by hitmakers Stock, Altkin and Waterman and sung by the Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue is such a song. The disguising of the terror of Love in a piece of mindless, innocuous pop music is an intriguing concept. “Better The Devil You Know” is one of pop music’s most violent and distressing love lyrics.”

Divil a bit.

Minogue a bit. Cave collaborated with Kylie along with his muse PJ Harvey, on the preceeding album, Murder Ballads.

Let’s hear some more from Lorca.

“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ”The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation … all that has dark sounds in it, has duende.” 

For Cave this quality is mostly missing in contemporary rock. Music shies away from bearing its soul, “restless and quivering, the sadness that Lorca talks about. Excitement often; anger, sometimes: but true sadness, rarely.”

Some of the greatest artists of the genre, some of my favourites anyway, are namechecked.

“Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it. It haunts Polly Harvey… but all in all it would appear that duende is too fragile to survive the brutality of technology and the ever increasing acceleration of the music industry”

He also mentions Dirty 3, Spiritualised and Tindersticks. He then goes on to give his verdict on the sad state of the music industry…

“Perhaps there is just no money in sadness, no dollars in duende. Sadness or duende needs space to breathe. Melancholy hates haste and floats in silence. It must be handled with care.”

The best things in life are free…

Hmmm… Makes you think. Does all great art have to have duende. Is everything else, just novelty, trivial and empty? Well for Cave, when it comes to the love song, yes. What makes it a love song is this ineffable quality.

“All love songs must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain. Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all but rather Hate Songs disguised as love songs, and are not to be trusted.”

Take that Justin Bieber. 🙂

“The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil.”

Okay Mr Cave. Justin Bieber says he’s sorry. Step away from the hammer please.

I showed the song Into My Arms to a friend just now who wasn’t aware of what I was writing about, and her reply was, “a bit dismal, but nice.” Trouble is a lot of popular music these days is a little bit too nice, while not being dismal enough. But on the other hand, Nick Cave would probably top the Billboard Top 100 Dismal Music Charts, dislodging Leonard Cohen from the number 1 spot.

Lou Reed Perfect Day

Now for another happy-go-lucky fella, who cropped up in week 7, with another song soaked in suadade, dripping with duende.

Cave goes on to talk about a perfect example of duende at work in song, with Lou Reed’s remarkable song Perfect Day. For Cave the song turns on the injection of reality, puncturing the idyllic imagery of earlier verses. It’s what makes the song human.

“He writes in near diary form the events that combine to make a “Perfect Day”. It is a day that resonates with the hold beauty of love, where he and his lover sit in the park and drink Sangria… but it is the lines that darkly in the third verse, “I thought I was someone else, someone good” that transforms this otherwise sentimental song into the masterpiece of melancholia that it is.”

Lou’s been around the block a bit. He’s lived it up, and suffered the consequences.

“Not only do these lines ache with failure and shame, but they remind us in more general terms of the transient nature of love itself – that he will have his day “in the park” but, like Cinderella, who must return at midnight to the soot and ash of her disenchanted world, so must he return to his old self, his bad self.”

At the age of twenty, not long after his father’s death, Cave took up reading the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, and its brutal prose has informed his songs ever since.

He cites the Song of Solomon as having a major impact on his young self; calls it perhaps the greatest love song ever written. The Song of Solomon is an erotic treatise, it’s a journey around the lovers bodies. For Cave, the imagery rockets the reader/listener into the realm of the imagination. The two lovers are separate; Solomon is not allowed to enter the garden where his true love sings, but the “wild, obsessive projections of one lover onto another that dissolve them into a single being, constructed from a series of rapturous love-metaphors.”

He goes on to talk about The Psalms, which deal directly with the relationship between man and God. They are “teeming with clamorous desperation, longing, exultation, erotic violence and brutality that I could hope for.”

Starting to sound a bit kinky there Nick, but go on…

“The Psalms are soaked in suadade, drenched in duende and bathed in bloody-minded violence. In many ways these songs became the blue-print for much of my more sadistic love songs. Psalm 137, a particular favourite of mine and which was turned into a chart hit by the fab little band Boney M. is a perfect example of all I have been talking about.”

Boney M Rivers of Babylon

I did not see that coming…

“The love song must be born into the realm of the irrational, absurd, the distracted, the melancholic, the obsessive, the insane for the love song is the noise of love itself and love is, of course, a form of madness.”

So now you know how to write a love song, this is your homework. I want you to take your pen and paper, access that little duende in your soul, and write one…

“Love songs come in many guises and are seemingly written for many reasons – as declarations or to wound – I have written songs for all of these reasons – but ultimately the love songs exist to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine.”

Nick Cave has a disease. Doctors call it erotographomania. That sounds rude, but it’s not really.

“Erotographomania is the obsessive desire to write love letters.”

The love letter and the love song share much in common.

“Both served as extended meditations on ones beloved. Both served to shorten the distance between the writer and the recipient. Both held within them a permanence and power that the spoken word did not. Both were erotic exercises, in themselves. Both had the potential to reinvent, through words, like Pygmalion with his self-created lover of stone, one’s beloved. Alas, the most endearing form of correspondence, the love letter, like the love song has suffered at the hands of the cold speed of technology, at the carelessness and soullessness of our age.”

It’s worth listening to the recording yourself, as Cave goes into more detail about a four month relationship, which his song Far From Me, from The Boatman’s Call, was telling him was doomed from the start. There’s a second part called The Flesh Made Word, which might also interest you.

“The songs themselves, my crooked brood of sad eyed children, rally round and in their way, protect me, comfort me and keep me alive. They are the companions of the soul that lead it into exile… The imagination desires an alternate and through the writing of the love song, one sits and dines with loss and longing, madness and melancholy ecstasy, magic, joy and love with equal measures of respect and gratitude. The spiritual quest has many faces… but rarely does the search serve god so directly and rarely are the rewards so great in doing.”

And thanks to you for writing them.

michael-hutchence

Cave performed Into My Arms at the funeral of Mick Hutchence, reaching out to his friend who was beyond this world, but demanded that the cameras be turned off out of respect for his friend.

“Whether it be the love of God, or romantic, erotic love – these are manifestations of our need to be torn away from the rational, to take leave of our senses.”

As his fellow duende dweller Leonard Cohen would say: “Hallelujah”

Well, we’re almost finished this songwriting workshop. I’d like to thank our guest teacher. Nick, it’s been educational.

“but I believe in Love… and I know that you do too.”

I don’t believe in an interventionist God either, but I do believe in love.

Back to the Bible, one quote that stood out is: “God is love”. I’m an agnostic, so I just don’t know about all that God stuff, but the love part is good enough for me. Seems like the Old Testament God is alive and well these days, an eye for an eye and all that, but not so much “love thy neighbour”.

So, as Arthur Lee (who added plenty of duende and realism to the 60’s hippie dream) from the band Love used to say at the end of gigs, basking in the glow of his fans, and without a hint of cynicism.

“I just have one more thing to say to you all. Love one another…”

Amen.

“Into My Arms”

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

And I don’t believe in the existence of angels
But looking at you I wonder if that’s true
But if I did I would summon them together
And ask them to watch over you
To each burn a candle for you
To make bright and clear your path
And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love
And guide you into my arms

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

But I believe in Love
And I know that you do too
And I believe in some kind of path
That we can walk down, me and you
So keep your candles burning
And make her journey bright and pure
That she will keep returning
Always and evermore

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms

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9 thoughts on “Song of the Week 46: Into My Arms – Nick Cave

  1. I’ve always thought this a beautiful song, but never really knew much about Nick Cave. Really fascinating to learn about his philosophy on songwriting, had no idea he was so well read. And Lorca’s explanation of duende makes more sense than any other theory on art that I have ever read…being a music buff myself, I really enjoy the context and content you provide about each Song of the Week. Humbled that you enjoyed my post about Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond…

    1. Thanks for commenting. Sorry, thought I’d replied. The whole album is great. He has a lot of good stuff does Nick. I’m happy that you enjoy my site. I like Dave Brubeck for sure. Your poems are great too. I’ll check out some more of your posts now.

  2. What a beautiful song! I confess that I had never really listened to Nick Cave and knew nothing about him. But I really enjoyed this post and learning more about him and duende. The themes of love and madness resonate with my current novel-in-progress, which–oddly enough–is a paranormal/urban fantasy about angels and half-angels–and humans too. One of the things I’m trying to do is look at those darker emotions in–ahem–a more positive light, as offering gifts of their own. Of course, when you work with them in your art, they also work with you. So, I’m having to face some of my own darkness. Thanks for this thoughtful piece–and for the follow.

    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment. It is a fantastic song, and I’d never heard about “duende” until I listened to that podcast, so it inspired me to write about this song. I was going to anyway, but it definitely put a fire under me to write about it there and then. If you like this you should check out the rest of the Boatman’s Call album. It’s something special. Enjoy! And good luck with the book! 🙂

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