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Essay

To SSA and TBA

AT TIMES I TELL MYSELF that the difference between me today and me a decade ago can be summed up by the fact that where I was once a devoted fan of U2, I am now a partisan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. I treat it as a joke, but there is more than a grain of truth in it.

A complicated relationship between the two artists has established itself in my mind, based as much on their similarities as their differences, and it does indeed say much about the person I have become. U2 redeemed my love of punk by channeling that music’s aggression toward something uplifting; Nick Cave, maintaining something of punk’s will to affront, asks me to reconsider what continually draws me—nice guy that I have always been—to art opposed to respectability. U2, affirming the virtue of big dreams and expansive emotion, appealed to a wish to cast myself at the center of a triumphant story; Cave draws me into an intensely troubled realm, challenging me to refine my understanding of the murky narrative I find myself inhabiting.

Both artists allow a rich relationship with Christianity to play out in their music, and both conceive of rock as an artform capable of explicitly articulating spiritual experience, of giving expression, as it were, to a groaning too deep for words. This is the strongest affinity between the two—and the strongest explanation of my affinity for both—yet there is an essential divergence in what results. U2 marshals questions and doubts toward a promise of redemption. Often explicitly evoking Christ and God, their songs offer visions of a world that perfects our own. Nick Cave, revealing a darkness that corrodes our world from within and places even the good and the beautiful at risk, plunges us into a world in which both the presence and absence of the divine are violently unsettling.

Which art echoes your own groaning is inextricable from your own story. So what story speaks in this opposition that has established itself in my imagination? I came to U2 during a generically awkward adolescence marked by frustrated attempts at being an outsider. My self-conscious stabs at antisociality had included a quiet but consuming rejection of the evangelical faith in which my parents had raised me. U2’s music affirmed that life could be dedicated to something exalted, a discovery that came hand in hand with my first conscious affirmation of Christian belief and the first stirrings of my artistic ambition. Cave I have embraced over the course of a twisting early adulthood, in parallel with an earnest attempt to establish myself as a writer and filmmaker. I often wonder whether this path has led me any closer to the purpose I once sensed. From there, it is only a few steps to wondering whether the purpose itself was not illusory.

The opposition between U2 and Cave, then, suggests a passage from fervent youthful ideals to resurgent doubt provoked by progressive disenchantment. But there is another opposition: Where the music of U2 fed my ambitions, offering me an enchanted view of my purpose in the world, the music of Nick Cave feeds on my doubts, giving me a means by which to harrow them and turn them toward a new purpose. His music suggests that perhaps a world that appears devoid of sense is in fact more deeply enchanted than I suspected, even if terrifyingly so.

This, ultimately, is what I want from art: a reason to believe in a world that greatly exceeds what I know, and a means by which to enter that world. In the art that is most significant to me, such a re-enchantment has positive and negative aspects: the world is horribly enchanted, and we ourselves bear much responsibility for that; but there remains, in the act of confronting these things, the promise of a world that will be beautifully enchanted once more.

 

Can’t Remember Anything at All…

As a Nick Cave partisan, I came late to the game. Cave began as frontman of the hardcore group the Birthday Party a few years before I was born, and he organized the Bad Seeds (a rotating cast of collaborators) not long after. It was not until 2005 that I had my first real encounter with his music, when I saw Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire, in which Cave and the Bad Seeds perform two early standards, “The Carny” and “From Her to Eternity,” in a Berlin nightclub.

The film’s intention at this point is not to alienate, but the music does function as a jarring expression of earthly chaos, in stark contrast to both the angelic detachment that has preceded it and the discovery of a new transcendence in love that follows, concluding the film with a profound sense of expectancy. This ending thrilled me, yet it was the music, through its force as a counterpoint, that lodged most insistently in my mind—and my limbs. In the nightclub scene, the jangling guitar and convulsions of Cave’s body impart a sense of spontaneity that the film as a whole, for all of its beauty, does not.

At the time, I was a recent arrival in New York City, an early-twenty-something among many thousands of others nursing artistic aspirations, counting the days until that oft-imagined breakthrough. I dreamt that a life marked by transcendence—a form of angelic detachment—was the privilege of the artist; but what I lived was a drifting in the midst of an indifferent mass, marked much more by mundane desperation than by any sense, as conjured at the end of the film, of being at the border of a new world. Cave’s music hinted at the possibility of a catharsis that would end this drifting and restore an urgency to life.

Digging haphazardly into his catalogue, I encountered such an urgency, but not in the form I expected. First, I found that the song that had taken shape in my memory did not exist; I quickly found “The Carny” and “From Her to Eternity” on The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but they in no way matched the shards I had retained from the film and did little to inspire the spontaneous release I sought. Yet the strange mix of songs that I encountered on that compilation suggested a history of restless artistic development that drew me in. No pair of songs was more suggestive than “Into My Arms” and “Do You Love Me (Like I Love You)?” The latter got close to the Nick Cave I expected, though the song itself—voicing a romantic obsession that ends, possibly, in murder—was no less unsettling for that. It offered orchestrated chaos, aggressive music paired with performative swagger. “Into My Arms,” on the other hand, confronted me with something that was, from one angle, more shocking than any violent theatrics: tenderness, founded on a radical vulnerability.

“Into My Arms” is the opening track of The Boatman’s Call, the first of Cave’s albums to which I listened from beginning to end. The vulnerability is clear throughout, but “Into My Arms” remains distinct for the nakedness of its yearning, its expression of unbelief exposing itself to the possibility of becoming prayer:

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

These words, spoken over a soft succession of piano chords played by Cave himself, lead into a chorus that voices this hypothetical prayer—

Into my arms, O Lord
Into my arms….

—that eventually builds to an equally naked, almost naïve affirmation of common belief:

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

The immediacy of the song—the sense it gives us of being secret witnesses as Cave composes a confession to his beloved—leads directly to the idea of a beauty that exceeds our human love: a common purpose, which enfolds our romances into a greater love. The song concludes by inviting us to share in its belief, and yet the sense of intimacy leaves space for doubt. The moment’s fragility is its beauty, and there is little to protect it from being swept away. The hypothetical with which the song began—calling on a God in whom you do not believe to preserve your beloved unchanged—remains its foundation.

The rest of the album explores the path mentioned at the end of the song. Unsurprisingly, each manifestation of the path complicates any affirmation of belief or common purpose. The naked tenderness of the opening track gives way, in many instances, to a raw wound. A later track, its title discreetly evoking Beckett, spells out one possible terminus: “Where Do We Go Now but Nowhere?”

The album climaxes with a second prayer, one that declares itself explicitly. As the title suggests, “Idiot Prayer” is marked not by tenderness, but cynicism and bitterness. Cave’s third song, at least, sung from the point of view of a man on death row, it is the most unrepentant, addressed to the man’s victim, once his lover:

If you’re in Heaven then you’ll forgive me, dear
Because that’s what they do up there
But if you’re in Hell, then what can I say
You probably deserved it anyway
I guess I’m gonna find out any day
For we will meet again
And there’ll be Hell to pay

It is difficult to get much further from the transcendent love invoked by “Into My Arms” than this:

This prayer is for you, my love
Sent on the wings of a dove
An idiot prayer of empty words
Love, dear, is strictly for the birds
We each get what we deserve
My little snow white dove
Rest assured

The mocking certainty, the idea that the only unity left these lovers is founded on revenge, is a hard letdown from the sincere desire for the impossible with which the album opens. Brutally cutting off the yearning that even the most despairing of the intervening songs have so faithfully sustained, it plunges us into despair as a spiritual state: the inability, or the refusal, to grieve what should be grieved. It is a state that Cave articulates often, many times with far more sound and fury than he does here, but this one stands out for its setting near the end of the album—for the way in which, after a long and exhausting struggle to maintain hope, its defiance offers not only disappointment but also a troubling release.

Like “Into My Arms,” “Idiot Prayer” gives a sense of Cave unalloyed—in the flesh in the first case, here exercising his full skill as a performer. In both, the charisma is seductive: “Into My Arms” invites us to let go of our defenses and enter the intimacy of the moment; “Idiot Prayer,” with its barely restrained bombast, draws us into the furtive pleasure of embracing oneself as one of the damned. This marked the return of the Nick Cave I expected: more murderer than lover, more defiant than transcendent.

The Boatman’s Call ends by posing the troubling question, which is the true Cave? Is innocence evoked as a ruse to make the twist of the knife all the more shocking, or does it remain a force capable of cutting a new path through the chaos and violence that dominate Cave’s world? This question only came to me with the passage of time, but arrived with such force that I could not but pursue it. I found myself implicated somehow. How could a yearning for “a beauty impossible to believe,” as Cave sings, coexist with a desire to be free to drift into oblivion, unencumbered by ideals? This is still my question.

 

Take a Little Walk to the Edge of Town

For me, writing about Nick Cave, or any artist I love, seems both to carry the heaviest personal import and to be entirely, radically impersonal. The sensation I get from their work is both of finding an unknown part of myself and of being carried away from myself utterly. I wonder whether these encounters bring me closer to God. It remains an open question—one that draws me onward, as I try to understand their art and be an artist myself.

Fittingly, Nick Cave’s songs often take shape as tales of unexpected encounters, of an individual’s world suddenly being exposed to—and reordered by—an unforeseen dimension of experience. The songs are intimate; they demand that we be confidants or participants. Their language enfolds us in a new world before we are fully conscious of what is happening. Consider “Midnight Man” from the 2008 album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!:

Hold that chrysalis in your palm, see it split and change
It won’t do you any harm, it’s just trying to rearrange
It was born to live a day, now it flies up from your hand
It’s beautiful, it’s the one they call your ever-loving man
Wolves have carried your babies away, oh your kids drip from their teeth
The nights are long and the day is bitter cold beyond belief
You spread yourself like a penitent upon the mad vibrating sand
And through your teeth arrange to meet your midnight man

As a piece of narrative-poetic tapestry, this strikes me as pretty incredible. Its refusal to distinguish between fact and hallucination evokes a desperation that is carnal and spiritual in equal measure. Building from this disorientation, the chorus seizes us with the euphoria of seeing our fixes take on a life of their own, a euphoria that cloaks until the last instance the panic that ensues when they spin out of control: “Everybody’s coming round to my place! / Everybody’s coming round to my place! / Everybody’s coming round, oh baby, don’t you see? / Everybody wanna be your midnight man.”

In reading the lyrics on a page, it is easy to forget that it is the music that determines the opening and closing of these stories, rather than any dramatic or narrative logic; it is the music that plunges us into the experience, that provokes the amazement of holding that splitting chrysalis, that imparts the strange joy of spreading ourselves on an earth pulsingly attentive to our desires. In moments such as these, the music gives the word new texture, and it is in this texture—in the friction it produces—that the word becomes something else: an image, appealing to us bodily as much as mentally. Only then do we comprehend the desperation of which the song speaks, and the temptation to give ourselves over to something that promises magically to fulfill us.

I am still not describing the music itself, rather my amazement at it, which, nonmusician that I am, is perhaps amazement at the very fact of music’s ability to give such experience. It is a part of my tribute to Nick Cave to say that it is his work that most often draws me into such amazement, and to say that in modeling what it means to be seized by these experiences, he influences my artistic thinking in a way that exceeds the music. By putting himself deeply at stake in the songs, acting the part not only of narrator but of lead character as well, he shapes an encounter that wrenches me out of a passive spectatorship and brings me into a uniquely intense experience of human presence—which is akin to what I seek in cinema, my chosen art.

Inhabiting his narratives, Cave pushes me, as a writer and filmmaker, toward an expanded sense of the way enactment can transcend story and embody a different form of thinking, one that seeks a means to face all that is unthinkable about the world. This is a model of thinking based less on reflection and more on a venturing out, less on assuring ourselves of what we know and more on seeking the unknown. Cave paradoxically provokes us to venture out of ourselves, with senses fully open, but for that no less assured that we won’t be overcome.

Such an invitation to experience brings me back to where I began. The music carries me away, down an immanent path where I may indeed encounter the divine, perhaps in the least expected of places; but such an encounter could as easily come as a shock as a comforting communion; and may not make me whole, but instead violently undo me. To risk such encounter, but also to understand its appeal, is what I seek in art—and what pushes me to continue as an artist.

 

Send that Stuff on Down to Me

Cave and the Bad Seeds’ latest album, Push the Sky Away (2013), is an open laboratory for the artistic process. It achieves more than once the effect of “Into My Arms,” giving us the sensation of being present as a song takes shape. Addressing us almost as collaborators—as though it is our listening that draws the music into the world—Cave turns the album into a profound invitation to share in the spirit driving his work.

The album’s deceptive simplicity reaches a climax with “Higgs Boson Blues,” a fever-dream doubling as a vision of the apocalypse. We feel the chaos accumulate around us rather than being plunged directly into it. As Warren Ellis on tenor guitar carries the words along with a reverberating riff, Cave begins casually: “Can’t remember anything at all / Flame trees line the streets….” Slowly Martyn Casey’s bass cuts a groove into this addled atmosphere, answered by Jim Sclavunos’s rumbling tom drums. Appropriately for a song named after an elusive entity thought crucial to illuminating the order of the universe (the Higgs boson is sometimes referred to unscientifically as “the God particle”), visions pile confusedly atop one another—

Black road long and I drove and drove
I came upon a crossroad
The night was hot and black
I see Robert Johnson,
With a ten-dollar guitar strapped to his back,
Lookin’ for a tune
Well here comes Lucifer
With his canon law
And a hundred black babies runnin’ from his genocidal jaw

—leading to an invocation of Martin Luther King Jr—

I’m tired, I’m lookin’ for a spot to drop
All the clocks have stopped in Memphis now
In the Lorraine Motel, it’s hot, it’s hot
That’s why they call it the Hot Spot
I take a room with a view
Hear a man preaching in a language that’s completely new
A shot rings out to a spiritual groove
Everybody bleeding to that Higgs Boson Blues

—before finally collapsing into senseless images of Miley Cyrus:

Hannah Montana does the African Savannah
As the simulated rainy season begins
She curses the queue at the Zulus
And moves on to Amazonia
And cries with the dolphins

Absurd on the page, the song reaches our ears with an unsettling logic, giving a convincing view of our world (Disney Channel colonialism filling the void left by the silencing of that new language) as post-apocalyptic. The song ends with a despairing repetition: “Can’t remember anything at all….”

Yet this is not where the album ends; that “black road long” carries us beyond the oblivion of night and into a haunting morning, all the more lucid for emerging from absolute exhaustion. This is the album’s title and concluding track:

I was ridin’, I was ridin’, oh
The sun, the sun, the sun was rising from the field
I got a feeling I just can’t shake
I got a feeling that just won’t go away
You’ve got to just keep on pushing
Keep on pushing
Push the sky away

Despair is met by urgency, ending the album with a kind of artistic manifesto:

And if your friends think that you should do it different
And if they think that you should do it the same
You’ve got to just keep on pushing
Keep on pushing
Push the sky away
And if you feel you got everything you came for
If you got everything and you don’t want no more
You’ve got to just keep on pushing….

Presenting himself less as an established artist than as a man still striving, Cave addresses us as fellow travelers, suggesting that, at fifty-seven, he feels no closer to the goal than when he began. I am often tempted by the idea of reaching a point at which I could call myself a true artist. But Cave here pushes me to recognize that that is not what is truly at issue. What matters is faithfulness to the questions that provoked one to make art in the first place and to the questions that the work poses in return.

I write these things without authority; I have dreamt much more art than I have made, and I feel no closer to comprehending my original impulse to be an artist. But that I can write them at all is a tribute to the way in which Push the Sky Away models artistic striving as something more than an individual pursuit. As personal as The Boatman’s Call, this album speaks to us intimately from within Cave’s experience as an artist. Expressing the doubt and restlessness that come with the desire to make art, Cave embodies a devotion that responds to these things—and in this devotion, he seeks to commune with us.

In the work of being an artist, as Cave models it, there is joy to be found; there is the possibility—at times even the promise—of a wholeness otherwise unimaginable.

 

And God Is Never Far Away

As a birthday gift from my wife (truly an act of love, for this is far from her preferred music), we saw Nick Cave at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles last summer. It was my first time hearing him play live. The reports and recordings I’d heard gave only a fractional sense of the effect his physical presence has on the music.

He uses live performance as a tool to open the songs again, returning to them the sense that they are capable of leading anywhere. His performance suggests that, on a certain level, he knows no more about his music than we do—where it comes from or where it leads.

Cave continually performs “The Mercy Seat,” first recorded in 1988. Like “Idiot Prayer,” it is sung from the perspective of a man on death row. The titular seat is in fact the electric chair, and only through the man’s wild associations does it become the golden Mercy Seat that covered the Ark of the Covenant in the Book of Exodus, as well as God’s throne. These associations also introduce the name of Christ:

I hear stories from the chamber
How Christ was born into a manger
And like some ragged stranger
Died upon the cross
And might I say, it seems so fitting in its way
He was a carpenter by trade
Or at least that’s what I’m told

On the album version, the music—founded on a bass guitar played across all four strings with a violin bow, punctuated by an insistently pounded piano chord—reflects a man schizophrenically split against himself, proclaiming innocence while confusedly implicating himself. It is repetitive to the point of exhaustion, chanting the chorus (with minimal variation) a full fifteen times:

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this weighing of the truth.
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

Only the second line varies: “And I think my head is smoking…. And I think my head is boiling….” and so on. The song sounds excruciatingly endless, until suddenly it ends. This is its means of harrowing us, of filling us with a visceral yearning for relief from this “weighing of the truth”—a yearning that could as easily find expression in a howl as in conscious repentance.

When I saw him perform “The Mercy Seat” live, Cave invested it with ruthless energy, speeding up the tempo so that the distinction between verse and chorus all but disappeared. In my memory, the entire song consists of little more than a single line—“And the Mercy Seat is waiting….”—repeated over and over. At another performance in Los Angeles—an intimate in-studio session released as Live from KCRW—Cave and the Bad Seeds unveil the song’s poetic shape. Its lyrics, elsewhere lost in the cacophony, come to the fore, revealing a deep sadness beneath the confusion. The opening is some of his most beautiful work as a poet, sung here over a melancholy piano:

I began to warm and chill
To objects and their fields,
A ragged cup, a twisted mop
The face of Jesus in my soup
Those sinister dinner deals
The meal trolley’s wicked wheels
A hooked bone rising from my food
All things good or ungood.

The song presents us with a split—the innocent vies with the criminal, the carnal with the exalted. Cave seems to suggest that this, rather than any harmonious balance between animal and spiritual, is what characterizes a human being:

My good hand tattooed E.V.I.L. across its brother’s fist
That filthy five! They did nothing to challenge or resist.

And later:

My kill-hand is called E.V.I.L.
Wears a wedding band that’s G.O.O.D.
’Tis a longsuffering shackle
Collaring all that rebel blood.

Here the question of the man’s innocence and guilt becomes horribly immediate, and there is a suggestion that his attempt to hold himself in check only intensifies the violence of which he is a vessel. The gap that I am tempted to see between myself and him only makes this struggle more visceral. Here as elsewhere, Cave’s focus on extreme situations allows us an easy pretext for disassociating ourselves, but that haunting opening stanza makes us see through the man’s eyes, especially in the quieter, more intimate studio performance. We feel not only the sorrow of impending death but also the grief of never being reconciled with oneself. The sorrow may be vicarious, but the grief I know. I thought once that it would lessen as I lived and learned, that slowly the gap between my intentions and the outcomes of my actions would close, that my desire to be a good man would overcome the impulses, seeming both to arise from within and seize me from without, that continually undo my efforts.

In the context of such a split, even the rumor of Christ, the simple speaking of his name, introduces grace—a grace that appears with even greater pathos when brought to us by Warren Ellis’s violin in the studio version. It pierces the condemnation and allows the desperate man to envision something beyond his death:

In Heaven His throne is made of gold
The ark of his testament is stowed
A throne from which I’m told
All history does unfold.
Down here it’s made of wood and wire
And my body is on fire

The gap seems irreducible, and the attempt to conflate the seats obscene, but then follows, all the more surprising for being uncoupled:

And God is never far away.

Only because we have heard of Christ on the cross, “some ragged stranger,” can this sudden declaration make any sense. Christ’s fate makes it possible that God be encountered in this man’s own fate, not by closing the gap that separates the man from God, but by making the experience of that gap the expression of God’s presence. In the context of the insistent senselessness of the song—the repetitions, the confusion of its narrator—to speak of God seems an absurdity. But in the face of senselessness—of the world, of our lives—the name of Christ turns such an absurdity into a new sense.

At such a point, Nick Cave’s music speaks as insistently to me of Christ as any other art I know. It suggests a different way of experiencing God’s distance from me—a distance I have felt extend and deepen with the passing years.

 

Hey Little Train! Wait for Me!

A little over two years ago, I became a father. Since then I’ve come more than once to the point of questioning whether I remain a believing Christian. My doubts were not caused by fatherhood, but they are most certainly shaped by it. It is still an open question as I write, and a turbulent one. At times I wonder how I could ever question what I believe; at times I’m amazed that I ever did believe. There is too much to say, all the more so because I don’t quite understand how it became a question at all. How did the quiet, momentary doubts congeal around me into something from which I cannot quite shake free?

Fatherhood makes the question more urgent, even desperate, for now it is not only my life at stake. I see in my son’s life a miracle, but I wonder how such a miracle could be entrusted to me. And fatherhood has tipped my life toward work and away from reflection. I have long held to the ideal that the two could be one, but the reality is that much of my reflection up until now has been merely idle, as fatherhood makes starkly clear.

There is now a split between the will to continue as an artist and the fear that this is an illegitimate path, or simply no path for me at all. I fear that by pursuing it, I steal from my son much of the father I could be for him. I have long believed that art makes people and the world better, but this belief has waned with experience. I fear that in my case art is not merely indifferent, but that it makes me worse, more doubtful and fearful, enthralled to an illusory beauty; that it does not guide me toward truth but toward a lust for recognition and praise; that art is a phantasm that distracts me from the beauty my son and and my wife incarnate right before me, and which I could see in others as well, if I were not so consumed by my compulsions and ambitions. My desire to be an artist remains as strong as ever, but I now wonder whether that’s anything more than a delusion. As a father, I am no longer free to side-step this question. And that is a good thing.

In this context, Nick Cave’s influence over me has only grown, in part because it is much easier at the moment to find the time to listen to a song or even an entire album than it is to read a book or watch a film. Listening to Cave is one of my primary means of maintaining some semblance of balance, of feeling that I am still free to experience art as I wish. But much more than that, his music has been a companion as I have sought to understand how work can be a form of reflection, and to discern ways in which the compulsion to be an artist points toward a true purpose.

Even before my son was born, Cave’s music was instrumental in helping me prepare for the change and, in the face of it, to renew my attempt at understanding this world—a world that is now also my son’s, and for which I bear, for him, some measure of responsibility. This may begin to hint at why fatherhood has given shape to my questions about whether I am a believing Christian and whether I am truly meant to be an artist. How can I call myself either when I so complacently accept the ills of this world?

Cave’s song “O Children” began to form these thoughts in me, and I returned obsessively to it in the weeks leading up to my son’s birth. Though I listen to it less often now, it still carries the force of those moments. I still identify with the weary pessimism of the first verses, the wish to be heroic that is not even strong enough to take itself seriously:

Pass me that lovely little gun
My dear, my darling one
The cleaners are coming, one by one
You don’t even want to let them start
They are knocking now upon your door
They measure the room, they know the score
They’re mopping up the butcher’s floor
Of your broken little hearts

And I still cry with the chorus of voices that respond:

O children

Now more than ever, I recognize myself in the impotent repentance that follows:

Forgive us now for what we’ve done
It started out as a bit of fun
Here, take these before we run away
The keys to the gulag

As the chorus extends, the lament comes to parody a praise song:

O children
Lift up your voice, lift up your voice
Children
Rejoice, rejoice

Such a parody could be an expression of the same impotence in the face of a cracked world and a perniciously satisfied self, even a cynical capitulation to it. I cannot deny that possibility, nor the profound appeal it might have for me. And yet this supposed parody seizes my voice, drawing it upward to praise and downward to sound the full depth of lament. I never attain either, but for a moment I sense the distance that separates me from both, and this is something akin to prayer. The prayer is voiced only obliquely by the actual words sung by the chorus, as the parody becomes more horrifying in its connotations:

Hey little train! We are all jumping on
The train that goes to the Kingdom
We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
And the train ain’t even left the station

Then the confusion and anguish become more intense, as Cave calls out in response:

Hey, little train! Wait for me!
I once was blind but now I see
Have you left a seat for me?
Is that such a stretch of the imagination?

The image of a train full of children is ambiguous at best, and has carried for me, from the first listen, associations with the Holocaust. Yet the fervency with which the man calls out after the train is real. The desire to be saved is genuine, though he may be chasing that train in delusion. In this, a sorrow reaches beyond the words to something absent, something that would answer this man’s call and save him and these children. In making us feel that absence so powerfully, the song gives it a presence that a direct expression would lack.

“O Children” becomes, as I listen, a prayer that voices my own confusion. Neither the song nor Cave’s work as a whole delivers me from this confusion. I’m not even sure they are not part of what produces the confusion. But listening to these works, I hear—I live—the promise of an art that would do justice to true beauty. It is an art that I would not be ashamed to share with my son, an art that could one day teach him to create, through his own life, a space where beauty may yet reveal itself in the world. This, finally, is my prayer, for myself and for him, for a saved world that we could share.


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