Performance: Sunday January 20, 2019

If you think about it, it’s pretty difficult to do anything deliberately for three hours straight – especially the kind of thing which requires all your attention, and all your powers of thought and speech. Add ‘terror’ to the mix and you’ve got the Conversations with Nick Cave Q&A/performance event, which the man in question managed to traverse with grace and aplomb last night.

‘Terror’ is his own word – after beginning the event with a performance of Sad Waters (just the musician and his piano, as were all songs delivered), Cave sprung from the stool with the spindly verve of a man in his 20s and informed us that for this, his second Melbourne show, the “total terror” has ebbed to only “mild terror.”

He asked that we not clap after his every response – “I start to judge the volume of the claps,” he explained with a grin – and also that we reserve judgement on others’ questions. Herein lies the slight frustration of the night: with no system to vet questions – indeed, Cave has intentionally structured these events as “freewheeling experiments in intimacy” and a way to reconnect with his audience in a raw and unprepared way – it can be difficult to listen to a question you don’t think worthy or relevant.

However, this is where Cave’s impressively flexible oratorship (which isn’t without its flaws, although that just humanises him) shines. While he gave consideration to everyone’s words, he never truckled to anyone’s lead; he brought meandering questions back to the point, not always elegantly; he sometimes put the question back on the inquisitor, or asked for clarification; he was humble (at one point he described not feeling totally comfortable in Melbourne, because he is so – the word I anticipated was ‘recognisable’, but he went with ‘conspicuous’); and while he was poetic, he was often blunt. One man who described the plight of his ice-addicted, 28-year-old daughter and asked “How do you reach an addict?” was met with the resigned response, “You can’t do anything – I’m sorry,” bolstered with examples from Cave’s own history, including the moment he decided within himself that he had to change.

One stand-out was Cave’s story of how he came to write the unfilmed screenplay of the sequel to Gladiator, which I still think is too mad to be completely true. It goes like this:

Russell Crowe personally placed a call to Cave, to ask that he write a screenplay for “Gladiator 2.” “Didn’t you die at the end of Gladiator?” Cave asked Russ. “You sort that out, mate!” Russ replied. Cave duly penned the script to a film he titled Christ Killer. In his narrative, Maximus Decimus Meridius goes to Purgatory, whereupon the Gods send him back to Earth to murder Jesus and all Christians. But the Gods betray Maximus and turn him into an eternal killing machine, and the last 25 minutes of the film are a violent montage of Crowe fighting all the wars throughout history and then ending up as a suit in the Pentagon. Ridley Scott liked it. Russ hated it.

We were also treated to a wonderful exchange between Cave and Florence Welch (of Florence + the Machine) who was still in town following her Sidney Myer Music Bowl performance of a few days prior. She said she’s been hugely influenced by Cave – “I think anything I do that people love, I probably got from you” – and asked who has impacted Cave’s own performances in this way. Cave responded: “I would say Chris Bailey from The Saints, just for the pure anarchy of it all, and the non-performance – sometimes he didn’t even come on stage, just performed from the side. And late-era Elvis. I’m a mash-up of the two,” he chuckled, and then added, “with a bit of Michael Jackson thrown in.”

Other things we learned included that he doesn’t recommend becoming a songwriter because it’s a horribly difficult profession; that the lightning rod of musical inspiration is a very physical thing for him – “it’s a divine moment of an idea taking flight, a trembling”; that he wishes he had written Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche; that the Bad Seeds still find it difficult to continue on after the loss of pianist Conway Savage, who passed away in September 2018 – “He was anarchic; he played his own way; we never could get a handle on whether he even knew the song”; and that he listens to a lot of rap, albeit unintentionally through the doors of his sons bedrooms – “There are way more interesting things are going on in rap and hip hop than in regular rock ‘n’ roll these days. But whether you can handle the tyranny of the rhyming schemes… it can be difficult if you are sensitive to nuance… but the Bad Seeds are influenced heavily by hip hop recording [techniques].”

Although he describes these ‘Conversations’ events as “works in progress!” (as a little printed card on every seat attested), the loose and spontaneous nature of their arrangement – and Cave’s wonderful ability to choose the right moment for a song, selected for its relation to the topic or question at hand – is super befitting of the Cave Way. Hopefully he won’t finesse them too much more, because the experience was just as raw and illuminating as he’d hoped.

You can ask Nick Cave a question through his new website, Red Hand Files.

Discover Nick Cave at JB Hi-Fi