06OCT08 – The 930 Club, Washington, D.C.
That’s how long I’ve waited to squat on this particularly ugly patch of sidewalk on the poor side of town; this broken block of quikrete covered in cigarette snubs and the leper’s sores of chewing gum. That’s a long time to wait just to hear one song performed live, but it’s worth it.
I could have squatted another week, were it not for the empty jabber of political interns waiting in line ahead of us; they finger-fucked their Blackberries and name-dropped high-powered connections just loud enough for the rest of us to hear. Their words fall harmless like sunlight on the roof of my consciousness; it’s not worth getting upset about. No. The important thing is that I’m here at last.
I can’t remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Nick Cave, and that’s a shame. As much as I love his music, as often as I revisit the cages of my own memories, you’d think I’d have some idea. In all honesty, it would’ve been late at night. The weight of Cave’s music gathers closer in the gloom, when glowing embers of heartbreak, heroin and hellfire burn brighter; unfolding like wings and rising into the night air as the suffocating weight of ones mortality becomes unbearable.
Yeah. It was definitely at Jeff’s place.
Anything conversed during that era, at least anything worthwhile, took place very late or very early in a one-bedroom, second floor apartment in sleepy little Grandview; a rented piece of suburbia occupied by my friend Jeff and his then- girlfriend Aimee. That was 1995 or 1996.
I can still picture Jeff, a one-time model and a narrow scarecrow of a man with thin red lips and cheekbones like the white cliffs of Dover, ubiquitously attired in a costume of stiff black jeans, a button-up work shirt, a thrift store blazer, and a well-worn pair of blood-red Doc Martens. He held court in a large chair perfectly situated to absorb not only the full impact of the battered stereo speakers strung haphazardly about the room, but the attention of those gathered as well.
We came and went like a revolving door, occupying real estate on his battered couch in that dying era immediately preceding the Internet. We talked about God and the lack thereof; we bitched about movies, and we dissected books but most importantly, we spoke of music in hushed and reverent tones. We talked about anything worth discussing really, and did so long into the night, sipping steadily at Jeff’s dwindling pyramid of cheap beer, watching in amusement as he occasionally sprang from his throne to reference some obscure fact from the well-loved books that lined the walls, or to fish a cassette from the collection of milk crates crowding the floor in search of a specific song. Mainly, we talked about Nick Cave.
And after thirteen years, I finally get to see the man in person. And dammit, he’s just got to play ‘The Mercy Seat.’
Nick Cave is a master at coaxing magnificent musical infernos from what typically begin as gentle but complicated candles, and the Mercy Seat is no exception. Originally performed by Cave and The Bad Seeds on their 1988 Tender Prey album, the song tells the story of a man about to be executed by the electric chair.
Laden with allusions to Christianity (in the Old Testament, the mercy seat is the symbol of the throne of God over the Ark of the Covenant), the “Mercy Seat” refers both to the throne of God in the heavens, which the man feels he will soon visit, and to the electric chair. The sentenced man claims he’s innocent, that he told the truth, and that he is not afraid to die. But gradually, his voice shifts from a defiant statement of innocence to one of guilt, admitting yes, that he is deserving of death.
Heard under the under the right conditions, The Mercy Seat will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, and give your heart a boner.
As I float farther down the river of time, large chunks of memory tend to break apart in the rapids like debris from a poorly constructed raft, but I still remember the important pieces of that late autumn afternoon, my first exposure to the song…
Aimee and I were going somewhere really fast in her expensive German sports sedan. She tied back her hair, turned the key in the ignition, pressed ‘play’ on that first track from Tender Prey, and blew my fucking mind.
“It began when they come took me from my home/And put me in Death Row/ Of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know/And I’ll say it again/ I.. am.. not.. afraid.. to.. die.” *rev engines here*
I sat captivated in the passenger seat while this fading post-punk princess in tight business attire navigated the narrow streets of German Village, her open-toed shoes danced across on the pedals, working the shift and rolling the steering wheel with the fingers of one long, cool hand as the song gathered inevitable momentum.
She’d hiked up her skirt to allow her to drive more comfortably, and large shapes of sunlight tumbled down through the open roof, spilling across her inner thighs as Cave’s tortured voice thrummed and rolled like a troubled tsunami, exploding from the expensive stereo system. The car moved like it was on rails, howling into turns, dodging and feinting through rush hour traffic. When Aimee found a straight stretch of unhindered road, her leg tensed even harder and I was shoved deep into the seat as the speedometer dove over toward the right.
“And in a way I’m yearning/ To be done with all this measuring of 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.”
And that’s how, during an high-speed and erotically-charged moment on a late autumn afternoon in this town of my birth that I could not help but to despise, I first heard The Mercy Seat the way it was meant to be heard; very loud, while traveling very fast. Tonight, hopefully, will be the sequel; very loud, and very live.
Let me take pause here to say that Kid Congo Powers is a great guitar player, engaging and enthusiastic, and as an opening act (and former Bad Seed) he looked genuinely pleased to be where he was, doing what he was doing. Nor would he begrudge me when I approached his table at The Diner for an autograph after the show. I probably should be more into his music, as most of his career has explored the line in the sand where the tree of punk joins with the roots of psychobilly, cow- and horror punk. And maybe I will but right now I’m standing impatient at the rail, waiting for the man. (An ironic statement, considering.)
When at last Cave took the stage, I had a hard time accepting his presence. The voice that had spoken to me for years, the singer who’d gotten me through high times, low times and all those in between was standing not ten feet away; his hair was slicked back and his eyes were small and darkly glittering. His suit was crisp and the toes of his boots were pointy. There was just something incredibly 3-D about the moment, and that sensation of disbelief stayed with me until somewhere in the second song. I just couldn’t believe I was finally there in that place and time. (As I write these words, I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.)
I was surprised at how many songs I knew, and at how many I’d never heard before. I knew nothing of ‘From Her To Eternity’, and have yet to completely digest much of ‘Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!’ The show was fucking fantastic – it should be mentioned that Nick Cave has written so many songs over the years, many of them with detailed lyrics, that he often forgets them during his shows. Not even a minute into ‘God Is In the House’ the words fled his tongue. “OK, fuck it. Let’s do something else!”
And yes, I finally got to hear The Mercy Seat. And you’re goddamn right it was fucking amazing.
At the tail end of the encore, he stood scowling out over the crowd. Did we have any requests? Now that I’d heard The Mercy Seat, what else could possibly make the moment perfect? Damn, there were so many to choose from! The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane? Little Empty Boat? Wanted Man?
“The Girl at the Bottom of My Glass!” I shouted and waved, my song-strained voice unable to overpower the din of the crowd. I mimed taking a drink from a glass, and somehow this caught his eye. He regarded me for a second and cocked his head, his eyes so black and shiny like a raven’s before turning to the water bottle sitting next to the organ… and tossing it out to me. Stunned, I caught it in one hand, offered some to Angela, and stashed it in my bag. That bottle sits in my freezer to this day.
After the show, my ears were ragged and ravaged and I was drenched in sweat. Didn’t matter. I’d had a blast. The wait was worth it, for the show, for the bottle I’d caught, for a chance to see Nick Cave in person and of course to hear The Mercy Seat live. I sat in the back of DC9 sipping gin and tonics with a crowd of satisfied fans as we compared pictures and talked about how wonderful the show was, at how unique it was to be in a room full of people who wanted to talk about nothing but Nick Cave for awhile. I sensed that something had changed, that every show I attended after this was going to be compared to the night I saw the Bad Seeds.
I’d like to take a moment to thank my friend Angela (back of head shown here); the girl who bought my ticket to ride the ride to stand at the rail to stare in awe and hear the song that Nick wrote. Over the past seven weeks as we’ve criss-crossed the Northern Virginia and District nights, roaming between all-hours art-deco diners to beer-stained dance halls, Angela shared her experiences, her music collection and her French fries with me, handling her VW GTI like a true rally racer, weaving in and out of all manner of traffic and shifting on the fly. For the record, there is no better environment to listen to Nick Cave than while traveling fast in a high-speed German automobile. Tonight we listened to – what else – more Nick Cave on our way to The Diner for bacon cheeseburgers, home fries and a Western omelet before heading home. Thank you, Angela.
Foul-mouthed, noisy, hairy, and damn well old enough to know better, the Bad Seeds are: Mick Harvey (Guitar, Organ), Warren Ellis (Mandocaster, Violin, Tenor Guitar), Conway Savage (Piano), Martyn P. Casey (Bass), Thomas Wydler (Drums, Percussion) and Jim Sclavunos (Drums, Percussion).