December 6, 2022

Just Breathe, Just Breathe, Just Breathe

The Nick Cave concert that Jill and I went to last night was a spiritual experience.

And I use that term advisedly. I also use it in light of the fact that the review of the concert by our local newspaper also made the same connection. Have a look at the header above. The term “gospel of love” kinda summed it up. It was visceral, it was emotional, it was tangible. The air felt heavy, and not just because of the steamy night. The album being toured is called CARNAGE, after all.

There we were, crammed in with more than two thousand others, a post-COVID mindset in what is still a COVID world. Here we were longing – knowing – that there is something good and true about being enfleshed. And something good about being together.

All the signs outside the theatre at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre dutifully informed us to social distance for our own safety and the safety of others. Yet the rules of engagement changed inside. Once in the theatre we couldn’t get close enough. And certainly some couldn’t get close enough to Nick. Physical safety is, after all, not the only safety that matters.

So people needed to get close to Nick Cave for something more. Emotional and spiritual empathy perhaps? In this supposedly secular age, there is still a need for transcendence. Somehow the rock concert does that for people, and it’s almost enough. Almost. It’s something many Pentecostal churches seek to emulate, all the while hoping they can bypass the tragic lament also required by transcendent praise.

It’s something that has been the schtick of high church and Orthodoxy all along. Perhaps it’s the reason so many want something more than a warehouse and a stage in their church experience these days.

For a man with such a dark persona – his wife’s design company is called The Vampire’s Wife – Nick Cave eschews cynicism and despair. More “angelic husband” than vampire, he gives the sense that he cares. Or perhaps he actually does care. In the book of interviews between he and Irish journalist Sean O’Hagan, he says this of his gift:

“You come to understand that this wayward energy you’ve always had, directed in the right way, can actually help people. That music can draw people out of their suffering, even it is temporary respite.”

And so it proved to be. This once-wayward man with all that wayward energy (who has not been one of those at one time?), sang songs to draw us out of suffering. In between the raucous laughter and jokes there was the long, languid lean figure of the prophetic Cave, and his even hairier sidekick seer, the multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis. Together they displayed a sheer tenderness and genuine affection for people. Cave acted like he loved them. He loved us!

At one point, his voice barely rising to a mantra-like whisper in the song Hand of God, Cave came down from the stage in his black three-piece-suit, slowly walking up and down the aisles, gently holding out his own hand to others. People softly reached out their hands to touch his. A few held them out too late, awkwardly, perhaps fearful of being left hanging in front of such a larger crowd. But he went searching for them, walking back to reach even these prodigals.

And then a middle-aged woman stood up and walked slowly down the aisle over to him and hugged him almost tenderly, in fact exactly that, tenderly. He stood there holding her tenderly, still softly singing. And we watched on.

No screaming fangirls or fanboys in the almost silence of that moment, just people sharing their carnage. The chance to bond with a man who has known his fair share of sorrows this past decade, and in doing so bond their sorrows with his. It felt liminal. There was a tear in the fabric and something was leaking through.

His three backing singers, Black gospel choir and dressed in gold, gave a shimmer to the performance with their angelic voices. That, and a sense that they were holding something back. That’s there’s something more behind the invisible curtain that we can’t get to.

You see, for me, it’s the restraint in Nick Cave that is so important. That’s what makes him such a powerful voice. More powerful than, say, that other – for vastly different reasons – tragic figure, Kanye West. For all the brilliance of his Jesus is King album, West sought to overwhelm us with a majestic Jesus, and an overblown Sunday Service experience of hundreds of singers. Triumphalism in a world of despair.

Nick Cave? He gave us the Suffering Servant. Kanye is a super-apostle gone wrong, lured by the world and its acclaim (and now its vitriol). Cave will boast only in his afflictions.

There was one time last night I looked at Jill sitting beside me and she was just sitting stunned and in tears. Lament was pouring from the stage, oozing over the edge with the smoke from a smoke machine, wending its way up the aisles in the dark, through the seats and to us. And it did so in a way that I have rarely experienced in church. Do I want to experience lament in church? Yes, all in the context of joy and grace, but please, gimme SOME lament!

Of course we can scorn and say that this is just a manufactured experience. We can assert that true spiritual reality is found in the day to day incarnated grime of life-on-life with other believers. And that much is true. And I love that about the church. But perhaps what Nick Cave has discovered, something his recent writings and his albums reflect, is that truism of CS Lewis: God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts to us in our pain. The roar was louder than the manic Ellis’s multi-instrumental banshee wailing.

Two and a half spell-binding hours (and I also use the term “spell-binding” knowingly), passed by and then the unthinkable happened. The spell was broken. We had to walk out into the light again, into the functionality of stairs and lifts and jammed-full carparks and parking tickets (it was free parking for a change – another small act of grace perhaps?).

But Nick knew that would happen all along, didn’t he? He said it in the quote above: it’s “temporary respite” from our sufferings. That’s the beauty of music. That’s the beauty of music infused with the sufferings common to humanity. And it’s the frustration of it too. That’s why our favourite songs are on high rotation. We can’t cope with the end of things.

So – for me – even as the crowd dissipated and the afterglow faded away, there was something safe and good and true in knowing that the truly Enfleshed One took on the carnage of our despair in a way that makes lasting change. The Incarnated One whose arrival we celebrate in a few short weeks.

Yet I don’t want to diminish what Nick Cave did. Jill and I, after a month or two of grind at work, and me being away so often and feeling somewhat desiccated, just held hands softly on the drive home, rehumanised in some way on a late Monday night in the midst of the graft of the should-haves of the day, and the have-to’s of tomorrow. And then exhausted, and well past midnight, we fell into bed and held each other to sleep, and just breathed, ready somehow for the carnage of another day.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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