At the Massey Theatre on Thursday, October 10
Sometimes it takes an outside opinion to truly put everything in perspective.
On that front, Nick Cave more than did his job at a packed Massey Theatre on an unseasonably chilly October night in New Westminster.
With age comes wisdom and insight, and the 62-year-old songwriter, screenwriter, author, actor, and all-round renaissance man proved to have endless reserves of both. Over the course of an evening that mixed songs with questions from a quietly enraptured audience, Cave was many things: thoughtful, gracious, patient, occasionally perplexed, and above all funny as fuck.
Flying solo with no safety net for Conversations With Nick Cave is, he freely admitted, terrifying. His greatest trick was that he made it look easy, even when the questions were hard.
And as great as Cave was on piano, the power of the night came from the questions.
As advertised on the Massey marquee, Conversations With Nick Cave delivered a night that included lots of talk between the artist and his fans. Walking up and down the aisles were attendants wearing vests emblazoned with a giant Q on the back, each carrying the kind of lightsaber flashlights normally used to guide planes on airport tarmacs.
If you had a question, they handed over a cordless mike and then waved their illuminated batons at Cave, who would then ask what was on your mind. The lights were dimmed when he sat at the piano on a stage where a half-dozen tables were softly lit behind him, populated by lucky fans picked out of the crowd in the lobby. And they were turned up so everyone could see each other during Q&A time.
The ground rules were simple: no question was off limits, and no one was to mock anything asked. As Cave sagely noted, it takes courage to get up in front of a packed theatre and share a piece of yourself.
Reflecting the specialness of the night, that crowd was studded with musicians‚ including members of Mother Mother and Lightning Dust, as well as international superstars Diana Krall and Elvis Costello.
Before things got rolling, the singer suggested that he had zero control over where the night was going to go, with the ship steered by those asking the questions.
“Sometimes those questions get fairly fucking weird, if it’s anything like Montreal,” he said with a laugh.
Perhaps because the Lower Mainland is a more somber place—prohibitively expensive, rainy, and gloomy—things often went to the dark side.
As one might have expected, grief sparked by the loss of a loved one was a major theme of the night. Cave lost his son in 2015, when the 15-year-old fell from a cliff near the family home in Brighton. His new album, Ghosteen, has him trying and make sense of the tragedy, a struggle that was also touched upon in the insightful 2016 documentary One More Time With Feeling.
Following a delicate reading of “The Ship Song” and a jazz-flourished take on the goth classic “The Weeping Song”, an audience member asked for the key to surviving devastating loss, namely the loss of her mother and a child in the space of a year. Another asked for the best way to help friends through the kind of times for which words are pointless.
The key to both, Cave suggested, was to show compassion rather than to wallow in anothers' grief. Tears will do nothing to help a person cope. Offering something simple like making a cup of tea will.
That the heaviest questions of the night were flipped around to become inspirational was telling. Cave acknowledged that there have been days when getting out of bed is hard. But, as an optimist (surprising, given the darkness of much of his work), he’s a firm believer in focusing on and remembering the beautiful moments of life, stockpiling them to draw upon when things get black.
It was all, as fans noted appreciatively, like group therapy. Still, if music, screenwriting, novel writing, and whatever else he’s got going don’t work out, Cave might want to take a stab at standup comedy. Asked if there’s any unreleased material from when he was dating PJ Harvey (the two collaborated on a couple of Murder Ballads songs) he cracked, “Yeah, the bedroom tapes.”
And pressed for advice on how to make a marriage work, and how to survive the insanity that is becoming a new parent, he deadpanned, “Go on tour.”
Deeper revelations included that he doesn’t consider himself particularly talented as a musician or songwriter, but has succeeded through a workmanlike drive and devotion to the craft. Suggesting he was downplaying his abilities, Cave proved his skill as an arranger throughout the night, notably on an emotional rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche" and an end-of-set reimagining of the mighty "Stagger Lee".
In between the songs, he offered that the greatest gifts in the world are fatherhood and motherhood, confessing that he considers being a dad the crowning achievement of his life. And that religion is awful once someone starts laying out rules for living one's life, or arguing that one person’s god is better than the next’s. But it's wonderful if you can use faith to consider that there’s something else out there, even if that seems entirely unlikely. He also noted that what gets him through a lot of days is believing that his son is with him wherever he goes, including standing beside him at Conversations With shows.
Cave was endlessly gracious, taking some of the more awkward, occasionally rambling, and difficult-to-understand questions and spinning an answer out of them. And he was illuminating, whether breaking down how he writes songs (reading tons of poetry helps) or suggesting that people shouldn’t stop loving Morrissey’s music just because he has odious political views and wears plastic shoes.
Dream collaborators include David Lynch, and he’d love to soundtrack romantic comedies, but he and his main collaborator Warren Ellis are only asked to do “depressing westerns”.
It wasn’t all completely flawless, which was part of the magic. Asked at one point about how audiences are different across the world, Cave went on at length about how much he loves Americans for their curiosity, and then suddenly realized—genuinely bemused at his mistake—that New Westminster is actually in Canada.
But he also made it clear that he knew exactly where he was after being asked about harm reduction from a healthcare worker in the audience. Cave had spoken at length about his heroin addiction earlier in the evening, about how he had a great 10 years on the drug and 10 years where he tried desperately to kick his habit, including multiple rehab fails. It was his love for his wife, Susie Bick, that finally gave him the strength to get clean.
As a former addict, he’s firmly of the opinion that Portugal has figured things out by giving out heroin for free in a controlled environment with medical supervision. That, he noted, not only gives users their dignity and reduces stigmatization, but has been shown to lower addiction rates.
Then he weighed in on Vancouver’s sad and endlessly troubled Downtown Eastside, which politicians have been spending countless navel-gazing years trying to find a solution for. Revealing that he had driven through the neighbourhood earlier in the day, and been troubled by what he saw, Cave offered this observation: “If there has ever been an argument for legalizing heroin, it’s this town.”
Then, in case the point was missed, he added, "It’s fucking crazy as far as I’m concerned.”
Sometimes it truly does take an outsider to put things in perspective.