“Elvis is my favourite singer. Well, he’s actually not my favourite singer. He’s my favourite performer…” Nick Cave, 1985
“Anything that don’t frighten the children is in good taste, as far as I’m concerned”
The second Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album was recorded in late ’84 at Hansa Studios in Berlin. Co-produced by Flood and the band, it was rich with references to the blues and bluesmen, the American South, and especially to Elvis Presley. Its striking title was a nod to Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’ stillborn identical twin. Cave seemed to be wondering whether The King, deeply conflicted, had suffered from survivor guilt, both at birth and in later years. “On those last concerts”, Cave also once observed of Elvis “just before he died, you see a man who fought an incredible struggle with life. It’s one of the most brutal things ever captured on film. In those pictures, it has a unique glow of heroism.”
There was something uniquely heroic, too, about The Firstborn Is Dead, one of the most brutal things ever captured on record. If its predecessor, the debut From Her To Eternity, had introduced us to a new howling wolf, here was a sly fox whose antipathy towards conventional vocal stylings and formulaic song formats invented a fresh vocabulary. Eschewing cliché, the album roared with pain and anger, rang out with the wit of a natural storyteller, and blossomed with the vitality of romance.
It was a strange, transitional era. And not just for Cave, establishing his identity in the post Birthday Party era. He did, then as now, not quite “fit”, and thus became a magnet and reluctant leader figure for misfits of every stripe. Asked about that period’s most yacked about musical event, Band Aid, he shrugged, “I don’t know. Maybe I was in Australia at the time. Or Ethiopia.”
In ‘85 some were, in thrall to Joy Division becoming New Order, making scratchy white dance rhythms. Others were embracing something like Goth – though nobody would embrace being called “Goth” – aiming for a darker, midnight shade of artful blue. Yet Cave and the gang were pinned as the figureheads of some kind of scene, with the music press eager to question his bouts of intoxication, to label him a tortured artist then criticise him for not being tortured enough, and yet at the same time to praise “Saint Nicholas”’s music to the skies, often doubting the man while eulogising the man’s work.
The Firstborn Is Dead was described as “the most evocative blues record for years” (Sounds). “I could listen to very little other contemporary stuff near this as it’d seem facile and silly”, opined Zigzag. “Sordid, predictable, sickening and quite indispensable”, offered Melody Maker. NME deemed it “wilfully messy and unfocused”, while City Limits called it “flawed but formidable”. “It’s all pretty intense, I can tell you”, reckoned Smash Hits, “but strangely fascinating too.”
Cave himself had recently moved to Berlin. “I’m not really sure why, but it seems to offer just about everything that London doesn’t”, he told Melody Maker. “The people there have drive and imagination and spirit.” These are qualities the album certainly possesses in droves, while Cave’s musical associates overflow with them. Inventively accompanying Cave’s voice and harmonica are the matchless and loyal Mick Harvey on piano, drums, guitar, organ, bass and backing vocals; the enduring legend that is Barry Adamson on bass, guitar, organ, drums and backing vocals; and the true one-off Blixa Bargeld on guitar and backing vocals. Heroes to a man, asked for his own at the time, Cave listed, “Cap’n Ahab, Raskolnikov and Roberto Duran.”
“Tupelo”, entering with thunderclaps and lightning bolts like R. Dean Taylor’s last will and testament in “Indiana Wants Me”, makes an unforgettable opener (and an arresting single). Tupelo was of course the birthplace of Elvis. The song is loosely based on John Lee Hooker’s “Talking Blues”, which tells of a great flood arriving. Cave’s reading – “Looka yonder! A big black cloud come!” – factors in the birth of Elvis (and twin) and the equally apocalyptic Second Coming of Christ. It was not his first (or last) use of Biblical Old Testament imagery. It may be the first and last time an Elvis-as-Christ theory has been so passionately yet ambivalently explored and expounded. “Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals/ And a child is born on his brother’s heels/ Come Sunday morn the first-born is dead/ In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red…” He feels Elvis’ unspoken pain: “He carried the burden out of Tupelo/ You will reap just what you sow…”
“Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree” sees a man wishing the young girl he loves could stay forever young. It’s not a murder ballad as such, but a suicide ballad, as the narrator finds the best/only way out of the quandary: “Oh you know that I must die”. “Train Long-Suffering” is gospel, call-and-response, while “Black Crow King” landed the singer an unwanted nickname for years to follow from those who failed to fully grasp irony and the fact that a poet is not always writing about himself. Again, voices echo Cave’s strident lead as the blackbirds fly and “the lame and the blind climb the hill“.
“Knockin’ On Joe” adopts a term used by prisoners in the U.S. to describe the desperate measures some would take to avoid hard labour while serving time: damaging their own fingers, hands, legs, like hot-headed Cool Hand Lukes. “You can’t hurt me any more!” Like many of Cave’s most lyrical moments it touches on suffering elevated to transcendence, lifted to a state of cold-eyed near-Zen, self-mutilation as a pre-emptive strike.
“Wanted Man” takes an atypical Bob Dylan song (also recorded by Johnny Cash) and turns it from monochrome to multi-coloured. Improvising new words then frantically chasing them into almost every town in the States, the band burn it into a kind of rhythmic mantra; hypnotic, staccato, building and building, Cave’s hissing spitting voice ever more urgent as the music stutters and jerks. It remains to this day one of the greatest Bad Seeds bonfires.
The prevalent blues motifs are to the fore again on “Blind Lemon Jefferson”, where Cave cleverly uses sounds, “taps”, “knocks”, to take us into Jefferson’s head in his final hours. “O his road is dark and lonely/ He don’t drive no Cadillac…” Bonus track “The Six Strings That Drew Blood” is a lacerating summation of the album’s themes: the blues, the men who are fated to play them like it or not, the guitar, mortality, the almost-unbearable hell of being a yearning man alive.
Asked about fun at this time, Cave said, “My doctor said that maybe I should have a little more fun, but fun is chasing after…I don’t know, I don’t know about fun.”
The Firstborn Is Dead was released in June 1985 and almost made the top 50. It’s an album that helped to define Cave’s new role, his niche on the map as fire-and-brimstone preacher and post-modern ironist, as a wizard with words, as a master of the heartfelt howl that’s tinted with a twisted smile. Much of his work since has taken the blues as a basis, before spiraling off into exhilarating new sparks and shards…
Elvis Presley’s friend and sometime “spiritual advisor” Larry Gellar claimed that Elvis would on occasion hear his late brother Jesse’s voice. “He had a dream”, he said, “where they were both up on stage in front of thousands of people, both dressed the same and both playing guitar. And Elvis said, “You know what? He had a better voice than me.”