Nick Cave, like Narcissus or Miley Cyrus, is a myth. But he’s a myth who thinks about myths, writes about them, knows how they work, and builds this knowledge into each new layer of the myth he’s becoming. In this he’s like a number of poet-musicians of a waning era: Bob Dylan and Neil Young, yeah, but also the beat poets, the blues singers, all the prophet-emulators, the storytellers who slide themselves into their tales. Many consider him gothic and gloomy. It would be more precise to say that he makes somberness comfortable and seductive because he licenses his listeners to affirm the widely unsayable—that depression is a mode of seeing the world for the boring and empty grind that it often really is. The self-aware myth knows that desire and disappointment are dialectically linked, that catharsis is the rare and gorgeous field of light between them. Knowing these rules lets him seduce this light into common being.
“20,000 Days on Earth,” Cave’s new documentary film (co-written with the directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard), chronicles a day in this life, the 20,000th to be exact. It’s a very full day, partially staged, with time to write music, see his therapist, drive leisurely around in the Brighton mizzle, lunch with Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds, spend an hour or two in his archives, likewise in the studio, eat pizza and catch a spaghetti western with his kids, and front a show. The film builds like a song. From wisps and scraps of dreams it finds flesh with collaborators, shape in the studio, and catharsis before the crowd’s enraptured eyes. It’s a patient, funny, interesting film about what might be one of the most fully actualized lives currently being led. And without ever patronizing or ringing false, it presses home the way that this actualization follows from dissatisfaction, from desire chased but never caught.
Cave is a quiet, tea-drinking person. Until he appears before the crowd, it’s hard to remember that he was at a very young age one of the most ferocious punk singers fronting one of the most ferocious punk bands of the ’80s. At one point, as Cave peruses a series of photographs documenting a Birthday Party show during which a German gentleman micturated on his bassist, we are reminded of this. Many people feel, during their teenage years and well after, a desperate need to be somebody else—and an attendant willingness to do anything, to risk life and limb, in trying for the satisfaction of escape. (I think the Rolling Stones wrote a song about this.) Few have documented this need so fully as Cave, and few reflect so intelligently upon it. The contrast between Cave then and Cave now still motivates much internet hate. But it’s a lovely occasion for reflection—his and ours.
And it brings out an important corollary to Cave’s thesis about the springing of art from impossible desire. At one point, Cave notes that his children lack the chance he had to be reckless with their lives. Rock ‘n’ roll, the movement that caught the world around the middle of the ’50s and saw a late demonic incarnation in punk, was able to happen because it was in opposition to the existing culture at that time. The Greatest Generation never saw it coming, this beautiful religion of Narcissus. But the kids who did peyote at the high school dance are hardly about to let their kids do the same. Surely some new challenge will emerge—is emerging—despite every fence, security camera, drug test, and rent-a-cop in this soft-paranoid space we inhabit. Probably it will have everything to do with knowing how to code. But it won’t be rock ‘n’ roll again. And there will be no Germans micturating on any bassists. At least not live.
“20,000 Days on Earth” ends with a perfect performance at the Sydney Opera House of two of Cave’s songs. He gazes into the eyes of the audience and finds life. They look at his and find life too. But the whole lifeworld he inhabits is exhaling, expiring. Cave notes at several points that his songs are about chasing memory—about retelling and recasting those few moments in each life “when the gears of the heart change.” He finds the new in pursuit of the past—his own and the world’s. This film leaves us with the hope that others will follow this lead, and with the sinking sense that those who do are unlikely to be heard now.