One only needs to run a quick search on YouTube to get a taste of the total mayhem unleashed by Nick Cave as the frontman of his early post-punk band the Birthday Party. The beguiling Australian musician, cigarette in hand, writhes onstage, pounds his chest and howls into the microphone during a live performance of the song “Junkyard” in 1982. His arms flail, his eyes roll back into his head, he picks up a drink. His bandmate, the bassist Tracy Pew, who died just a few short years later in 1986, at one point falls to the floor and has sex with an imaginary partner, thrusting his hips into the air like a madman. The entire performance is sublime.
But Cave is now 65 years old, a father and some might say a religious man, though in FAITH, HOPE AND CARNAGE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 294 pp., $28), his new book with the Irish writer Sean O’Hagan, he argues that he’s always been somewhat of a spiritual person. (He cites the German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald’s “Crucifixion” as an early inspiration, “a kind of horror image, a torture image, that seemed so at odds with the placid image of Christ that was presented to me in my choirboy days.”) The book borrows heavily from the literary tradition of long-form interviews made popular by The Paris Review, with Cave and O’Hagan speaking over the course of several months in the pandemic. The resulting dialogue is an extraordinarily raw look at how Cave has been dealing with death, beginning in 2015 when his teenage son Arthur fell from a cliff, and moving to the death of his mother and his good friend Anita Lane, who both died during the pandemic. (Cave’s son Jethro died this year as well, but these interviews took place before his death occurred.)
Throughout the book, Cave has the soft-spoken, knowing voice of a wise man whose youthful excesses inevitably led him to a quiet life of meditation and art. He tells O’Hagan that he has even taken up ceramics, inspired by the traditional Staffordshire figurines that were made popular in the Victorian era. Kitsch aside, there is a fly-on-the-wall sense that when Cave speaks, he has a particular audience in mind: the silently grieving. A recovered heroin addict, he talks movingly about what he and his wife, Susie Cave, the English fashion designer, went through in the aftermath of their son’s death, and the tendency of the bereaved to remain “trapped in their own secret thoughts, trapped in their own minds, with their only form of company being the dead themselves.” If he is trying to make a point, Cave says, it is the idea that grief can be a sort of gift with a “mutinous energy.” “Ghosteen,” his most recent studio album with his inexhaustible band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was born of that energy.
Though she doesn’t mention him by name in her memoir, Melanie Chisholm would probably agree that Cave fell into the category of “heroin chic” in the early 1990s. At that time, writes Chisholm, popularly known as Mel C or Sporty Spice of the Spice Girls, she was just catching her first few whiffs of pop stardom in England, and things were already looking rather dicey.
Children of the ’90s would be forgiven for wanting to read THE SPORTY ONE: My Life as a Spice Girl (Grand Central, 418 pp., $29) for a jolt of nostalgia. But it must be said that some things are better left in the past. Writing under the name Melanie C, Chisholm displays a confessional style that is disjointed and erratic. She claims that the Spice Girls, a manufactured girl group, were more than just a manufactured girl group, and details the ways in which fame and fortune nearly ripped her life apart. It is often hard to feel sorry for celebrities who speak of their success as though it were an albatross, and this book doesn’t make that exercise any easier. But it is commendable in its attempt to highlight some of the disturbing truths that were brazenly overlooked in the decade of tube tops and MTV’s “The Real World.”
Chisholm describes her struggles to overcome an eating disorder at a time when tabloid journalists had no problem asking young women to reveal their weight during interviews. She recalls being asked if she was a lesbian on live television by the “jovial” Richard Madeley, host of the British show “This Morning.” (She’s not.) She writes painfully about being molested by a masseur in Turkey who manipulated her into removing all of her clothing and proceeded to rub his erection against her arm. Managers prohibited her from dating even though companionship was what she needed most; her maniacal commitment to being a great performer led to depression and isolation. “I turned into a robot,” she writes. “A robot who would stop at nothing to deliver excellence and embody perfection. A robot who no longer expressed emotions, thoughts or ideas. I just went along with it, all of it, pretty much, and focused solely on making myself the best dancer, singer, performer and pop star that I could possibly be.”
In between recollections of her Spice Girl days and memories of hanging out with Madonna and Rick Rubin, Chisholm tells the reader that she hopes to help others struggling with illness. She also makes plain that the “girl power” slogan popularized by the Spice Girls was inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement happening in the United States, in keeping with the long-held English tradition of lifting ideas from American music.
Perhaps one reason English bands — from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin — have made such a habit out of emulating American music is that American music itself is a strange loop of borrowed ideas. And no artist knows this better than Bob Dylan, the great American troubadour and the subject of the critic Greil Marcus’s latest book.
In FOLK MUSIC: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs (Yale University, 273 pp., $27.50; illustrated by Max Clarke), Marcus, who has spent decades analyzing Dylan’s music, zooms in on songs dating from 1962 to 2020. He reminds the reader early on that Joni Mitchell once accused Dylan of being a “plagiarist.” “Everything about Bob is a deception,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2010. Marcus doesn’t refute the idea so much as he argues that Dylan’s music has always been a vessel through which to channel the lives, stories and sounds of others, and that this creative process is, after all, at the heart of the American folk tradition.
Though the book is described as a biography, its chapters swing from modern events such as the death of George Floyd and the riot at the Capitol to Dylan’s embarrassing stint as a fundamentalist preacher. It is not chronological and the reader can sometimes feel suspended in the air, weightless and waiting for Marcus to reveal what a painting done by the Black artist Henry Taylor in 2017 has to do with a song written by Dylan in 1964. He uses the 1965 song “Desolation Row” to recall three Black circus workers who were lynched in Duluth, Minn., Dylan’s hometown, in 1920. Was Dylan’s Ukrainian grandfather in the crowd, like so many white Americans who once cheered as they watched Black men killed at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob? Marcus does not know. Still, the song and that grisly moment may yet be connected in that Dylan could have imagined his grandfather being there in the audience that day, “which is to say, in an artist’s sense, that he was,” Marcus suggests.
Marcus, who famously derided some of Dylan’s music with words that are unprintable here, calls Dylan’s 1980s albums “a true parade of sludge” and writes of “the deepest trough of the nadir of his career.” But the book is kind in its defense of Dylan as a student who, through his songs, has tried to explore nearly every corner of the American experience, using his music and lyrics as signposts on a map. “It would be a mistake to assume there’s any road on that map that Bob Dylan, as a historian, as a listener and a scholar, a folk man, doesn’t know,” Marcus writes. To that end, Dylan’s new book, “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” is a collection of essays centered on why certain songs just keep getting better with time.
Lauretta Charlton is an editor for The Times in South Korea.