It’s hard to overstate what a cult figure Nick Cave is, adored both by long-time fans of his rock band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and by more recent disciples of his online advice column, The Red Hand Files. Famously a former heroin addict with an abrasive stage persona, Cave is instantly recognizable: a modern vampire in a slick suit and long black hair. But in 2015, Cave lost his fifteen-year-old son Arthur in a tragic cliff fall. The loss has brought a new softness, a man grieving in public, making meaning (and art) from the unbearable, and doing it with an unusual level of honesty and humanity.
It is this humanity to which Faith, Hope and Carnage attests. This record of conversations between Seán O’Hagan (an arts and culture writer) and Cave explores grief, creativity, and a whole lot of religion, which Cave calls “spirituality with rigor.” O’Hagan, raised Catholic during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, distrusts the church, while Cave is increasingly drawn to it. The combination of these perspectives is electric.
Those without an interest in religion will still find much in the book, but what I found so radically refreshing is the unabashed longing for God. What becomes clear is that this longing is not a new theme for Cave, even though long-time fans like O’Hagan failed to see how serious Cave was in his search. Biblical imagery is everywhere in Cave’s albums, but the goth styling leads listeners to assume these references are more profane than sacred. On the contrary, we learn that in the years of Cave’s addiction, he was “in and out of church.” However, while lots of people were happy to take drugs with Cave, no one would go with him to a church service. Echoing Jung’s “spiritus contra spiritum” – the spiritual as a remedy for addiction – Cave tells O’Hagan, “Using heroin and the need for a sacred dimension to life were similar pursuits, in that they were attempts, at that time, to remedy the same condition.” Which was? “A kind of emptiness, I guess, and a hunger.” A hunger for what? “More.”
Bereavement has led Cave to speak more openly about God, church, and his desire for more. While the more familiar story is that grief causes crises of faith, for Cave “in this dark place, the idea of God feels more present or maybe more essential. It actually feels like grief and God are somehow intertwined.” I couldn’t help sketching a cross in the margin.
O’Hagan’s respectful skepticism and Cave’s “increasing impatience” with his own noncommittal religious explorations leads to a circling around doubt and hope and longing that reads like a conversation held late at night, over a bottle of wine with someone you trust not to laugh at you. To witness a friendship of this vulnerability, especially between two later-life, hard-bitten music men is deeply moving. O’Hagan is clearly worried a full-blown conversion would be bad for Cave’s art, but doesn’t argue when Cave says wistfully: “I think I would be happier if I stopped window shopping and just stepped through the door.”