Alas, due to busy weeks and not enough sleeps I fear a few too many of my Silkworms mixtapes have concerned themselves with a rather prosaic musical-literary intersection – the literary reference slash quotation in song. And not as discriminatorily as they should have, neither. The Nick Cave tape, Nick The Stripper As Reader, is a case in point: yes, it acknowledges that there is a debate to be had about whether Cave is a mere quasi-intellectual, taking only poets’ names to stuff affectedly into his lyrics, rather than actually interrogating their work through the medium of song. But it doesn’t break down the evidence on either side of the debate – doesn’t suggest that there might be both a good Nick Cave The Musical-Literary Critic and a bad Nick Cave The Musical-Literary Critic, and therefore doesn’t take the opportunity to begin to point to the tropes that might actually define each. And, in turn, good musical-literary criticism generally. This being QUOTE week, I figured I’d do that now: take a couple handfuls of examples from the tape and argue the why, the whether and the wherefore of the goodness or badness of their readings.
Track 3, Hiding All Away / Track 9, No Pussy Blues / Track 7, There She Goes My Beautiful World
You searched through all my poets
From Sappho through to Auden
I saw the book fall from your hands
As you slowly died of boredom
‘Sappho through to Auden’ is a false canon, doesn’t make sense thematically, alphabetically, chronologically – it’s entirely motivated by a half-decent half-rhyme. To file, perhaps, alongside the rhymes in Cave’s Babe I’m On Fire: midnight stalker, Garcia Lorca, hit man, Whitman etc. Perhaps there is something to be written about this, specifically – it reminds me of Peter Blegvad’s suggestion, in the Believer interview I’ve drawn on before, that:
Rhyme is the constraint I’m most addicted to…I had no idea what I wanted to say before I lost myself in the process of composition. Until fairly recently, I regularly experienced an almost physical appetite to make music, to strum and mumble until something shapely evolved from it.
But anyway, said Hiding All Away's half-rhyme does just about justify its first half with its anarchic dismissal of 2500 years of poetry, which second-guesses a listener response along the lines of, oh dear, here he goes again, arbitrarily listing some writers he likes – via its admission of such a practice’s utter boringness. It’s a clever save but hardly a positive approach. A smarter example of a similar technique – Cave listing literature as one of many useless things, in order to sidestep flowery pretension – comes in No Pussy Blues:
I read her Eliot, I read her Yeats
I tried my best to stay up late
I fixed the hinges on her gate
But still she just never wanted to
Because here Cave isn’t just being protectively ironic and self-deprecating, he’s also being cuttingly sardonic – about the way a peripheral literary edge is utilised, particularly by a certain type of musician, to get girls. It’s simply not an issue of literary engagement on any level. Indeed, such an approach destroys literature – turns it into a set of stories about drunken, fuck-happy men with pens, and proper thought and writing and work is subsumed and anodised, just as hipster culture has subsumed and anodised Western counter culture generally… I digress. Basically, I think it’s fair to recognise in this approach Cave’s acknowledgement of a tired technique at, at the very least, the Abattoir Blues stage of his career – it wouldn’t be fair to accuse him of buying into it, basically.
John Wilmot penned his poetry
riddled with the pox
Nabakov wrote on index cards,
at a lectern, in his socks
St. John of the Cross did his best stuff
imprisoned in a box
And Johnny Thunders was half alive
when he wrote Chinese Rocks
Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles
while writing Das Kapital
And Gauguin, he buggered off, man,
and went all tropical
While Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent's hospital
Firstly, there is obviously a straightforward framework of meaning here: geniuses do their ‘best stuff’ when they’re ill, mad, depressed or dying. And possibly: isn’t it amusing the way we think of the muse, or art, in romantic, beautified terms when the human reality is so different. And possibly: does genuine romance therefore need a ‘book of ideas’ to poeticise it? Won’t it be better if the carbuncles of poetry are kept out of proceedings? All very erudite, interesting and enjoyably ambiguous thinky stuff – but not in a way that justifies such a ludicrous mass of reference-point showing off.
No, to understand that element as good musical-literary referencing it has to be understood, I reckon, as Cave turning something uncreative into something creative via a shameless surplus, a piling up that transcends its component parts. Rather like the po-mo (lol) comedian who tells an unfunny joke, then another unfunny joke, then another, until you begin to laugh at the unfunniness because the self-conscious perseverance is funny, even if the jokes aren’t. Cave does the same with language generally in There She Goes… The best couplet in the entire song is pretty idiotic, but works because the sillyness is piled on with a self-conscious perseverance that becomes enjoyably poetic:
So if you got a trumpet, get on your feet
brother, and blow it
If you’ve got a field, that don’t yield,
well get up and hoe it
I look at you and you look at me and
deep in our hearts we both know it
That you weren’t much of a muse,
but then I weren’t much of a poet
Irony, however, is something of a safe haven – an easy way of sidestepping embarrassing mistakes, but also far too passive to result in a great deal of insight when it comes to actually bringing something to a literary source with music (which couldn’t be brought by merely reading it). We need to consider Cave’s more serious, intense efforts – for there are many. Of course there are. It’s Nick Cave.
Track 4, Brompton Oratory / Track 12, We Call Upon The Author / Track 5, Wings Off Flies
The literary reference/quotation in Cave is often used to establish mood – which is fair enough, and certainly better than only citing something to ‘tie our colours to culturally established masts,’ as Phil wrote about brilliantly on Tuesday. Mood is a much better reflection of the way literature interacts with one’s own day-to-day experiences than direct quotation, I think. The way, say, every chapter of every Inspector Morse book (I’ve only read one, mind, when I had swine flu, but I know this to be the case) opens with a classical quotation, as though to say, rahrahrah every human experience can be understood via the canon rahrahrah is as pretentious as it is unrealistic. Here’s an elegant example from The Boatman’s Call, Brompton Oratory:
Up those stone steps I climb
Hail this joyful day’s return
Into its great shadowed vault I go
Hail the Pentecostal morn
The reading is from Luke 24
Where Christ returns to his loved ones
I look at the stone apostles
Think that it’s alright for some
What I really like about this, and what makes it representative of the double purposes that I’m hopefully making apparent in Cave’s literary lyrics generally, is the way the literary reference ties into the song’s narrative gently and efficiently, sans crowbar. And, more than that, does so in a way that is kinda irreverent (‘alright for some’) towards the literary text – refreshing, when people so often quote texts as though their contents have some sort of sacred, irrefutable value to everything. The song grows out of the text, rather than losing itself within it.
Bukowski was a jerk!
A response, supposedly, to people coming up to him all the time and being all like, hey Nick, you heard of Bukowski, he’s really great, you’ll love him, fucken idiots. Anyway, this is followed immediately by two more references:
Berryman was bester
He wrote like wet papier mache,
Went the Heming-way
Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain
We call upon the author to explain
The first of which is particularly brilliant, with its inclusion of a reason why Berryman was better within its very language – a Berryman-esque coinage like ‘bester’ after a very Bukowski-reductive ‘jerk’. So many references next to each other is just about justified because the song is, of course, about ‘the author’, although ‘Heming-way’ is a bit shit. ‘Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain’ is a terrific marriage of Berryman and Hemingway’s writing styles though, I reckon.
All this is relatively recent Cave, however. What of the early experiments, the ones made around the time of his fairly unreadable first novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel? Irony is still ever-present, a refusal to acknowledge that he himself is buying into something passé via an acknowledgement of its passé-ness. And so Wings Off Flies’ take on one of the most oft-quoted fragments of Shakespeare there is – ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to gods; they kill us for their sport’ – sorta mocks its own project:
Insects suicide against the window,
and my heart goes out to those lil flies
There’s a buzzin in my ear
but its more of her black-mail, ham Shakespeare and lies
Wings off flies, she loves me, she loves me not.
Ham Shakespeare. It’s also worth noting that during this period, Cave drenched everything in such a melodramatic haze that it kinda justified crude, obvious literary reference as a necessary stylistic component. Based on the fact that it was precisely this that made And the Ass… unreadable, though, he couldn’t have got by on this alone.
Perhaps the key to understanding why, as generally seems to have been established here, Cave’s literary references and quotations are pretty difficult to criticise, are so self-justifying, is Loom Of The Land from 1992’s Henry’s Dream. Or more specifically, the SongMeanings.com debate about whether or not it’s a song about a paedophile, a paedophile murderer, two innocent kids in love or what. Not that the debate is particularly insightful, but it highlights one thing: by inserting a line from Lolita into the lyrics of the song, ‘the elms and the poplars were turning their backs,’ Cave immediately brings a new dimension to it, one that makes us read it more carefully, one that ensures we find new meaning in previously dismissable parts, one that above all enriches the song – however ambiguously, however grotesquely. And crucially, he does it subtly. He doesn’t, I don’t know, call the female protagonist Lolita, something shite like that. Something shite like that which would spoil the rest of the song, rather then improve it.
Possibly it’s just prejudice towards the kinda Zooey Deschanel,  Days of Summer nauseating smug vintage-tinted hey, don’t you just love Kerouac bullshit that I can’t help associating poor Regina with (which is less her fault than others’). But when I map Regina’s famed literary referencing, I can’t help feeling it’s just a bit static compared to Nick’s. Take a song like Poor Little Rich Boy:
Poor little rich boy, all the world is okay
The water runs off your skin and down into the drain
You’re reading Fitzgerald, you’re reading Hemingway
They’re both super smart and drinking in the café
That’s not good, is it? I mean, two very GCSE literary reference-points whacked together in order to confirm an intellectual core to the song’s general kooky, literary-sexy spirit? Nah mate. A more interesting example is Pound Of Flesh, which has all the ingredients of a compelling reflection on anti-Semitism, with notorious Jew-hater Ezra Pound asking Regina for Shylock’s pound of flesh:
Ezra Pound sat upon my bed
asked me which books as of late I’ve read
asked me if I’ve read his own
and whether I could spare a pound
of flesh to cover his bare bones
I says, man, take a pound, take two
what’s a pound of flesh between
friends like me and you?
what’s a pound of flesh among friends?
It just doesn’t follow it up though, doesn’t follow the potential symbolism through to any coherent extent. And therefore the literary reference-making becomes little more than a way of asserting a grounding of intellectualism behind adorably nonsensical lyrics, the worst kind of static musical-literary reading. Compare this with the Hold Steady’s similarly anecdotal but far more successful John Berryman reference in Stuck Between Stations and you’ll see what I mean.
If she wanted to include Russian in a song for the sake of sonic effect, which based on the exaggerated manner in which she sings her four Pasternak lines and the fact multilingualism isn’t a standard ingredient of her songwriting project – she can’t, in short, claim that writing in her native tongue is that important to her, based on the evidence of her entirely English records – which based on all that, seems to be the case. Well doing so via poetry seems, to me, an act of uncreative, piggybacking theft rather than creative, multimedia engagement. It sounds nice just isn’t a good enough reason to stick poetry in song, just isn’t fair on the original writer. Regina could learn from Cave. We all pretty much could, to be honest.