Late Monday afternoon I pedaled twelve miles, from Bridgeport to Jefferson Park. I was going to see Nick Cave at the Copernicus Center. September 30th, mid-80s and humid; a typical July day in Chicago. I brought an extra shirt, knowing I’d be soaked in sweat by the time I got where I was going. I’ve been going to see Cave since the 80s but this promised to be a different kind of show.
As an extension of his Red Hand Files—a newsletter in which Cave answers fan questions—he’s touring the world to play piano and talk to the audience. It’s an unlikely turn for a performer who, until very recently, appeared completely unapproachable. He was famous for churlish, tight-lipped interviews and shows which, while feeding on crowd response, weren’t especially interactive. He didn’t seem much interested in bridging the gap between himself and us. Then his son fell off a cliff and died and everything changed.
Now Cave craves connection and appears willing to tackle even silly and sycophantic queries from his devoted flock. There were moments during the two-plus hours at the Copernicus when I felt embarrassed for what people asked and many when I was touched that Cave humored and respected questions coming from obviously fragile beings. There were times when it felt like a self-help seminar; others when it was more like church. But any time it got too heavy, Cave returned to his piano and reminded us why we’d come. The songs, chosen sometime by request, spanned his long career. I knew them all.
The last question came from a woman with pink hair who complained bitterly about people in the next row talking throughout the show and ruining her night. Cave invited her onstage to perch awkwardly on the edge of his piano stool as he sang his last song. I wondered as I watched her shifting uncomfortably up there, whether it was a moment she’d dreamed of and whether it had turned out the way she’d hoped. I wondered too whether Cave’s exercise in mass empathy and vulnerability was coming out the way he’d wanted it to. Whether he was getting what he needed. How many questions were the same, verbatim, city to city? Did every show end with someone perched at the edge of his piano stool? After laying his heart so bare, would he retreat back to the caustic, guarded persona familiar to most of us for decades? How well did he want to know us?
I couldn’t imagine getting up on a stage and doing what Cave had done. I unlocked my bike and watched as the crowd slowly dispersed into the sticky September/July night. I pedaled home slowly and thought about what I’d witnessed. I couldn’t decide whether I’d loved or hated it. It certainly kept my attention. But isn’t it better to preserve a little mystery? Did Cave actually reveal much or was it just a different kind of performance?
I’d raised my hand a few times during the show, but was never chosen. I don’t know what I would’ve asked, save for whether I could give him my book, since there’s a chapter about him in it. I like to think he’d have taken it. I mean, he signed tattoos and gave out hugs, so it might’ve been almost reasonable.