You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn what makes me kind
The crumbs of love that you offer me
Are the crumbs I’ve left behind
Your pain is no credential here
It’s just a shadow of my wound

– Leonard Cohen, Avalanche

Nick Cave, tall, gangly, with raven-feathered hair, combed away from his forehead, piercing dark eyes and a heavy, preacher-like baritone that conducts listeners on a concurrent commune through heaven and hell, has allowed himself to stand unguarded on a downtown Los Angeles stage on this October 15th evening, as the Santa Ana devil winds blow secrets from the soul. In a slim-cut jet black suit, with white collared shirt, his lanky limbs spindly, he holds a microphone, almost as a motivational speaker would, revealing with Aussie elocution, that this night at Walt Disney Concert Hall is the final curtain call in a series of American shows that have been something of an experiment for him.

Nick Cave @ Walt Disney Concert Hall 10/15/19. Setlist.
Nick Cave @ Walt Disney Concert Hall 10/15/19. Setlist.

The sold-out crowd of over two-thousand absorb his words. In this spectacular Frank Gehry designed silver clipper-ship of a building, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the acoustics are such that there is no hiding; no escape. Nine cafe tables, clothed in dark linen and each baring a solitary white candle, share his stage, with seating at each for four. Thirty-six audience members have been chosen randomly and are placed here to make this Nick Cave-created experiment even more intimate. So, what provokes this departure, this particular mediation away from Cave’s typical primal concerts where sweat pours freely, passions run crimson-hot and the divinely in-tune lose themselves in the trancelike musical rapture of this singer/songwriter’s expected intensity?

The answer is loss. Cave is here on a personal journey; that which he clarifies is not motivated by bravery or courage, but birthed as an act of survival. Grieving the death of his bright and handsome 15-year old son, Arthur, who accidentally plunged from a British cliff four years ago after taking LSD, Cave finds himself seeking communion, intuiting that the heartbreak of bereavement is universal and the only way out is through opening up. “With grief, you have an option,” Cave explains, “You can live your life in a resentful, embittered way, seeing the world as some terrible cosmic betrayal, or you can find a defiant, fuck you, optimism.”

“It changed when my son died. Things just changed completely. I thought I was someone; I thought I knew who I was. I built myself up- I was Nick Cave. That’s how I presented myself to the world. I had an adversarial relationship with music and my audience. They were there and I was here, and that was the sort of relationship that we had. And then the whole thing shattered and all the pieces flew in all directions, and I just spent my time grabbing at them and putting them back together. Put back together I’m just a different person. The one thing you start to extend is a connection to other people.”

It began as a distillation of Cave’s online Red Hand Files, which he initiated about a year ago, responding to about 100 write-in questions a day, some deeply personal, others reflections and ruminations, all on a quest for affinity and understanding. Cave perceived a collective need and spawned a way to take his message to the streets in this Conversations Tour, encompassing sixteen North American dates and then moving on to conquer Europe. The result is a night like no other- bringing together music, which Cave sees as “one of the things that will save the world because it is a testament to the values of humanity,” and a deeply confidential Q&A session in which the audience is asked to suspend all judgment and told that no inquiry was off-limits.

“What happened to me is, on some level, ordinary. It happens to everyone… You have to love to feel this way. The extent of your despair runs completely parallel to the extent in which you love.”

Alternating with eleven fitting songs from his catalog including “The Ship Song”, “The Weeping Song”, “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow” and “Into My Arms” as well as “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen and “Where’s the Playground Susie” written by Jimmy Webb, Cave sits alone at a piano, conjuring a spellbinding alchemy in this acoustically pristine auditorium. The nearly 40 queries that embody this exploratory Q&A surely run the gamut. Some are gushing on Cave’s musical abilities, asking him to deconstruct meanings to certain lyrics, complimenting him for their interpretations, while others hit the targeted bull’s eye of depth that Cave ferrets out: death, struggles with addiction, incapacitation from a stroke, surviving cancer, rape, trust after betrayal and one woman who tells of her upbringing and escape from a cult.

“The terrible beauty behind trauma,” Cave construes, “is that you can come beyond that and become a better person. It becomes a source of strength, the trauma. It’s a very strange thing. You become less afraid of the traumatic experience and it becomes something that gives you a sense of power.”

When asked about his biggest fear, Cave unsurprisingly answers that he’s afraid of people dying; his own personal loss coloring his world view and the one inevitable thing in life that cannot be overcome. In response to an inquiry about who he would enjoying seeing in a Q&A situation, he chooses Patti Smith, whose newly released Year of the Monkey is also an exploration on the subject of loss.”She has her own particular viewpoint about things and doesn’t simply toe the line. She’s unsafe, an unsafe speaker, and that’s what’s exciting to me.”

After nearly three hours, Cave, obviously emotionally exhausted, finishes at the piano with his dark and raunchy discernment of “Stagger Lee”. The audience, deep in contemplation, gives a standing ovation. Having experienced this unique communal inward journey, they make their way into the nocturnal streets of Los Angeles, enveloped by the city’s warm southern gusts, to further reflect on this evening like no other.

Conversations with Nick Cave: An Evening of Talk and Music, October 15, 2019, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.

Nick Cave The Red Hand Files: www.theredhandfiles.com

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Nick Cave. Photos by David Barajas. Provided by Los Angeles Philharmonic. Courtesy of the Artist. Used with permission.
Nick Cave. Photos by David Barajas. Provided by Los Angeles Philharmonic. Courtesy of the Artist. Used with permission.