Nick Cave and Julian Casablancas are changing the way fans communicate with artists. This is a very good thing.
It was midway through the Bad Seeds’ set at the Los Angeles Forum when Nick Cave, the band’s indefatigable lead singer, who’d slid and skated about the stage to a thronging sea of hands clasping and grasping after him, the movement some surreal synchronicity akin to those mesmeric flocks of starlings, hopped off and ventured into the pit.
He’d expected stiff resistance, to have to fight through an uncompromising melee. Suddenly he stopped short. There was no wall; these fans were unobtrusive, and that was unacceptable for a rock show. This LA crowd was just too nice. I’ve been through a crowd in Uruguay, MOTHERFUCKERS!!! he bellowed. The scrum in Montevideo had been particularly impressive, I gathered, from my vantage point some twenty yards away. I realized that here was a lesson imparted from a modern-day master.
An exhortation to too-nice Americans to get off your ass and feel something; to do better. I’ve never forgotten it.
A few days after I’d attended that concert, I read about something another hero of mine had said, on stage in England, the place Cave used to call home. (Still does when he’s not in LA, I think.) This particular passage concerned a concert in Birmingham (England), where Julian Casablancas was performing with the Voidz, the band I’ve often seen dismissed as his “side art project” from the Strokes.
People smirk when they’re uncertain. It’s easier than working through something you don’t yet understand. The Voidz can be enigmatic, but that’s part of the charm. There’s a door you have to push through—anything worthwhile requires a leap of faith’s admission fee—to overcome your preconceptions and cast aside the mass-fed cultural torpor in the guise of inane pop music. Unlearn what you’ve learned, as Yoda would say. We’re all about eating well these days; give your ears something good for a change.
When the Voidz’ music finally hits you, you’d better be ready. It sticks something fierce. I had the foremost impression of that listening to their first album, Tyranny; it happened again when they released their song The Eternal Tao.
Casablancas casts a long shadow; an unabashed artist that moves to his own drummer. Nothing more anathema to our culture of mass conformity. Even when we make exceptions for artists, we don’t want them to change. But change is growth. Anyway. In response to some particularly inane Birmingham crowd chatter, he said he wished he could perform with a bag over his head.
I found that fascinating. For the lead singer of a world-famous rock band, notoriety has never seemed to come easy to Casablancas. In interviews, he can come across as standoffish, even ornery, but when you see some of the questions he’s asked, how he can never escape lazy, pat questions about the Strokes even when he’s working with the Voidz, you can understand the frustration. He’s elucidated his feeling on being in two bands—he’s hardly the first artist to do so—saying that they are two strong trees between which he’s put up a hammock to swing. Pretty succinct. Pretty cool.
In what I perceive as an attempt to communicate with the masses in a setting he finds more comfortable, Casablancas has begun an interview series (S.O.S. Earth is a Mess) through Rolling Stone. The first two episodes, in which he speaks to journalist Amy Goodman and politician Andrew Yang, have been very interesting. Casablancas seems much more at home in this laid-back setting, asking pertinent questions that elicit non-inane responses for a good twenty minutes to a half hour. It’s a method to help reach the youth and show them there are ways to scrub away the hard-caked cynicism so in vogue. Flimsy armor. But then, they’ll learn that once they hit adulthood.
Casablancas had said in a Vulture interview, conducted around the release of the Voidz’ second album, that he wished he lived in a society where Ariel Pink was as popular as Ed Sheeran. It was one of a series of statements made in conversation with David Marchese that were met with a collective eye-roll from the effortfully hip rock n’ roll crowd.
I found that interview fascinating; particularly when Casablancas exhorted Marchese to let go of his cultural conditioning. The interviewee was becoming the interviewer! It’s along the lines of the criticism I’ve seen leveled at Casablancas when he tries his hand at politics. Stay in your lane, singer. But I refer to a Casablancas maxim that has become one of my constant refrains in our current societal morass. I’d rather hear political opinions from the non-political operatives. It might be interesting—at least it won’t be pre-paid. I don’t want the polished click-baity, sound-bytey stuff.
It points back to something else he said in the Vulture interview: “How do you get people to pay attention to what’s going on the world and not tune out?” It’s why I was so surprised, and then disappointed, by the reaction to it. People charged past nuanced introspection, instead homing in on the incendiary, headline-inducing fare (HE THINKS ARIEL PINK IS THIS GENERATION’S DAVID BOWIE LOLOL), ignoring choice cuts like Casablancas’s invocation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “The evils of capitalism are as evil as the evils of militarism and racism.”
Then again, it was totally in keeping with what has become one of the great disappointments of the modern age: that the limitless potential of the internet, the sheer breadth of information available in the bandwith, has been ignored and has actually triggered a kind of regression in the public on a par with what we’ve seen in the reaction to the political sphere.
Humans tend to suffer when presented with too much information, l’embarras de choix or what have you; what’s left is a fractured, incoherent mess easily manipulated by and ready to go along with the most popular message provided that day.
Casablancas is going for something more nuanced than a standard Us v. Them rhetoric. He’s trying to introduce you to different voices and different opinions. How on earth—or, only on this Earth—could that be construed as problematic.
We’re born and we grow up and somewhere along the way cultural norms are drilled into our heads. Some of them are downright insidious—this past year, with a make-or-break election on the horizon, we were suddenly told that so much of what we’d come to know was going to be demolished. This seems to happen every four years, strangely enough. We are told to change, and we watch as the machinations that control Society carefully place citizens in the lanes down which they want them to go.
Because just as all this flux was happening, it’s worth remembering the incontrovertible aspects of society. Don’t you dare run a third-party candidate for president. At least, not a viable one. That would take votes away from the preferred candidate of our two-party overlords.
If you defy one President, you are part of a Resistance; however, once that bad president is ousted and the good one takes his place, you are part of the problem if you dare defy this new one. Even if he was part of an Administration that served before the Evil one, that implemented or continued many of the policies that are now deemed evil.
It’s enough to turn a sane man cynical. Before the right result occurred in the national election, everything was so unsettled. Literally, every day was unsettled. Now, all is serene. And you realize; oh, maybe all that noise was just a prolonged ploy to destabilize one regime in favor of another. The actual power in this country has no intention of changing course. Just like when that fabled, intractable congressional gridlock we always hear about suddenly dissolves when the latest spending bill, or surveillance legislation, comes on the docket. Sifting through the Senate vote for those is so disillusioning.
Opinions need to be challenged. There is a generation that has grown up coddled in their intellectual pursuits, taking that oft-abused Fukuyama sentiment, end of history, and feeling that since they’ve reached the apex of human thought, they’re fully entitled in their moral supremacy.
They’ve got the right politics, they have no need to ever entertain the ideas of someone who might disagree with them. A sense of history would be helpful, a notion that there is no end; it just cycles like a wash. History tends to scoop you into its maw when it’s happening and watch you grind through the gears.
The road to hell being paved with good intentions, and all that. Or, how good intentions inevitably become something a whole lot more muddled and complicated once they are fed through the prism of Power. For four years, this country has seen a robust challenge to the President. That is good. The post-election decision sentiment; people dancing in the streets like War is Over, was worrisome. The idea that now we can go back to not having to worry about politics—WORRY IS OVER—because the right guy got put into office.
It is into this hellscape of modernity that Casablancas and Cave are so needed. The current map in this Information Age has been so well-traversed, everything already thought out and decided for us, that we need to be able to go back to the start carve a better path through. To me, that’s modern-day exploration. A chance to cast aside bad lessons and land upon a better truth.
Cave has his own way of interacting with fans, through the Red Hand Files, started in late 2018, in which he chooses from the thousands of questions sent in to him and responds, at almost a weekly clip, to one, or some of them.
A common thread is an exhortation to fight, to not take your current position—if you don’t like it—standing down. The call to action is such a difference from internet culture, which encourages passivity masked as action. Satire is deadly; satire means taking a risk by taking a shot against the establishment. Snark is lobbing potshots from a position of safety. We see far too much of the latter.
Cave is always thoughtful, but some of the passages he comes up with in his responses are so moving, they become the most incredible things I’ll read that week. Take, for example, his latest response, to a Swede who’d lost a wife to cancer, and a brother to COVID.
There is little to say to someone who has lost a loved one that is of itself any real help. That has been my experience. Language falls short before the immensity of the experience of grief. There are simply not the words. My well-meaning and desperately worried friends would speak into my grief, using words that made no sense. They would tell me that my son lived in my heart, for example, but I genuinely did not understand these words because when I searched my heart I found nothing but chaos and despair.
Last year, Cave brought the Red Hand files to life through a concert series. I attended one of them, and watched as he played some songs from his extensive catalogue on the piano. The majority of the time, however, was spent fielding questions from audience members. I was far too nervous to ask one of my own; content simply to sit and listen. What I heard was stunning—not so much in the questions asked, which ranged from the lighthearted to the tinged in deep trauma. A chance to vent frustration or deep-seated grief.
I was struck by something I’d thought of when I’d been called in for Jury Duty, sitting through the selection, as the attorneys asked questions to each person. Some people seemed so eager, literally champing at the bit to be able to tell something of their life story to someone. There are so many lonely people in this world. Some just never get the chance to tell someone about their day, or what they’ve been doing.
The twenty-first hexagram of the I Ching is Shih Ho, “Biting Through”, which represents the forcible overcoming of obstacles. There’s a direct line from that in the music Cave makes, so much of which feels like a cleansing fire. It also scans with his Red Hand Files, which tend to deliver the simple—if uneasy to implement—life lesson so inherent in changing fortune. If you do not like your life, you have to find the courage to change it.
What an oasis these two men have been during the unceasing Lockdowns triggered by a pandemic. Cave has been doing it longer, but I find myself looking forward to their releases.
Whenever I think of Casablancas, I’m called back to that $2 Bill Show he performed alongside the Strokes in Los Angeles during their blistering rise to fame after the release of their first album, Is This It. During the set, as they played their first album and some choice other tracks, the various band members would mill about the stage between songs, take a cigarette break, and chat when they felt like it. They had their own sense of time.
I remember Casablancas informing the crowd in that delightful dead-pan, tinged with a sigh, during a pause in the action, that they’d showed up for this gig because “We do what we’re told.” Now he’s in a position where he can call his own shots, more or less.
You’re never entirely free in this world when you’re a performer, but considering that so few people are making as interesting work as Casablancas or Cave these days, I’m glad they’ve deemed it worthy of their time to include us in the dream.
Which is exactly what art should do.