Nick Cave’s inspiration: pictures and notes from his archive | Music

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What you see in this book lives in the intricate world constructed around the songs, and which the songs inhabit,” writes Nick Cave in his introduction to Stranger Than Kindness. “It is the material that gives birth to and nourishes the official work.”

That intricate world includes drawings, lists, collages, scribbled notes and lyrics, found photographs and several handmade books, creased and stained, sometimes in his own blood. Therein the sacred and the profane, the biblical and the pornographic, exist side by side as they have done in Cave’s songs for about 40 years of often frantic creativity. There are pin-ups alongside devotional images of saints, sketches of nude female torsos alongside portraits of the madonna, and there are hand-written, home-made dictionaries listing arcane words, such as anchorite (a recluse), and autogamy (self-fertilisation).

Cave calls it the “peripheral stuff”, which is “the secret and unformed property of the artist”, but here on the page it takes on a life of its own, revealing his often compulsive way of working, as well as his abiding interests and obsessions: desire, faith, sin, despair, redemption, grief, love, and the transformative thrust of language itself.

This is the raw (in every sense of the word) material out of which his songs and stories have emerged. It is also a map – messy and impulsive – of a creative life that for a long time was pursued with a ferociously self-destructive intent, and, latterly, with a singular acceptance and grace.

It begins with a photograph of Cave’s father, Colin, a teacher, who, in one uncharacteristic and transformative act, read aloud to his nine-year-old son the opening paragraph of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. “It was the most intimate moment I ever spent with my father,” Cave later said.

Among the other early personal fragments is a letter to Cave’s father from the headmaster of Caulfield grammar school in Melbourne, expressing concern at “aspects of Nick’s attitude and conduct”. It was written in 1975, when Cave was 17. A photograph from that same year shows him in David Bowie-style face paint, with rolled-up jeans and horizontally striped socks, fronting a school band as they perform onstage at Korowa Anglican girls school. Together, these two artefacts signal what is to come, as does a snapshot of a mesmerised teenage Nick Cave in the audience at a gig by the Saints, a Brisbane-based punk band whose punk attitude, he writes, ”changed everything”.

At art school he was part of a social group that included Anita Lane, his soon-to-be girlfriend and artistic collaborator, as well as Rowland S Howard, who would become the first of Cave’s many creative foils when they formed the implosive, fitfully brilliant post-punk group, the Birthday Party.

Interestingly, it is one of Lane’s songs – a favourite of Cave’s – that lends this book its title (he describes it as “an autopsy of the end of a relationship, and an extremely uncomfortable song to sing”). There is melodrama aplenty here, real and imagined. For me, the most totemic objects are the handmade books, which exist in the tradition of the artist’s book as art objects in their own right, but are also slightly outside of it as rawly intimate expressions of Cave’s obsessive nature. As with everything else here, they are not, Cave insists, “to be seen as artworks”, yet they have a definite presence: a ritualistic, almost fetishistic aura that speaks of a creative urge that is as relentless as it is compelling. Likewise, the female strands of hair that he collects and sometimes pastes to his collages.

The book is only a tiny reflection of an exhibition of the same name, which was due to open today at the Royal Library in Copenhagen but has been suspended because of coronavirus. The show comprises artefacts, videos and installations spanning Cave’s childhood to the present and will be rescheduled for later this year.

Several installations merge photographs, films and objects alongside music by Cave’s longtime collaborator, Warren Ellis.

One room is dedicated to his band, the Bad Seeds, with members, past and present, speaking of their experiences on a bank of video screens. A Hallway of Gratitude alludes to Cave’s abiding influences and includes a bust of Elvis hit by lightning, a projection of the poet, John Berryman, reading Dream Song 14 (‘Life, Friends, is Boring’), and a Roman column on which sits a piece of chewing gum discarded by Nina Simone.

Amid the homages and the surreal humour, there are moments of great tenderness, including an enlarged paparazzi shot of Cave and his wife, Susie, on their wedding day. This stolen moment is transformed and rendered hauntingly beautiful by the confetti that falls like snow over their faces. For now, the book must suffice. According to Cave, the artefacts it contains possess “a different creative energy to the formed work: raw and immediate, but no less compelling”.

There’s no arguing with that.


Colin Cave, c1956

Colin Cave



Photograph: Photograph by Ernest Cameron / Reproduced by kind permission of Dawn Cave

Nick Cave’s father, Colin Cave, was a handsome and ambitious intellectual, who made a deep impression on people wherever he went. Remembered as an inspirational teacher of literature and drama, Colin Cave established the Wangaratta Adult Education Centre, and wrote the introduction to a book about Australia’s legendary bushranger called Ned Kelly: Man or Myth, receiving the Wangaratta Citizen of the Year Award in 1971. Moving to Melbourne with his family, Colin Cave became the director of the Victorian Council of Adult Education in 1972, a position he held until his early death in a car accident in 1979. Throughout his life, Colin Cave shared his love of literature with his children, reading Lolita to Nick, and writing several unpublished manuscripts. Cave was 21 when his father died and he left Melbourne for London shortly afterwards with his band the Birthday Party.


Dawn Cave, 1958

Dawn Cave



Photograph: Reproduced by kind permission of Dawn Cave

Raised as an Anglican, Nick Cave’s mother, Dawn, is a role model of how to live a kind and generous life. A school librarian first at Wangaratta high school, and then Firbank girls’ school in Melbourne, she fostered the value of education with her students. Along with husband, Colin Cave, she appeared on stage with the Warracknabeal Dramatic Society, and as a violinist played on the track Muddy Water from Kicking Against the Pricks, released by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 1986. Dawn Cave encouraged and supported Nick from an early age through piano lessons, choir practice, art classes, appearances at local Eisteddfods and his transition to Caulfield grammar as a boarder. When Cave moved to London in 1980 and then West Berlin in 1982, he and his mother corresponded regularly, their letters keeping them in close contact in between his trips back to Australia. When in Melbourne, Cave lives with his mother, now aged 93, talking, reminiscing and solving the problems of the world.


Rowland S Howard, Nick Cave, Ollie Olsen, Megan Bannister, Anita Lane, Bronwyn Adams, Nauru House, Melbourne, 1977

Rowland S. Howard, Nick Cave, Ollie Olsen, Megan Bannister, Anita Lane, Bronwyn Adams, Nauru House, Melbourne, 1977 Photograph by Peter Milne. Courtesy of Peter Milne and M.33, Melbourne



Photograph by Peter Milne. Courtesy of Peter Milne and M.33, Melbourne Photograph: Photograph by Peter Milne. Courtesy of Peter Milne and M.33, Melbourne

In 1976, Nick Cave enrolled at Caulfield Technical College to study painting. “All the things I loved,” Cave has written, “found their voice in art school.” After going to a private boys’ high school where he and his friends were regularly called fags, art school thrilled him.

And it radicalised him. He savoured conversations with other students and remembers one young woman who painted detailed mythological paintings only to deface them with angry-looking male genitalia. “I learned not just about art but how to question, how to be,” he said. He was horrified to fail his second year: “All I ever wanted to be was a painter.”

The influence of this intense period of his life resonated further. From his first days in London, writing to his mother about the wonder of visiting the National Gallery, all the way to his room in Berlin, with walls covered with prints of artworks by Piero della Francesca, Matthias Grünewald, Stefan Lochner and El Greco, to his own collages and album covers and his ongoing interest in outsider artist Louis Wain, Cave’s creative life is informed by art.

At Caulfield Cave made lifelong friends and colleagues including the artist Tony Clark, photographers Polly Borland and Peter Milne, and most significantly, his future girlfriend and artistic collaborator, Anita Lane.


Handwritten dictionary of words by Nick Cave

Handwritten dictionary of words by Nick Cave, 1984–85 Gift of Nick Cave, 2006, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne / Dan Magree Photography



Photograph: Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Nick Cave remembers the contact high he got from words even as a child. At 10, reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, he thrilled to the lion that waved its tail “spasmodically” and leafing through a detective novel he found the phrase “a wicked little gun”. As Cave created the voice for Euchrid, he would read the dictionary and list words that gave off a sort of vibration. Using these words, he created his own dictionary. “The words I liked were obscene or just plain groovy. I had several of these dictionaries.”
1984–85 Gift of Nick Cave, 2006


Painting entitled Horn of Plenty by Anita Lane, 1977

Painting entitled Horn of Plenty by Anita Lane, 1977 Acrylic paint on canvas Reproduced by kind permission of Anita Lane



Photograph: Reproduced by kind permission of Anita Lane

This painting of Nick Cave by Anita Lane was done in 1977. Anita once claimed that if Nick was hit by a bus he would be compelled to write about it in his own blood before he died.


Saint Jude, Patron Saint of Despair, by Nick Cave, 1985 (Ink, hair, plastic, paper, metal on paper)

Saint Jude Patron Saint of Despair by Nick Cave, 1985 Ink, hair, plastic, paper, metal on paper Gift of Nick Cave, 2006, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne


Nick Cave wrote in 2007: ‘I’d bought a complete version of Butler’s Lives of the Saints in the mid-1980s and so I was pretty clued up with the saints and the various things they endured. St Jude was beaten to death with a club and then beheaded in Persia in the first century. He is the patron saint of desperate situations and lost causes and is the Daddy of the Blues. I found the prayer card, or whatever it is, most probably in the flea market in West Berlin, where I found much of my stuff. I’ve stuck some hair onto it because, well, I have a thing about hair and stamped it with the date 1985, because I have a thing about date stamps. So it is, in the end, a rather pleasing conjunction of things I like: decapitated saints, hair and date stamps.”


  • Extracted from Stranger Than Kindness by Nick Cave, published by Canongate (£35). To order a copy go guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

  • Stranger Than Kindness – the Nick Cave exhibition will take place at the Royal Library in Copenhagen later this year

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