1996 – Murder Ballads – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Nick Cave

‘Magical’ is one of the ways to describe witnessing the birth of your first child, though nerve-wracking fits pretty well too.  Having gone to work as usual on the morning of Friday 16th February, I received ‘the call’ at around 8.30am, “Come home now, it’s started!” I drove us up to Jessops Hospital in Sheffield and at six o’clock that evening, somewhat reluctantly and only after Mr Norman, the consultant, had tried all sorts – forceps, ventouse and good old encouragement, James came into this world.  He needed a load of stuff cleaning out of his lungs and did need to be put in an incubator overnight, but he was here, right on time (to the day) and looking as beautiful as only a baby can. The delivery room had been packed with midwives, doctors and even a class of students who were keen to observe the birth, so it was quite a dramatic change, after everything had been checked (he had ‘a roof to his mouth and a hole in his bum’; my mum’s definition of a healthy baby) to find ourselves alone in a room with a tiny person who needed dealing with! After ringing friends and family with the good news (and after having been propositioned by a prostitute on my way back to the car!) I drove home later that night and slept more soundly than I had for weeks. It wasn’t until the next day that we found out how at six o’clock the previous evening, exactly as James was being born, there’d been a ‘Mother Of Pearl’ sky over Sheffield (Nacreous clouds apparently), a pretty rare phenomenon this far south, with lots of beautiful and strange colours. We maintained that it meant he was destined to be special, but our Neil said, “Check behind his ears,” suggesting that, along with the three sixes in his time and date of birth, it was an omen and he could well be a ‘devil-child’! When James was first put onto Wendy’s chest, he’d pushed himself up with his arms and appeared to be looking around the room, the midwife declaring, “He’s not supposed to be able to do that!” Not a devil-child, but certainly not average.

Within days, it was difficult to ever imagine there’d been a time without him and I quickly adapted to functioning in a state of constant exhaustion. When you hear stories of parents murdering their children, you obviously can’t condone it, but there are times, times when the screaming seems to go on for ever, that you can certainly understand it!

“Murder Ballads” by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds contains some of the darkest, most disturbing lyrics ever written, set to some of the most beautiful melodies. “Henry Lee” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow” are the two most obvious songs where Cave’s murderous vocals juxtapose with the smooth melancholy of P.J. Harvey and Kylie Minogue respectively. Elsewhere, the album goes from the cabaret-style music and almost comic-book violence of “The Curse Of Millhaven” where the protagonist, after countless murders, exclaims, “They ask me if I feel remorse and I answer, ‘Why of course! There is so much more I could have done if they’d let me!” to “The Kindness Of Strangers” on which the woman’s sobbing is so mournful it almost breaks your heart. “Murder Ballads” is darkly humorous with a sombre, literary and passionate heart; perhaps the perfect soundtrack to accompany the few months when my son was joyfully taking his place in this world as my father-in-law was leaving it. He died in August.

After a week in Cornwall which followed the funeral, The Rogues, who’d never stopped playing (I was always tired anyway so I figured I may as well) got together for a couple of days at ‘Sight And Sound’ studios in Bolton on Dearne to record our second tape. We did most of it live on the first day, with just a few overdubs, then mixed it on the second. It was engineered by a bloke called Andy Seward, who’d apparently worked with various people at the BBC and in the folk world and who we thought could pass on useful tips and maybe put our name about a bit. He did tell us not to smoke ‘skunk’ because, “It does your head in!” but as far as I can remember, that was it. Good bloke though and the songs sounded better than on our first cassette. As usual, I was left to sort out the artwork and found the perfect picture in what was often my first port-of-call when looking for inspiration: the book ‘Entertainment’ by David Kennedy. It was an illustration from 1848 by George Cruikshank called ‘The Drunkard’s Children’ and seemed to capture perfectly the spirit of our audiences at the time. I called the cassette ‘For The Drunkard’s Children’ and delighted in the fact that I’d been able to get a classic piece of artwork into the consciousness of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have looked twice at it. We sold a few hundred copies and, had we been able to afford it, could have made and sold many more.

I would often come home late after a gig, have a quick shower to try and get rid of the smell of cigarette smoke and end up sitting in the darkness with James in my arms, giving him his bottle and reciting sections from Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’, which we were doing at school and which I’d managed to learn off by heart. He never slept a whole night through until November, when he learned to walk. On that first day of walking, he slept the whole night, as indeed, did I.  At last. No more murderous thoughts.

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