Peaky Blinders is the first time I heard a Nick Cave song. “Red Right Hand” is the show’s theme and from the hypnotic sound of Cave’s deep voice, to the repeating beats and organ solo, it’s a song that makes the air pulsate and your skin thrum.
Sometimes it’s a song that makes you take notice of a musician. Nick Cave is his own draw, an artist who tells a narrative in the lines of his face, and whose lyrics come filled with concrete visuals. Until now I’ve been a fan of Cave’s without really knowing anything about him. Reinhard Kleist’s graphic novel, Nick Cave: Mercy On Me, is an abstract biography filled with cartoonish, music video breaks. It’s unorthodox. Unreliable. You can’t look to it for a straight report of Cave’s life, but you can look to it for a deeper truth.
Nick Cave puts it best in his blurb for the back cover: “…a terrifying conflation of Cave songs, biographical half-truths, and complete fabulations… [Reinhard Kleist’s graphic novel is] Closer to the truth than any biography…”
He’s right. How Kleist manages to make a tomb that feels honest, instead of a tangled mess, can’t be explained by conventional formula, but for any book on Cave’s life to really work, templates would have to be discarded. “Good, I’m glad you don’t like it,” Cave tells a classmate at school and, in that sense, things never change.
In other ways, Kleist writes Cave in a constant state of reinvention, itching to travel and taking risks that taunt with danger. Struggling to find his voice, his pursuit of music is all consuming, causing friction with the rest of his band and frequent frustration.
Kleist isn’t trying to present readers with pure facts. That ship is sailed with him taking Cave’s metaphor of being a captain on a boat and drawing Cave with a peg leg, his face thin like the Somnambulist’s in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his bandmates making up the members of his crew.
It’s not a free for all either. There’s a very clear chronology through the rise of Cave’s career, from the claustrophobia he felt growing up in Australia, to his travels through Europe as the singer for The Birthday Party. What Kleist does is create an overlap between chapters. Events you thought were dropped come back and get built upon further, the better for giving no indication that new information is pending.
Kleist treats his book like a song, and, in songs, abstractions can appear very literally. The Birthday Party gigs are described as loaded weapons, so Kleist draws the ferocity of Cave’s singing causing heads to roll and severed fingers to fly, while Cave bangs his head on a drum. A favorite scene has Cave and bassist, Tracy Pew, stealing a car, with a dog bobblehead on the dashboard, then deciding to crash the car soon after. Walking away from the scene unperturbed, it doesn’t matter if this happened as described, or at all. The attitude the scene evokes is genuine, and it’s details like the dog, or Cave kicking a stone that hits a gnome, that provide an extra ounce of absurdity.
Each chapter is framed around a Nick Cave song. Characters talk back at their “author” and enter philosophical debates about religion, autobiography in fiction, and whether endings can be both grizzly and positive.
Besides Cave, Kleist’s portraits of Cave’s bandmates are crucial. Not every musical bio looks away from their subject long enough to make sure you know everyone else by name. These are very precise faces, hairdos, and personalities, and the reward of Kleist’s labors are scenes like The Birthday Party (then The Boys Next Door) sitting around a record and having their conversation weave and flow.
Most songs tell a story but not every musician is talked about in terms of being a storyteller. Cave is one of those people and, in another notable holdover from his early days, it’s the “Tac” “Tac” sound of Cave’s typewriter that continues to birth his art. Reinhard Kleist’s tool is black ink and his achievement is almighty.
Nick Cave: Mercy On Me is available now from SelfMadeHero.