On “Push the Sky Away,” or: Barriers to Entry
Published in Blog. Tags: Music.
I’m thinking back to all the bonus discs that used to come with the CDs I purchased. Sometimes they weren’t bonus discs, add-ons to a single CD, such as CD-ROMs. You’d insert the CD into your computer, hope that a compatible version of Quicktime was downloaded, and away you’d go. Primus’s Rhinoplasty, for example, had a music video you could watch on your computer. I remember having that one. There was no place else you could see that video, at the time. Now, watching it is as simple as typing a search term into YouTube and there it is — with over 18 million views.
Maybe that barrier to entry’s disappearance is important, or at least important to a feeling. It felt like I knew something, that I had something, when there were restrictive steps to get in the way between me and the content I wanted. But then again, I remember paying over $20 for CDs that weren’t new releases, because back-catalog discs, rather than new releases, always costed more. There’s nothing more prohibitive in this context than high prices. Fortunately I worked in my youth or I’d have had to wait for my 20s when YouTube began gaining momentum.
The DVD that accompanies Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’s 2013 album Push the Sky Away has two songs on it, each featured in video format with visuals created by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. The filmmakers began collaborating with Cave about a decade ago through videos in support of the Bad Seeds’s 2008 album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, before creating a (rather good) “hybrid drama-documentary” about Cave in 2014. The rabbit hole runs deep though, and maybe that process is worth paying attention to. Looking further into their credits led to their Vimeo page, which led to a half hour long detour away from Push the Sky Away. They directed the music video for Gil Scott-Heron’s “I’m New Here” (which might be up there on my favorite songs list, with the chorus simply returning to “No matter how far wrong you’ve gone / You can always turn around), leading to work on the short documentary, Who Is Gil Scott-Heron?, which I’d really like to watch. Then, further down Iain and Jane’s Vimeo page, a few videos of the Veils, who I then remembered sitting in on an interview with back in 2009 in the basement of the 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis, with a group of college kids I briefly collaborated with. Despite remembering not enjoying it when it was released, I looked for the video of that interview, though to no avail. This is the rabbit hole.
Returning to the DVD, the features include “Needle Boy” and “Lightning Bolts.” In the videos, the songs’s lyrics are shared to one side of the screen while studio footage of performances rolls on the other, and on the first viewing a lyric from “Lightning Bolts” made me laugh. On the second viewing humor continues to ring throughout, though you wouldn’t know it by the ever-serious visuals of Cave and the Bad Seeds’s Warren Ellis, “In Athens all the youths are crying from the gas / I’m by the hotel pool working on a tan / People come up and ask me who I am / I say if you don’t know, don’t ask / Zeus laughs – but it’s the gas / And he asks me how I am / I say Zeus, don’t ask.” “Needle Boy” begins with the moan of “At the turn of the century I did many things to protect myself.” I’ll get back to that…
In the midst of this, I’m wondering where the value of this process lies. I’m telling myself that this is more important, the DVD, manufacturing merit based on the barrier to entry that I’m also now creating for myself. I wasn’t sure what was on the DVD when I came home with it, but with a little searching I could have discovered that the two videos are on YouTube (of course). Yesterday’s intention of grabbing this work, in its attractive presentation, was continued today when I looked of it inside and plucked out the vessel by which the work is communicated, plugging in the television, grabbing the DVD player from the closet, and sitting down with coffee in hand at 7 in the morning to watch whatever is on the disc. There’s a little bit of disappointment that it wasn’t “something more.” I’m not sure what my expectation was, but having seen Iain and Jane’s work with Cave on 20,000 Days on Earth (though I hadn’t a clue who directed it when I watched it) maybe something like that was what I had hoped for, even though I hadn’t consciously remembered I’d seen the documentary until going down the rabbit hole.
So, intention then, yeah?
Maybe two years ago I went on a couple dates with someone who was friends with Sharon Van Etten when they both lived in the nearby Murfreesboro. I had seen Van Etten open for Cave at the Ryman two years before and felt like she was some sort of connection between the two of us — this singer, who I had no connection to whatsoever, and only saw by way of an opening spot to other musicians who I’d actually paid to see. Maybe that’s the fucked up part of my intention. For a long time I’ve gleaned connection by way of these sources, remembering their names as a subconscious means to try to find connection with someone else who would then see me as worthy of their connection because of the shared interest. But is it a shared interest if I’m not connected to the source, itself? I can’t name a Sharon Van Etten song, and I don’t think I could then either, but that didn’t stop me from propping myself up emotionally on the memory of seeing her perform as a means of connection. I don’t think I ever brought it up during the coffee date, or maybe I did as a passing comment, but it’s not that moment, but a life-long tendency to lean on those sort of moments that now frustrate me a little. The intention is to connect, but I question the authenticity. Maybe everyone else has questioned that, too, to this point. I’d like to discontinue that trend. I’d like to think I’ve already begun.
Saying a song has personal meaning, or communicating a sense of understanding of a piece of music/literature/art, is different than embodying that thing — and that understanding. Watching “Needle Boy” and “Lightning Bolts,” I’m reminded of how dapper Cave and Ellis are, how distinguished they appear, seemingly at all times. Beyond dressing well though, the appearance has a lot to do with how I want to believe they live their lives. When seeing the chorus of Bad Seeds gasp between shots of Cave, my mind tells me that these men understand physical love in a way I don’t — that they cherish their bodies, that they breathe art and refrain from the trappings of a disposable, isolationist culture. That’s a thought, sure, but to encompass those feelings myself, to incorporate that lesson, is something so different. To listen to their music is to recognize a way of living that is different than my way of living. To see these videos are to say that I understand the value in pivoting, personally — maybe dressing more fashionably, or carrying myself in a more distinguished manner. To say, “I’ve seen Sharon play live,” is so much different than providing an example of Sharon’s music which actually touches my fucking heart. And while I’ve carried the Bad Seeds’s music with me for ages, the same challenge can be asserted there.
I went to the Ryman concert with a friend of mine, though we sat a pew or two away from each other as the separate seats were the only available for the eventually-sold out show when I got them. That concert came, what, 15 or 16 years after trying to sell myself on the idea that I’d become a Nick Cave reader, though maybe more so with the hope that someone else would think me being a Nick Cave reader was cool than actually due to trying to get anything out a Nick Cave book itself. I don’t recall loving the Ryman show, itself. My memory of the show is from a vantage point around here, or so, which meant I was far enough from the stage to miss the heat of a crowd and the detail of an up-close experience. Maybe that had something to do with how much I appreciated the show, but it was also a weird time in my life. I remember seeing the show in 2014, though it actually happened in 2013, right before I was to leave Nashville for Kansas City. Hope for me came with new potential of a shifting life, but at the time I didn’t realize how much of my own life I was simply just running away from. Push the Sky Away was released during my time in KC, and I have fond memories of how well it sold when I worked at the record store there. All of that aside, maybe my view of the show would have been different had I been up close, to see Cave shift his approach during the night’s fourth song, “Higgs Boson Blues,” and literally reach out to draw emotion and energy out of those in the front rows. The intimacy expressed in that video now fills me with more emotion than I recall feeling that night.
The pages of Push the Sky Away are standard liner notes, delivering lyrics in a manner of presentation to the liking of the artists involved. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to the album — the number is plenty — but I haven’t listened to it a whole piece of music in several years. And until this morning I’ve never done so with lyrics in hand. Maybe that’s part of my intention here, with all this — to simply have intention. To approach a moment with a plan. “Higgs Boson Blues” has been on several playlists of mine, and for a couple years was a staple on commutes, but never have I sat through and spent time with its lyrics, just embracing them. Today there was intention.
“The tree don’t care what the little bird sings.” (“We Know Who U R”) “She had a history but no past.” (“Jubilee Street”) “The problem was she had a little black book / And my name was written on every page.” (“Jubilee Street”) All throughout there are these little moments that catch me and deliver something special, a connection, a thought. Sometimes they’re just moments that click, like in “Finishing Jubilee Street,” where the music breaks perfectly half way into the song and the backing vocals pick up, “See that girl / Coming on down / Coming on down / Coming on down.” Nick Cave is really good at being Nick Cave. “I’m tired, I’m looking for a spot to drop / All the clocks have stopped / In Memphis now in the Lorraine Motel / It’s hot, it’s hot – that’s why they call it the hot spot / I take a room with a view / Hear a man preaching in a language that’s completely new / And making the hot cots in the flophouse bleed / While the cleaning ladies sob into their mops / And a bellhop hops and bops / A shot rings out to a spiritual groove / Everybody bleeding to that Higgs Boson Blues.” (“Higgs Boson Blues”)
I have little recollection of reviewing Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! 10 years ago, and the writing has its groan-worthy moments, but it’s still not terrible. This morning, the album has run through three times, and I’ve been sidetracked plenty by Iain and Jane’s videos (this take of “Higgs Boson Blues” is so beautiful), but the picture is beginning to come together. Intention is leading to surprise. Around the time of me buying King Ink, I often took similar action with CDs, buying them with the hope that someone would see that I owned them, I think. I’m not sure why else I’d have albums I never listened to. By the time of writing this review, in 2008, I had sold my music collection and was relying on mp3s to get me by. That allowed for less artifice, but that hardly meant I was digesting what I was listening to. Maybe by then I’d started to go deeper, but really holding onto a piece of music and allowing it to change me was rare then. Even now, music remains mostly a patchwork of sounds that make me feel different things, but rarely does a song’s lyrics impact me. I’m partially ashamed of this, partially not, but many times they’re not even heard as words. This is important.
Back to the DVD and back to “Needle Boy.” “At the turn of the century I did many things to protect myself.” This is true for me. And at the turn of the decade, I did many more things to protect myself. By then I had moved on from my copy of The Boatman’s Call. I don’t recall what I did with my copy of King Ink, either — I likely sold it long before. I did the things I did to get by — I held on to the things I did to help me survive the way I did, and I purged things from my life as I did, when I did, to help me survive that part of my life, as well. I’m hard on myself, and it’s easy to poke holes in past versions of self, guilting and shaming a previous me for not having today’s insights. But that’s bullshit.
Now is the only time it was ever possible to look at this chain of events, all these years, and consider the sort of things I’ve just been considering. I’ve always loved music, but maybe music was never to me what it “could have been” because I lacked true ownership in it. I’ve owned over a thousand albums over the years in various formats, but rarely have I ever really bought in to them. But last night, putting money down on this album has given me something of a sense of ownership within the realm of Push the Sky Away that I don’t remember feeling. It’s literally buying into the idea that there is value in the creation of something that isn’t easily disposed of — this small collection of words, and sounds, and images. And making a promise to myself to take what’s inside and explore it, to try to see if there’s anything inside that can make my life better. The last step is doing something with that, rather than just using it as a prop to again fool me into believing that someone else’s opinion of me makes a damn bit of difference, especially when it’s based on something so hollow as whether or not I act as if I appreciate a piece of music. This is all worth something. And it’s worth returning to. And it’s worth learning from.