My Gender Is Nick Cave

Learning how I feel about being a woman by watching Nick Cave be a man

M y first memory of Nick Cave comes from the climactic scene of the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire. In it, angels dwell in the skies over Berlin, witnessing the thoughts of the humans below. The angels live in a world of crisp monochromes, while the humans live out their brief, agonizing, joyful lives in color. The angels are uniform, symbolically sexless, and cloaked in identical trenchcoats. The humans represent all of life’s variety, from a suicidal man who jumps off a ledge to children thinking about milk.

In the story, the angel Damiel, tired of being an ever-compassionate watcher, falls in love with a trapeze artist. To be with her, he decides to become human. After he descends to earth, Damiel goes to meet his trapeze artist at a bar where Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds are playing.

Right away you realize this is not the angel-world anymore: nothing about it is still or cool-toned or lilting. Nick is sitting on a barstool in the middle of the smoky room, lit by hazy lights of orange and blue, brooding as he croons out a slow cacophony: and a murder of crows did circle round / first one, then the others flapping blackly down…

The angels can hear thoughts, and Damiel’s friend Cassiel is close by. When Nick’s done, he walks up to a mike to sing his last song, thinking, I’m not going to tell you about a girl I’m not going to tell you about a girl

And then, of course, he says: “I’m going to tell you about a girl.”

And he does: he tells a story about stalking the girl who lives in the apartment above his. It’s a story about obsession and about crying and throwing fits in his room: it’s a story about separation, but instead of watching the girl through a pane of sanctifying glass like an angel would, Nick feels her move above him, hears her crying, steals up like a thief and takes her diary. There is no calm, sad repose in this separation as the piano keeps percussing out violence, violence, violence. The story is called “From Her to Eternity.”

Meanwhile the angel-turned-human meets his lover at last, and they have an exquisitely tender moment at the bar as Nick, their shaman, thrashes and yells about his passion for the girl’s footsteps as they pace up and down the floorboards of his ceiling.

It was evening and my roommates weren’t home and I was sitting on the couch with my headphones on as the house darkened down to no light except the light from my laptop. I’d spent the summer watching movies for a research project on emotion in film. Previous to that, I’d spent my adolescence in a suburban tower of isolation; I was homeschooled and had no car, was awkward and agnostic and queer in endless, evangelical Christian suburbia. But I was beginning, after two years of college, to emerge.

Wings of Desire was the apex of that time. Shuttling through so many movies, taking stills, matching them to Paul Eckman’s “six universal emotions,” pondering questions like how narrative implication could be juxtaposed against facial neutrality, I felt I knew what it was to be an angel, to watch and love thousands of lives, to listen to their innermost thoughts.

I brought to the film an obsession with the androgyny of angel iconography and an interest in tracking the use of the angel symbol down through history. The idea of lofty, benevolent watchers appealed to me, but just as appealing was the idea of beautiful sexlessness. Part of my reluctance to join the world of the humans was because I knew very well what society would demand as the price of admission. To be embodied meant to become gendered.

The idea of lofty, benevolent watchers appealed to me, but just as appealing was the idea of beautiful sexlessness.

So needless to say, something in me thrashed along with Nick.

Something thrashed along with Damiel, newly a man.

In the end of the song, Nick decides, as he often does, that there’s nothing for it but to murder her.

“The girl will just have to go,” Nick sings. “Go. Go. Go. Go.”

In the big theater of living, society makes the sets and runs the casting calls: it dictates the boundaries of what’s possible. Most importantly, society typecasts us into roles based on sex, race, class, and appearance. We push back against those roles, we capitulate to them, or we use them to our advantage. If we want to actually be someone, to participate in the theater of living, to be more than a mere audience member or witness, we must negotiate with these typecasts one way or another.

There isn’t a single one among us, I believe, who has not in some precise and intentional way had to negotiate with the demands of gender.

In the years after I first saw Wings of Desire, in my early twenties, the role I found to play was startlingly similar to my life as a watcher. I learned that the lessons of angelhood applied well to learning how to become (as Simone de Beauvoir says) a woman — a fact acknowledged in the movie by the angel-like calm and detachment of Damiel’s beloved trapeze artist, who wears a winged costume as she swings above the circus crowd. The construct of gender I found easiest to assume rewarded aloofness, mysteriousness, remote benevolence. Like Damiel, I fell in love a few times, with men and women — but although I relate to Damiel, my experience was of being found by Damiel. People — men and women — liked to think of themselves as discovering me. They liked to tell me how they watched me at first, scattered and wildly absentminded, listening to music as I walked to class or reading on the campus lawn or spaced-out in the middle of a dorm room party, and wondered what I was thinking about.

The construct of gender I found easiest to assume rewarded aloofness, mysteriousness, remote benevolence.

There are other ways of being a woman, but this was the one that came most naturally to someone with my temperament, my socialization, my history. And this woman-self was not a false self. It was a persona, and like all personas, it both revealed and restricted. Deep down I was a much more tumultuous person than I appeared, and I longed to act on the world, not just watch the action happen, or be acted upon. Particularly when it came to desire, which I felt in mortifying, unruly, damning surges, and was constantly repressing to maintain the persona. I tried to be the desirer a few times, to initiate desire, but the minute I tried to seize the spotlight on the stage of living with my thoughts and feelings, I was ignored. People simply preferred to imply them. I found, as much as women are allowed to have feelings, they aren’t allowed to have the sort of feelings that ricochet through an entire bar, or an entire movie, like loose bullet fire. The way Nick Cave’s do.

How can I convey to you, if you haven’t seen it, what it is like to watch this movie — with its gentle, cantatory atmosphere — explode into Nick Cave? Watch it. See how jarring it is to see that gangly, almost-grotesque figure, this thundercloud of a person, in contrast to the movie: the exact opposite of compassionate, the exact opposite of a watcher, the exact opposite of heavenly. Brutal, performative, daemonic.

A number of years after seeing Wings of Desire, throughout my mid-twenties, I found a community of sympathetic people, gays and straights both (no one cared) who thought gender should be razed. We threw decadent, safe, warm house parties where crossdressing was the norm. “The place where sexual orientation goes to die,” one person christened these parties. This is living, really living, I thought, and developed a mania for throwing parties not only to make up for lost time in the suburban tower, but because it felt as close as I would get to setting the stage of life myself. Through a well-chosen theme and liberal intoxication, you could experiment with various modes of self-expression, and see others self-express. You could broaden your theatrical range, so to speak.

We threw bacchanals (I was Ariadne), masquerades (I was Puck), a starship party (I was a space elf), New Years’ affairs (I was a magician in a top hat). I flipped gender every time. I widened my repertoire of femininity from what came most naturally to me, the angel-like watcher, to maenads and femmes fatales. And I explored male personas, too — sprightly, boyish tricksters, for the most part, androgynous and agile, within grabbing distance from the vantage of my femme typecast. Once we decided to throw a party themed Angels & Demons.

The theme was one of our best: it proved to be so popular that a friend overheard people across the city talking about it at some college coffee shop. We planned out the house: the indoors would be Inferno and decorated with idols and gold bandoleers and The Garden of Earthly Delights; there would be a sequestered room for chilling out and smoking with big pillows and a hookah, called Purgatorio; and the backyard, garlanded with fairy lights, would be Paradiso. Thrilled with the cosmology of the layout, I set to the matter of my costume.

Dressing Up as Other People Helped Me Learn to Tell My Own Story

The first question was: angel or demon? I’d done a few angelic costumes, sort of elegant little cherubic pageboys, which I’d been pleased with, but I wanted to be a demon this time. I was torn between two Stars of the Morning: I loved the idea of being the pagan-goddess-gone-demon Inanna, the rash Queen of Heaven who descends down into the underworld. But the more I thought about it the more I wanted to try for a Lucifer. Like Nick Cave, I was a Milton fan, and I listened to “Red Right Hand” as I made sketches, pondering it over.

Even within my genderfucked parties, I had begun to notice that presentation mattered. When the more androgynous people crossdressed, the girls with butch haircuts or the boys with trim waists, they were more lauded. You had to pull it off. A cherubic pageboy was one thing. Lucifer was serious business.

I took the silver-brocade vest I was thinking about using and dressed up in it and assessed myself in front of the mirror. When I compared this girl to the images of Lucifer I had in my head, images from William Blake’s illustrations and statues by Joseph Geefs and Ricardo Bellver, I looked to myself pathetically small and slight and blonde and bookish. I thought about sleek black velvet pants, a playfully disdainful expression, about going glam-rock with it all so that my very femme features would fit a little better. I thought about standing in the middle of the party, ranting about the theological problem of evil, declaring (Milton sounded so delicious in my head) the mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.

But I couldn’t picture it at all. I simply could not impose any of my ideas on the girl-frame of my body.

I simply could not impose any of my ideas on the girl-frame of my body.

I asked a friend about it. “Of course you can be Lucifer,” she said, as though it were obvious. “You can do anything if you rock it.”

I did not think I could rock it. I did not even know how to picture it. Cherubic pageboy was in my repertoire, was close enough to femme to fit my typecast, but not demon prince.

I dressed up as Inanna, in a long purple skirt and mesh bodysuit and headdress, not too far from the dark-haired lunar women Nick sings about so often, and my most feminine costume in a long time. People told me they loved it.

Any passing acquaintance with Nick Cave’s work will suffice to paint a picture of his particular, idiosyncratic performance of masculinity. He’s not a subtle person. He is the sort of person who stands up in front of crowds and proclaims himself, over and over, to be the Black Crow King, to be the bad motherfucker named Stagger Lee, to be weak with evil and broken by the world. But I will provide a Nick Cave that is meaningful to me.

He’s in a bar. He’s in from stumbling around some biblical wilderness where the horizon is burning. There’s the piquant aroma of tobacco, of desert climes, mixed with stale booze and starching powder. He’s dressed in a black suit with hemlines that have the perfect clip of a good tailor but are frayed at the edges. Depending on where he is on his long gradient of “about to be dumped” or “dumped” — “The Ship Song” to “Lament” to “Brother, My Cup is Empty” — he’s either tipsy and depressed or drunk and raving about those lunar woman to some poor barfly seated next to him who can’t get a word in edgewise: Nick is just too intense, too much bigger than life, too sad and longing and vicious. He alludes to a crime of some sort: he’s committed fratricide (“The Good Son”) or abandoned his child (“Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry”) or stabbed someone at a wedding (“John Finn’s Wife”) or, well, god knows what, I mean Nick is a good Byronic hero and actually rarely gets specific about the crimes he commits, it’s just an excuse for him to act like a maniac with an infernal destiny (“The Hammer Song,” “Your Funeral, My Trial,” etc.). I love this sense of fatalism he has. I relate to it. And I admire the possessed-bull way he bucks against it, even when it’s melodramatic, even when it’s dysfunctional, even when it falls into the male clichés of violence-as-agency, violence-as-desire. I am the captain of my pain, he spits — one of his most satisfying lines to sing alone at night, when you’re on a binge.

Later in the night, when the poor barfly has finally escaped and they’re about to kick him out, he’s just fucking sad and bent over a piano and bawling. The thing about Nick Cave is that he is always, always harping on about love — “love, love, love, that’s all I sing about,” he says in one interview, self-disgusted. The poignancy here, the vulnerability, would weaken his masculine posturing if there weren’t so much power in the expression of vulnerability itself, and to see such a powerful figure so debased and pleading. I don’t believe in an interventionist god, he tells the woman in “Into My Arms,” but I believe in love. In truth, he’s a fatalist about love as he is about everything else. But he finds his most transcendent moments as an artist in his pure, fatalistic expression of love.

The poignancy here, the vulnerability, would weaken his masculine posturing if there weren’t so much power in the expression of vulnerability itself, and to see such a powerful figure so debased and pleading.

And that’s the crux of it. He may sing as a cursed man, but in the singing, he finds his art.

As eccentric as it is, Nick Cave fits this role. What I mean is, he looks the part. He is tall, long-limbed, strange looking: his black-dyed hair is the only physical artifice he needs to fit the persona he has crafted because his voice, too, is such a dark black hole of a baritone. And of course he is straight. The reason he can say all of these wonderfully and magisterially bombastic things is because he was born, in the physical sense, in the embodied sense, to sing them.

Now, let’s dispense with a brief picture of myself.

In that suburban tower of isolation, surrounded by cloned houses for miles, my only social access dominated by evangelical Christians, I revolted against all of the expectations upon me: the expectation that I should believe in one god, the expectation of heteronormativity, the expectation that I should do as I was told. “I’m not a Christian,” I told my parents, in a fit of temper: I was an impetuous kid, obsessive and intense, and I remember the joy I felt in that declaration, the aftershocks in my poor parents’ heartbroken expressions, the feeling of having done something fucking momentous.

But dispensing with these expectations left me with no options. I was a teenager. I had no resources and no agency of my own, and, in my state of revolt, I had no idea how to act. The society I was in had no scripts for it. So I retreated into the usual routes of escape: books and movies and music, which became more real than real. I devoted myself, like some pillar of passivity, to the lives I saw unfold in art.

How One of the Sickest Books Ever Written Cured Me

When I finally found my script and accepted the demands of gender, I learned that there is a potent agency to be found in expressing yourself as fully as you can even within a confined, feminine role — you can interpret the role, you can subvert it, and given time and the patience to learn a part, you can even assume new ones. It isn’t the same sort of something momentous as upending all the unjust laws of a patriarchal god, but at least you aren’t thrown into the formless void at the end. At least you can act.

There is more to me, though. Just like there is more to all of us. And as much meaning as I’ve found in the story I’ve created, it will never quite be enough to satisfy that part of me that sits in the dark with headphones on and mouths along when Nick sings, I am the fiend hid in her skirt / and it’s as hot as hell in here.

Nick Cave has given a couple of notable answers to the question of Nick, what is it with you and women. And, Nick, what is behind the mystery of your posturing (that is, what is behind all of the decadent, violent masculinity that is not so much “toxic” as “quite nearly radioactive”). One disappointed me. “I’m not a misogynist, so you can dispense with that,” he snapped at an interviewer in 2012, during the Push the Sky Away days, when asked if he was a feminist. He declared that “as far as I’m concerned I’m actually standing up and having a look at what goes in in the minds of men, and I have the authority to talk about it because I’m a man.” He goes on to say that his work is character-driven, and further to say that the characters are “talking about the way men and women are.” So, fair enough: your standard outlet-for-masculinity essentialist claptrap.

That disappointment was tempered later by another interview. Discussing the enduring appeal of his work to women, he says even the “most forceful sexually,” is actually “riddled with anxiety.” And then, remarkably given his previous answer: “If my songs came off as just a male thing, I wouldn’t have any interest in it whatsoever.”

What a curious thing for the Black Crow King to say: that all of his songs, his songs which are full of “male things,” open up some door to universality.

I don’t know how other people who are observed to be female by society relate to Nick Cave’s work, but I do know that at the beginning of a crush on a woman who I only knew in routine passing, the first words that came to mind were from “From Her to Eternity”: You know she lives in room twenty-nine. She worked on the same floor as me, in the bland beige blur of a skyscraper’s hallways; I saw her in passing as we crossed paths in the halls. She edited my work and we didn’t interact otherwise. Like the song, she was melancholic, she seemed agonized for some reason she couldn’t express, and I was made insane by it.

The intensity of it was impossible for me to contain within myself and there were no outlets for it, none, that did not make me feel weird or creepy. Eye contact while passing by her felt humiliating. As though I were wafting some kind of pestilence. I have never felt comfortable with the way I felt desire, even beyond bisexuality, and the gratuitous voyeurism of this crazymaking crush symbolized why. More than desiring the wrong sex, I felt that I desired the wrong way. Something sort of morbid lurked in the holding-fast of my fixation. I found it difficult to justify the depth of the crush. So I did nothing.

More than desiring the wrong sex, I felt that I desired the wrong way.

Much analysis given to the idea that men are not allowed to freely express their emotions, and I feel this is absolutely and damningly true. But artistically, men’s emotions are given much more gravitas than women’s. Female intensity is something different. For instance, in my favorite Nick Cave cover, Chelsea Wolfe’s version of “I Let Love In,” deep-sea currents of distortion make the song more of drowning woman’s lament than the prisoner’s anthem of the original. Even my beloved PJ Harvey — who, I must tell you now, I love every bit as much as Nick Cave, and who is his equal as an artist — can’t express desire in the same reliably straightforward way. The closest I’ve seen to his claustrophobic intensity is in her “Dancer,” but even then, she’s not singing to the person she desires. She’s singing to the fates to bring him back. She still has to beg to be heard.

You would think, since he fits his own typecast so well, that Nick Cave would be full of confidence. But here is what I love about him most. As much power as he is able to thunder down, Nick Cave’s masculine persona ruptures at the points of its most glorious and intense expression. It’s cracked through. The anxiety seeps out of the easy rhymes, the dark and deep voice darkened and deepened further into the paradox of self-caricature and self-seriousness, and is undercut by the lyrics, which always double down on themselves. The mind-breaking wordplay and paradoxical lies in “The Mercy Seat” is the genius example, but it can be found elsewhere, and in explicitly “queer” ways. “The Curse of Milhaven,” for instance, is one of his longest epics, in which our hero goes on and on about the serial rampages of a 15-year-old girl. It’s probably best suited to fans, but I promise you, as a fan, there is nothing quite like hearing Nick — not making one facsimile of an attempt to make his masculine voice less masculine — sing if you think you’ve seen a pair of eyes more green, well you sure haven’t seen ’em around here. The song has more deaths per capita than any other Nick Cave ballad. There is “Henry Lee,” one of his finest songs, where the narrator and his “lilywhite hands” are chucked into a deep well for jilting PJ Harvey. There’s the glorious line in “Stagger Lee” that goes I’m a bad motherfucker, don’t you know? / I’ll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get one fat boy’s asshole: the whole song a postmodern breakdown of toxic masculine one-upsmanship that ends with homoeroticism. And the last, my favorite, are a few stage performances of “Where the Wild Roses” grow where guitarist Blixa Bargeld sings the part of Eliza, and Nick kisses him ardently in the end.

The mask on Nick Cave, the masculine mask, is invisible, but he is deliberately putting it on in every song. The mask causes an anxiety: it’s a show. They (the audience) know it’s a show. How do you convince them of the show? Because no matter how well-suited you look to the role, even if you’re born six foot two and dye your hair black and look like the devil’s scarecrow, the mask of the persona still a mask.

No matter how well-suited you look to the role, the mask of the persona still a mask.

Here’s the thing about the mask: the persona watches itself. It’s a different angle from the lofty and compassionate observer, the audience: it’s a narrower view, through the corridor of the mask’s eyeholes. Within that tunnel-vision, the persona feels the weight of the mask resting against the face. The persona knows a mask is a mask.

But the mask gives you a role to play upon the stage, a story to make your own, and, if you’re lucky, the means by which to make a real, beating human life, a story, out of what you’ve been given.

And if the life you’ve been given isn’t enough to express your whole self — well, there is always art.

I was driving into the city at midnight. I was cresting up a highway and staring straight at a supermoon hung full and low in a sulphuric haze among the dim stars. I was listening to “Do You Love Me?” and singing along, as I do when I listen to Nick Cave alone. “I found her on a night of fire and noise,” I sang, and as I did I suddenly caught a snatch of what my voice sounded like: thin and high and airy, absurd against the absurdly gothic, pompous lyrics. For a moment I shut up, silenced by the notion of what it must sound like to someone listening.

But no one was listening. As the song swelled on, I couldn’t resist singing more.

When the chorus kicked in — all of the Bad Seeds singing “do you love me?” with Nick echoing the line — I sang it. And when I listened again, this time not listening as someone else but as myself, to the voice as I hear it in the darkening chambers of my mind, Nick’s baritone overlaid my words and gave them resonance and fire.

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