Cave on Stage: Transmogrification and Connection in the Live Performance

Posted by Finn Daniels-Yeomans on October 13, 2015 in Blog, Finn Daniels-Yeomans tagged with , , , , , , ,

In his live performances Cave adopts a transgressive stage presence that encapsulates the category fluidity, generic inconsistency and boundary crossing that is central to his musical project as a whole. The live performance is ‘transformative’, Cave states in interview; it is a situation in which he changes, mutates and becomes the various elements – characters, emotions, sensations – that make up his irrational musical world. In this, the final post in my series, I want to explore the sense in which this becoming-strange that characterises Cave’s performance persona both admits of a Gothic dimension, and participates in his attempts to draw spectators into his song-texts. This last is achieved on stage, I suggest, through what we might think of as cumulative process of sensational exchange, in which Cave produces experiences in the audience, and capitalises on these responses, using them as fuel for the intensity of the performance. Cave alludes to this affective circuit when he speaks of the ‘enormous energy that comes from being sandwiched between a hungry audience and a very powerful band’; occupying this position between music and spectators ‘does things to you’, he goes on. ‘It changes you. It turns you into something different’ (Cave 2014).

There are several important points to be taken from this loaded statement. Chief amongst these, however, is Cave’s explicit treatment of performance as transformative. On stage, he tells us, he begins to become something different. What we witness is not so much ‘Nick Cave’ himself, but ‘Nick-Cave-in-Process’, caught in between his own identity and the various sensations and characters that are evoked in his songs. The multiplicity of this stage presence, which is both Cave and not-Cave, is reflected in the variety of conflicting emotions and narrative figures from which his frequently shockingly diverse performance sets are constituted. These are affronting in their fluidity: fluctuating from tender to fearful, beautiful to repulsive, aggressive to pious, Cave’s performance is thoroughly unfixed, mutating from one category to the next between songs. At one moment he will be seated at the piano, gently performing a stripped down, nostalgic and heart-breaking rendition of one of his sombre love songs. At another he is looming from the edge of the stage and indecipherably screaming at the audience whilst the Bad Seeds thrash away in the background. It is the differences between these evocations that makes especially clear Cave’s ability to transform or become; on stage, we might witness him morphing into heartbreak, and then into an embodiment of murderous rage in alarmingly quick, almost schizophrenic succession. What this shows us is an ability to incarnate the spirit of the individual song, and a simultaneous capacity to shift between these embodiments, and together these elements of his performances create his stage presence as a species of monster.

Monstrosity is widely considered by Gothic scholars to consist in a refusal of conventional boundaries. Monsters conflate categories – they are both living and dead, past and present, familiar and foreign – and in his ability to embody and move between radically different sensations, Cave demonstrates a degree of this disregard for binary logic. Glennis Byron and David Punter conceive of the monster in a way that highlights its pertinence for Cave’s performative fluidity. According to them, monsters are ‘[h]ybrid forms that exceed and disrupt those systems of classification through which cultures organise experience’ (2004: 264), and this description applies equally to Cave’s rapid, dynamic incarnation of multiple conflicting sensations and emotions. Further, as Byron and Punter point out, it is the function of monsters to provoke an intense emotive response. ‘[T]he term ‘monster’ is often used to describe anything horrifyingly unnatural’ (2004: 263); through their violation of paradigmatic boundaries, monsters produce in their audiences shudders of unease. This affective reaction to the becoming-fluid of categories – this horror at what is ‘unnatural’ – is, significantly, one explicit goal of Cave’s performance agenda. In the film 20,000 Days on Earth – a pseudo-documentary charting Cave’s creative philosophy – the artist tells us that he intends to ‘terrify’ his audiences: he pursues that ‘mixture of awe and terror’ which, as we discussed in the previous blog, has been considered under the sign of the Duende.

Duende is an intensely emotional experience of the artistic text, one which works to draw the spectator into the conceptual space of the work. Where last week I explored the way that Cave attempts to produce Duende with recourse to Gothic’s destabilising narrative strategies, here, I would like to suggest that, on stage, it is Cave’s performance of monstrosity that generates a sensational engagement between singer and spectator. The artist’s transmogrification, his refusal of straightforward identity categories that inheres in his embodiment of elements of his songs, is oriented toward the production of intensely emotive responses in his audience. On stage, Cave is a monster, an ‘unnatural’, mutating force that overwhelms receptive audiences, but which, as we have seen him suggest, is also intensified by the reactions it produces. He derives his energy from the emotive responses in the crowd, and gains from these the impetus to generate still more powerful spectator sensations until a fever pitch is reached.

This cumulative affective circuit – which is the live experience of Duende – works to bind Cave’s audience to the artist, to draw them into his songs, and this connection, furthermore, is literalised in his particular performance style. As he tells us in 20,000 Days on Earth: ‘I’m a front row kind of guy …. For me there’s a kind of psychodrama that goes on between singular people in the front row’ (Pollard and Forsyth 2014). Cave directs his monstrous performance at individual audience members, picking out particular people as the focus of his transmogrifications, and concretises the closeness these processes intend to produce by reaching out and literally touching bodies in the crowd. In 20,000 Days on Earth, Cave performs ‘Higg’s Boson Blues’, and demonstrates the singling-out strategy that he tells us is fundamental to his performance. In these scenes, he stands at the very edge of the stage, his treelike figure dwarfing audience members in the front row. He then crouches down in front of a single female spectator, stares her directly in the eye and places her hand on his chest as he sings the closing lines of the song; ‘Can you feel my heart beat? Can you feel my heart beat?’. The woman, overwhelmed by the intimacy of this encounter, draws her visibly trembling hands over her eyes. The crowd erupt into applause: this is the fever pitch, the Duende, and it is has been produced through a literalised connection between audience and an artist whose monstrous transformations have wrought affective havoc. ‘There’s something that happens in a Bad Seeds’ gig’, Cave tells us: ‘They often start with a certain amount of control, but end in chaos’ (Cave 2014a). If it is, as I have suggested throughout this series, Cave’s intention to dismantle the boundary between a song and its listener, to draw the audience into his quasi-insane musical otherworld, then this chaos, in which stabilizing borders of all kinds disintegrate, epitomises his immersive project. In his live performance, as in his song-writing, Cave’s manipulates Gothic’s fearful refusal of categorisations in order to occasion an overwhelming encounter between audience and art; to ‘touch’ listeners, as he has it, ‘with the hand of that which is not of this world’.

Reference List

Cave, N. (2014), ‘Nick Cave on Playing Live’, available: (accessed: 13.10.2015)

Cave, N. (2014) ‘Writing a Kylie Minogue Album would be Good Fun’, available: (accessed: 13.10.2015)

Pollard, I. and Forsyth, J (2014), 20000 Days on Earth, United Kingdom: Corniche/BFI/Film4/Pulse Films

Punter, D. and Byron, G. (2004), The Gothic, Malden, Oxford and Victoria: Blackwell.

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