Is it possible to have a crush on a song? The way that I listen when I’m truly enthralled by a particular piece of music certainly feels like a crush—picking up the tone arm, hitting the back button, refreshing the browser, over and over. Listen with me, I want to say to everyone: this is what I wake up with in my head, this is what I hum all day, this is what I’m listening to even when I’m supposed to be listening to you.
“Jubilee Street” is the fourth track on “Push the Sky Away,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album from 2013. Like most of Nick Cave’s work, it’s a story-song, and it treads well-worn territory. In keeping with the lurid, red-lit demimonde that the Bad Seeds have built over the past thirty-odd years, it features a sex worker, a desperate john, a murder. The lyrics come at the subject obliquely, all dire imagery and fever dreams, and Warren Ellis’s guitar winds its way up your spine, wrapping itself around your shoulders like an embrace, or maybe a shroud. The second verse ratchets up the tension—the tempo quickens, tightening the loop, layering on a high-pitched, keening drone. At the end of the verse, the strings drop into your stomach, and Cave abandons the narrative entirely, gliding into a litany that reads as a prayer: “I am transforming. I am vibrating. I am glowing. I am flying. Look at me now.”
“Jubilee Street” as recorded is a masterpiece, practically a clinic in the art of buildup and release. But the live version is something else entirely. I was unfamiliar with the song when I walked into the Barclays Center with my husband and our friend Tyson this October. I’ve always been what I would describe as an “enthusiastic but casual” fan of Nick Cave; I’ve appreciated his music since college, but it wasn’t written on my heart in the way that other music was, and I had never seen him play live. When he walked out onstage, the air coalesced around him immediately and took on a certain charge—oh, I realized suddenly, deliciously, I am at church.
An hour or so later, Warren Ellis plucked out the opening strains of a song I’d never heard, what ended up being “Jubilee Street.” I felt Tyson’s body tense next to me. “Watch him blow the roof off this place,” he whispered. The roof had been blown off of the place at least twice in the evening already—the rendition of “From Her to Eternity” alone was a barn burner. (My husband would later describe it as “the most intense five minutes of my life.”) Cave eases into the story of “Jubilee Street” almost gently, ambling up and down the stage, grasping hands from the audience like a preacher. He sits at the piano between verses, picking out a counterpoint to the guitar. He gets up for the second verse—at this point, most of the audience members were sitting rapt but still—and the tempo quickens. Cave shifts that amble into a loose-limbed stride. He slides through the verse into that litany—“look at me now”—almost airily, flinging his arms wide. Repeats it, kicks out a leg—and then the song bolts out from under him like a half-broken colt and explodes.
I’ve spent my whole life going to shows. I’ve danced, I’ve cried, I’ve walked home buzzing in my ears and soul. But I’ve never experienced the feeling of a fist closing around my heart and wrenching me to my feet. I became aware that I was. . .growling? Vocalizing some animal sound deep in my throat, savage with surprise and wild joy. Look at me now.
Technology being what it is, I can not only access the recorded version of “Jubilee Street” (I bought the album the minute that I got to a Wi-Fi signal) but also watch the version from the show that I saw anytime I like, on YouTube. Even better, I can watch any number of other live versions, of various sound qualities and from different vantage points. I find myself jonesing for that feeling, watching and rewatching clips—my favorite might be from the show in Argentina, where the fans were more physical and demonstrative than their Brooklyn counterparts. When the song breaks loose, that crowd goes absolutely bonkers—I keep watching, tears in my eyes, as they pogo wildly up and down, moving like a storm. It’s the spiritual apex of a tent revival for a profane and broken people. Cave sounds like a shaman and commands the room like a cult leader. We tend to see music as entertainment. Performances like this pull it firmly back to where it belongs—in the realm of spiritual experience.
Not for nothing, every once in a while art will hit you exactly when and how you need it. I make a living creatively; it is both my job and what I do, in the sense that it is a function of who I am. Throughout my entire life, I have worked under a sense that none of my art was really any good, that I was a fraud, a joke, that I lacked some essential human center, that everything I loved served as an indictment of everything I couldn’t do, that I would never be able to make good and meaningful work. I don’t know how or why, but, a day or so before the show, I found myself in the midst of what I can only describe as a spiritual epiphany—which was that those feelings didn’t matter. That spending time agonizing and feeling awful about myself was just another form of narcissism, that art doesn’t come from you, it comes through you, and that it was time I got out of my own way at long last. I suddenly understood that my feeling of worthlessness wasn’t humility; it was a dark perversion of ego, and I didn’t need it anymore. I abruptly and very much to my surprise felt myself delivered from that lifelong knot in my stomach. It might come back, but for now I will take the reprieve.
Cave has also started a newsletter called the Red Hand Files, where he seems to be transforming into yet another kind of cultural touchstone. In it, he addresses questions ranging from run-of-the-mill fan-club concerns, such as when and if he might reform his old band Grinderman, to deeply personal and sorrowful communiqués concerning love and death. (His answer regarding if and how we communicate with our loved ones in the afterlife, in which he describes his experiences following the death of his teen-age son, rang truer than a sermon and set the Internet aflame.) His thoughts on art and creativity are considered and deeply generous. “Remember that you are uniquely designed for the idea that is moving towards you,” he counsels one woman seeking advice on how to awaken her dormant creativity. “You are good enough. The idea is about to arrive.” Once again, Cave seems to be reaching into a reservoir of the human spirit and sharing it in a way that can only be described as astonishingly kind.