“We should get this straight from the beginning; I have absolutely no idea what I’m really doing here,” Nick Cave told the crowd at the start of his “So, What Do You Want to Know?” session at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City on May 3. Over the course of the evening, the Bad Seeds ringleader alternated between performing some of his most beloved songs on grand piano and fielding questions from the audience.
But this was no conventional Q&A. The show featured no moderator, no script, no structure: Cave signed up to fend for himself up there. And his fanbase is a peculiar breed; one that was clearly so absorbed in the man as to border on a religious experience at the event. Nearly every question to Cave was derailed by endearingly one-sided monologues about their own personal communion with the music, with audience members clearly just relishing the chance to say anything they wanted to Cave on a hot mic, with hundreds listening.
Between stark, gorgeous performances of key songs like “Skeleton Tree,” “The Mercy Seat” and “God Is In The House,” Cave was wry, genial and funny as hell as he tried his best to humor each audience member’s oddball prompt. (A late-in-the-game “Boxers or briefs?” sent Cave in a beeline for the piano.) From the audience’s standpoint, the mood wildly swerved between illuminating, awkward and sometimes flat-out cringeworthy. The latter vibe especially occurred when Cave reached his saturation point for fans quoting Joan Didion at him, and when one asked if he’s a “sandwich guy.”
One woman, who self-identified as a Quaker, inquired about Cave’s “relationship with Jesus, and your relationship with cleanliness, and your relationship with your housekeeper.” “I have so many problems with that question,” replied Cave under his breath.
Questions also touched on death — specifically, that of Cave’s son Arthur. In fact, the audience was heavy on grieving and recovery folks, many who didn’t blink at sharing their stories about losing their own loved ones or conquering substance abuse. When talking about Arthur, Cave grew subtly breathless and halting, but it seemed he and his wife, Susie, had risen above that immense tragedy. One scenario Cave brought up was haunting, in the first blast-zone of bereavement: “I was sitting at the kitchen table in a paralyzed state, and I couldn’t really do anything. And I looked through the doorway to the staircase, and Susie was halfway up the staircase and I saw her stop, and she couldn’t go any further. She was just clinging to the rail, unable to move.”
These intimate windows into Cave’s experience jarringly contrasted with the quality of the questions, which wildly varied. But those awkward moments were kind of the beauty of the evening itself, even as Cave’s nervousness occasionally grew palpable.
Anyone could have had a deeply edited, sanitized press conference, but Cave clearly signed up for unfiltered communication with his loyal followers. The results were always touchingly human, and over two hours spent so intimately with a rock n’ roll legend, discomfort and transcendence revealed themselves to be a two-way street.