More Cultural Seeds: Nick Cave and dance performance

The Birthday Party – Nick The Stripper (1981)

I’m including Nick the Stripper because it is a critical component to the premise set forth in the essay ‘Nick Cave, dance performance, and the production and consumption of masculinity’ by Laknath Jayasinghe — in Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave, edited by Karen Welberry. (Jayasinghe’s essay is Chapter 4, p. 65, for those who own the book. For those who do not, you may read it online HERE.)

Yesterday, I posted an interview wherein Nick Cave says that he read ‘Cultural Seeds’ and didn’t agree with the essay that characterizes his movements ‘as gay’.  I disagree with Mr. Cave in that I don’t think the essay offers a simplified conclusion that his dancing style ‘is gay’.   In fact, the author’s premise is provocative and well thought out, and I agree with much of what he writes.  For me, the essay’s omission of representative material from Nick’s Bad Seeds years is problematic in any discussion about Nick’s dancing and performance style.

Further, I am troubled that Mr. Jayasinghe reads/characterizes Cave and Howard’s onstage interactions as specifically and intentionally homoerotic while, in the same textual space,  he reads/ characterizes Cave’s and Bargeld’s later interactions as normative behavior between male friends.  That was my WTF moment and things caved in from there (sorry).  I am in the process of writing a longer response but I wanted to get this much of it posted for those who’ve expressed interest in this subject.  Here is the relevant paragraph from Jayasinghe essay, ‘Nick Cave, dance performance and the production and consumption of masculinity’: 

When viewed within and through the prism of Oz rock culture’s strident heterosexuality and, relatedly, through its subtle homophobia, the kiss functions as an element of gender and sexual transgression. Yet this particular homoerotic kiss is not merely a performance strategy whose purpose is ‘shock value’. In his later performances with the Bad Seeds, Cave often kissed guitarist Blixa Bargeld on the lips, a measure of the mutual respect and admiration between these two friends…  [To] contemporary viewers of the clip, as well as those who viewed it upon its initial release, such an act between the two rock musicians largely renders Australian version of male heterosexuality strange. A kiss between Cave and Howard queers the hegemony of a more stridently masculinised Australian rock mainstream (Jayasinghe 72).

I’ll be back soon. 😉 The action cited from Nick the Stripper occurs at time points 3:20-3:54.

NICK THE STRIPPER NOTES:

The Nick the Stripper promo was directed by Paul Goldman and Evan English (edited by John Hillcoat) and shot in Melbourne-Camberwell on 25 Februrary 1981.  I found a blog entry by Sam Sejavka (The Ears) who attended the shoot and was filmed.  However the segment was not included in the final edit.  Sam’s recollections:

I turned up at the Birthday Party’s film clip shoot at the Hawthorn Tip. There were fires burning in a pit bordered by a murky lake, which in turn was bordered by a great sandstone cliff. Bubbles of methane spurted from the surface of the lake, gallows and crucifixes were set up on mounds. I watched for hours until finally – on heroin and booze – I decided I wanted to swim in the lake. I stripped and Troy covered me in body paint. I made my way out to a bathtub, in which they filmed me, as I danced …

It was a filthy night, and the occasion of my most unsanitary injection ever – squatting on the putrid ground of the dump, by the light of one of their witch-fires… Simone was with me. Yet I wonder, where did the gear come from?

To my great chagrin, the bathtub dance never made it into the clip. Apparently, I was too far away for it to be effective … I should just have been thankful that I did not die from tetanus, or hepatitis… GO TO ORIGINAL

SOURCES:

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About Morgan Wolfe

I write contemporary LGBTQ fiction that explores the dark & light of human love and desire. Interests: Progressive politics, visual arts, vintage illustration, mid-century design. French films, Queer cinema. Literary quotes. J'adore Paris. Ich liebe Berlin.

27 thoughts on “More Cultural Seeds: Nick Cave and dance performance

  1. Comments are reopened for those who are interested in the subject. Bear in mind that the authors are following the responses to see what if anything we have to say. Please be respectful of this discussion even if you may disagree with the topic. FYI: the Cultural Seeds thread is here, if you want background on what has been said thus far.

    • Beth, there was an affectionate moment captured during the filming of Dirty Three’s Everything’s F*cked video. Nick is in the pub as a spectator. You can see him in the upper right frame in sunglasses starting somewhere around time point 2.55.

      Tx to csakjutka

      • aw, that is quite sweet, thank you very much for posting it. I haven’t been following Nick Cave as avidly since Blixa departed, but it seemed to me that he had in some way transferred his musical affections to Warren and I wondered if it translated to their public physical interactions too.

  2. Hi all,

    Great to come across such an informative blog (thanks Karen!). Morgan, your posts on Depeche Mode (elsewhere) are truly insightful too. Currently I am in the midst of completing my PhD in another field (on everyday advertising consumption – hand it in on Tuesday), so please excuse the brevity of this post (I will comment further when time permits and the thesis is out of the way).

    I thought at this stage I’d comment on what I see as a growing mis-interpretation of my writing about Cave’s dance style. I do not and would not characterise his dance style as “gay”. That word seems to have entered the current debate via the interview Chris Bilson conducted with the Great One himself – they are his words, not mine. It’s always easier to simplify an argument, perhaps to take the wind out of it than to engage with it. Cave, himself, may not even be wholly aware that his dance style was a critique of mainstream rock music masculinity when he performed on stage (though, like all things Cave, there is a tongue-in-cheek, self-reflexive, knowingness about it, too). He may even be embarrassed talking about what he was trying to achieve in his earlier work (note for upcoming interviewers to prod more on this!). But it is very clear that he infuses his performances with elements that suggest a critique.

    Let it be known that I am an immense Cave fan. But I take a different tack to experiencing his music, imagery, style, stage performances and other work in general than most. In the chapter I talk about how Cave seems to work the gestures of a temporally-specific anti-normative Australian rock music masculinity into his dance styles during his BND and BP days. The key is that Cave and his fellow travellers in the Ballroom scene are always at pains to distance themselves from the “homoeroticism”, “muscle flexing” and “macho bonding” (as Vicki Riley puts it) of Oz rock. Hence the kiss with Howard; at one level it’s truly an homoerotic act. Yet at another it works, if I can crudely characterise it, as a one-fingered salute to what Cave felt as the hyper-masculinity of Oz rock, and its attendant jingoism, suburban-backyard-oriented, top-forty-targeted brand of Oz masculinity. The reason I focus on the period 1978-1983 is that, simply, I had to limit the scope of my research, both for time-management and financial purposes (the study was originally undertaken as a masters research project at Uni of Qld). I don’t apologise for not considering the NC&TBS performances in the final thesis and in this Cultural Seeds chapter. From where I sit, some of the quite meaty examples that draw out quite distinctly the performative angle to Cave’s dance, as far as a critique of mainstream rock music masculinity is concerned, occurs earlier in his career, though we could of course point to examples in his BS performances where this occurs too (I use the word “performative” here in the sense that gender scholar Judith Butler uses it). Bluntly, it’s just that there is a heightened sense of this occurring in his BND and BP stage performances.

    Rock music is a social practice, and like all socially-oriented practices, there is a historically contextualised component to how participants in the scene behaved. In this chapter, I make a case for the tensions that exist between the aggressive masculinity of Oz rock and the more popular perception that the Ballroom scene was populated by poseurs, private-school intellectual wannabes, art-school dandies and the like. We could, in this sense, also make a claim that there is a sort of class-based dynamic going on: a cultural-nationalist lower-middle class suburban-oriented Oz rock vs a more “feminised”, tertiary-oriented middle-to-upper-middle class popular culture scene (think of the way that “lo-fi” rock was often positioned against both grunge and post-grunge in the early-mid 1990s). It’s a straightforward, dichotomous characterisation, one that loses some nuance, but one that I would say generally holds true. But this all changes when the band moves to the UK; Cave’s performances are harder-edged, and this time the band works against what they perceived as the fey and effeminate elements of the new romantic movement that had strongly captured British rock and popular music scenes in the early 80s.

    Anyway, I hope that helps to answer some queries and concerns (or, perhaps, opens up many others!). It’s quite sad to hear the debate swayed by whether Cave’s dance was or wasn’t “gay”…I’m more interested in the intersections of masculinity, nationalism, even class, as they impact Cave’s performances. But it’s nonetheless great to hear a debate on this broad topic.

    All the best,
    Laknath.

    • I found your essay to be very, very informative and thought provoking, I enjoyed it. Your reply here is also well thought out and interesting. Thank you.

    • Greetings, Laknath,

      Many thanks for spending your valuable time writing such a gracious response. I appreciate Karen’s efforts in pointing you to this thread even though I did not have time to fully develop my thoughts before things veered off onto the ‘gay’ tangent. My fault, really, for using that particular interview (and Cave’s words) as a jumping off point. You are quite right to emphasize that you did not say anything of the kind.

      Let me assure you that I very much enjoyed reading and digesting your essay, which did persuade me to adjust some of my previous conclusions. Well done. Yours was the essay I most anticipated reading, as Karen will bear out. She and I discussed some of my ideas via email weeks ago when Cultural Seeds was published. She was right, I was impressed with your reasoning.

      I appreciate your explanations about why you exclude Bad Seeds performances in your ‘Cultural Seeds’ chapter. In fact, I agree with your instincts to frame your essay within the tighter parameters of Oz rock culture/history. In this way, Cave’s dancing emerges as a specific challenge to the hegemony of Oz rock hyper-masculinity as it existed during the Boys Next Door and Birthday Party years, 1978-1983.

      Good luck on Tuesday with handing in your PhD dissertation. Thank you once again for your generous response and most of all for encouraging us to move this rich topic to a discussion that moves beyond the confines of ‘gayness’.

      Best, Morgan

      [Edited for brevity.]

      • just a few random comments. i have read the chapter mentioned. a lot of it i don’t understand as i am not an academic. i am commenting as an observer of the time and my own personal opinion and from i remember.

        nicks dancing BND era i see as a rebellion against “mainstream oz rock” which was prevalent at the time. oz punk wasn’t like UK or US punk. we got vinyl and print media months later, with a lot of the vinyl being available by import only. nicks dancing was very theatrical, a stage performance, something you didn’t get when you went and saw mainstream bands. they looked different – eye make up, hair styles short and spikey and dyed, fashion – shirts and ties, leather and spikes. the music – something else again. i remember the first time i heard the sex pistols. my mouth dropped open and i thought WTF was that. let me here it again. i was sold. much the same with BND (for me anyway).

        BP era dancing i saw vey much as a rebellion again. this time against the new romantic movement which was prevalent in the UK and that is where they were living. mix in drugs and booze, disillusionment, grey and dirty old london town and nick to me starts to mirror his environment. he starts to look shambolic. dance shambolic. they gigs become shambolic.

        punk in oz was over by late ’79 / 80 which is why they took off to the UK.

  3. I think it’s silly to call dancing “gay”, but it makes sense to me to say that he kissed Rowland in that video, and furthermore put one of those pictures in bed with him on a flier, to antagonize (I’d say ‘address’, but you realize you’re talking about The Birthday Party, right?) homophobes.

    • Oh, I just remembered a conversation I had with a friend years ago (weirdly, since my memory is terrible). She theorized that maybe things like that were showcases of him seeking approval and affection from men since he lost his father before he was out of his teen rebellion phase. I’m not sure how much meat that has, and it seems somehow. . .impolite to analyze that way, but I thought I’d throw it out there. Not sure I agree, but I guess it’s not a completely random thought.

      • Hi Jamie,

        I’m just logging on now — sorry to take so long to get back to this. I’ve got so much on my plate right now here at home which is why I haven’t posted much this past week – it’s likely to continue for about another month. Nonetheless, I’m doing what I can…

        Fwiw: I see Rowland as approaching Nick, who seems to be rather out of it. His right arm is back and outstretched, which suggests that he did not expect the kiss. You know, I was unaware that Cave/Howard kissed each other regularly while on stage. That queers (sorry) any theory of exclusivity between Nick and Blixa who was not, apparently, Nick’s first man. Horrors! 😉

        You first comment is important. The incident about said flyer is recounted in Ian Johnston’s ‘Bad Seed’, which the author lists in his bibliography. The flyer did more than antagonize, it lost the boys a gig. The promoter saw it and decided he didn’t want The Birthday Party in his club.

        I meant to post this earlier –

        Here is a video of Nick and Rowland being interviewed by someone whose concerns are rooted in whether or not these two are homosexual (based on their hair and makeup) and whether or not PUNK is homosexual.

        I’ve got to go… sorry. Back as soon as I can.

        • I’ve just found a new upload of the above Nick/Rowland interview (thanks to PrickMayall). The interviewer is off his arse drunk. Until now, I thought that chappie was from the foreign press. Lucky Nick didn’t punch him for getting up in his face.

          Just logging in now, folks. Trying to do five things at once.

          • Fantastic example of Nick’s dancing in these two Boys Next Door clips.
            (Check out the flamenco steps in the first example — wonderful!) —

            Boys Next Door – ‘The Voice’ [Tiger Lounge 1979-10-24]

            Boys Next Door – ‘Conversations’ [Tiger Lounge 1979-10-24]

            Tx to PrickMayall

          • Why would you admit to not brushing your teeth? 😦

            . . .yeah, I obviously don’t have much meaningful commentary on this matter. Haha.

          • “punks” supposedly never brushed their teeth. (think johnny rotten / sex pistols here).

          • Yeah I know, but still. I saw that interview a year or two ago and my girlish affection for Rowland was, I must say, much diminished. I don’t know what I thought was happening in his mouth though. Maybe I told myself he was fighting a noble battle with tooth-rot gremlins and couldn’t be blamed for his clear failure. I just. . .don’t understand. It takes thirty seconds, once a day. That’s not even the recommended way of doing things, but it’ll keep one’s teeth in the realm of ‘a little yellow and a cavity here and there if you’re not careful’.

            Man, the tangents. . .apologies.

          • i am hearing you jamie. i cannot understand why one would not brush their teeth under ANY circumstances myself. i am thinking even rowland has probably thought “gee why did i say that?” especially if he has had a lot of dental problems in his later yrs.

  4. While there’s people in this world that seem to think it’s an important issue that merits scientific investigation wether Mr. Cave’s body movements should be considered gay (whatever the hell that means ?), I thought I’d get a life for once and watch the man himself along with Mick Harvey and Jim Sclavonous ao in this rather comprehensive interview with Manchester News in 2008. Spanning 25 years of blessed mayhem….

    Oh well, I enjoyed it

    cheers y’all
    T

    • Hell, I don’t know…
      I guess to me dancing is an intuitive response to music (or brainwaves?), a celebration of life on a level as elementary as eating or sex or shitting or prayer even. To be classifying it as either hetero- or homo- sexual sounds like a severe form of narrow-mindedness (or braindamage?)to me

      T

        • There are fields of study that overlap. Performance art/queer studies/cultural studies/anthropology etc.

          Audience perceptions of Nick’s dancing are important. Such perceptions often clash, causing tension and too often resulting in violence. Does anybody remember a kid named Matthew Shephard?
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Shepard_Act

          As long as hate crimes are tolerated in a society that considers itself civilized then studies of gender and sexuality are important.

          If cultural norms dictate that men should not display affection to one another unless they are homosexual then the men who deviate will be brought in line by the ‘enforcers’ — usually alpha males of whatever social group that is taking issue with the behavior.

          This is much more important than whether Nick was ‘acting gay’ when he danced… I wish I had more time to get into it but I don’t.

          • i remember matthew shepard mainly because the band “thursday” did a song about him called M.Shepard.

    • THANK YOU! I am sitting here, confused and scratching my head. Why are people overthinking his DANCING so much? WHAT THE FUCK?! He’s dancing all weird and crazy, like always, in a fucking cloth diaper. He’s being all weird, and if he randomly kisses a guy, who cares?

      I’m just like…why is this written up as this big, serious article? Was it researching traces of homoeroticism in pop culture or something? I am confused.

      If that dancing is gay, then so is Tom Waits’ dancing in the “It’s All Right With Me” video. I just don’t get why this was thought of so seriously when it’s just Nick being weird. If he was trying to look gay, he failed to me…I mean if I REALLY stretch things, I can kinda be like, “okay, sure,” but I know so many straight guys who randomly do “gay” things…guh, I don’t even think there ARE things that are strictly gay.

      I’m not pissed…just confused over what the big deal is. Nick Cave is dancing. And he has kissed boys before. Woohoo!

      • Hi Andrea,

        I agree, I’ve been scratching my head too…
        wondering if I should comment again or just leave it.

        Controversy over sex and rock n roll has been prevalent in the media since the 50’s (at least) when Elvis rose to fame. Though I agree with the Wolfmoonlady that sex and gender issues are important because they are used as an excuse to infringe upon peoples personal freedom it still feels odd to me that it became such a big thread on this particular website. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have, but I guess a person’s initial reaction to wether this is a big deal or not is largely determined by the era and culture in which he or she grew up. I for instance am from a country where the anual ‘gay parade’ (homos in various states of undress boating along our capitol’s canals)has been a major tourist attraction for years,
        so maybe that disqualifies me.

        Anyway…

        I do believe that Mr. Cave, like a true performer, seeks to provoke strong audience reactions but what his style of dancing or him hugging or kissing other men tells us about his sexuality is of little interest to me. After all, it was the words and music that spoke to me first. Enough controversy and recognition there when you’re 15 years old, me thinks.

        That said, Tracey sure knew how to swivel them hips too didn’t he ? 🙂

        ciao y’all
        T

  5. As usual Morgan…eh fuck, I had some really intelligent way of expressing my thoughts that I’ve forgotten… Anyhow, it boils down to “THANK YOU FOR ADDRESSING THIS SO BRILLIANTLY” and “I’LL BE BACK LATER WITH COHERENT THOUGHTS.” Yes in ALL CAPS. I’ve been waiting for this. Because of how this essay pissed me off in terms of its language, incompletion, and ultimate obvious conclusions.
    🙂
    The quoted paragraph from the essay is indeed a WTF moment. I mean…WTF?! It doesn’t even make sense.
    I’m a bit more kindly disposed towards Mr. Jayasinghe’s essay knowing that he originally included Bad Seeds material…but damn it just all needs input from weirdos like me who have thought far too much about Mr. Cave’s stage performances 😀
    Oh I’ll be back…with thoughts and such…
    You’re brilliant, dear.

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