‘Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave’ explores the mythical songwriter’s daredevil youth
19.03.2021

‘Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave’ explores the mythical songwriter’s daredevil youth

Photoshoot for the cover of Brave Exhibitions, June 1978. Left to right: Phill Calvert, Mick Harvey, Nick Cave, Tracy Pew. Image by Michael Lawrence.
WORDS BY TAMMY WALTERS

The first volume of the long-awaited, near-mythical biography of Nick Cave.

I’ve always viewed this project as a social biography, with Nick at the centre of a kaleidoscope of stories. I hope there is some value in that as a picture of Nick’s youth – and as a history of the places and times he moved through to become who he is today.

– Acknowledgements, Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave

Nicholas Edward Cave; the Prince of Darkness, the boy that resided next door, the celebratory figure of The Birthday Party, the leader of The Bad Seeds and now the boy on fire. The Australian rock‘n’roll legend, with his distinct baritone bellow and poetic pondering, is a profound and compelling figure who has not only dabbled in but exercised mastery in singing, songwriting, novel and poetry writing, screenwriting, composing and acting.

His life story has become a fixture of fascination; his melancholic musing over love, death, despair and deconstructing social, religious and political propaganda, captivating audiences across his near fifty-year career.

The task of unpacking such a rich and dense history could only belong to a man of unequivocal stature in the Australian rock ring. Renowned writer, rock journalist and editor, Mark Mordue, known for his extensive interviews featured in Rolling Stone, Madison, Speak, and Interview, as well as being the recipient of a 1992 Human Rights Media Award and the 2010 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing, was the obvious choice to explore the deep, dark and also delightful crevasses of Nick Cave’s hollow.

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Having interviewed Cave on multiple occasions throughout his career, Mordue dedicated the last decade to uncovering the people, places and platforms that paved the path to Cave’s cult success, documenting his formative years in biography, Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave.

“Ten years in the making sounds like a monstrously long time but the reality is probably five to six years and then another five to six years of me sorting my life out and doing other work. It was ten years from beginning to end but not ten years of me sitting in a prison cell thinking about Nick Cave for my entire life,” Mordue says.

Now complete and out for the fans to immerse themselves in, Mordue says the book has taken on its own life form, bringing to life the country Victoria setting, the magical era of the ’60s and ’70s, and resurrecting the child-form of a curious Nicholas Edward Cave.

“It’s almost as if the book is no longer a part of me; it’s like its own separate beast,” Mordue explains.

“It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man. The book isn’t about his whole life. It’s about his boyhood and his teenage years. It’s about him growing up in Wangaratta in country Victoria, and his friends and his first kind of love and crush influencing him and introducing him to the music of Leonard Cohen.

“And then it’s about school and the whole post-punk Melbourne scene that happened around the Crystal Ballroom, therefore it’s also about his first band The Boys Next Door who, once they left for England, became The Birthday Party and launched Nick as a cult superstar and set him on his path,” Mordue continues.

“It’s all of the people, the places and things from music to art to film that formed him and influenced him and that he still talks about in his songs. It was a real journey for me to write the book and to travel a bit like a ghost beside Nick as a young boy and a young man and get a sense of who that person was and, in some ways, still is.”

He continues, “I think even if people are not fans of Nick Cave or have no interest, it’s also a picture of growing up in Australia in the ’60s and ’70s and a picture of a young person turning into an important artist.”

Interviewing family, friends, school peers, residents of the Wangaratta region, collaborators and industry persons, Mordue originally had the intention of capturing Cave’s life in its entirety however his bursting, multifaceted discography and continuous creative catalogue proved difficult condensing it into a single volume version.

“I was going to try to do a whole life biography from A-Z and I couldn’t manage it. It was too big, too complex and too vast and Nick is constantly creating as well so there was more and more being added on all the time and I could not put it all together in one volume.”

However, that doesn’t mean that Nick Cave the artist doesn’t appear throughout. Acknowledging his history has led to a deeper understanding of his work.

“Even though I concentrate on his youth, there are so many things from his formative years that are still a part of the songs he writes,” Mordue explains. “If you go to Wangaratta where he grew up as a young boy, all of the lyrics in ‘Red Right Hand’ are practically a Google Maps for Wangaratta. You can walk from one side of town to the other following the lyrics.”

There is potential for the Boy On Fire to turn into a sequel trilogy, with Mordue having ten years of content at his ready to share. After his decade of Cave consumption, however, he may need a Cave cleanse. Though Mordue acknowledges that Nick Cave is like a fine wine; only getting better with age.

“I actually like Nick’s work more with the time I’ve spent on it. It gets better the more time you spend with it and I don’t think there are many artists like that.”

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue is out now for purchase. Grab a copy here.