We all want to be seen. Acknowledged. Accepted. That’s what the creators of social networks have tapped into with disturbing clarity. Twitter and Facebook may have started with some goal of helping people find their tribes, but they quickly turned into a frenzy of users looking for an ego stroke or dopamine rush with each like.
With celebrities of all classes now in the mix, it’s only gotten worse. We plebes seek out confirmation from the actors and musicians and models and TikTok stars with varying degrees of desperation. These famous/infamous folks do their best to engage with the faceless mob to help keep their careers aloft, but even that feels like a zero-sum game. The demands for attention by these so-called fans can often become obnoxious, worrisome, and depressing.
That’s what has made The Red Hand Files, Nick Cave’s regular missives to the masses where he responds to questions and comments, so captivating to read. The beloved singer-songwriter gets thousands of queries from fans (he reads all of them, apparently) from which he plucks a choice one or two and offers up a generous reply. That can range from questions about Cave’s favorite love songs or guitarists and his short-lived relationship with PJ Harvey to aching requests for guidance like the most recent installment where a 16-year-old girl from Italy expresses her self-hatred and asks of him, “How should I behave? What should I do for myself?”
It’s also what made last night’s “Conversations With Nick Cave,” an ongoing tour that found the musician playing some songs and then engaging in a freewheeling Q&A with the audience at Revolution Hall, such a strange and depressing affair. The perfection of The Red Hand Files stems from the simple fact that Cave can cherry-pick what questions he deigns to answer. With no such filters available—other than a few people in bright vests handing a microphone to someone in the crowd—the whole night felt exactly like, as Cave described it on a printed card available at the door, a “restless experiment.” It wasn’t entirely successful.
A good number of attendees had it figured out, using their questions to pull out small revelations about Cave's songwriting process, his creative partnerships with members of his backing band the Bad Seeds, and the success of the Vampire’s Wife, the fashion house run by Cave’s wife, Susie. The rest of the interlocutors, on the other hand, offered up different degrees of skin-crawling embarrassments and frustrating tangents. They sought out career advice or advice for their students. (“Just noodle on,” Cave replied to the latter.) They asked, with some degree of bitterness, for a new autograph to replace the one they received years earlier where Cave had misspelled their name. One yukster decided to act like he was being overtaken with emotion about the losses in his life before asking, “What’s your favorite kind of pizza?”
There’s a version of this type of show that could be great and affecting and illuminating. Last night was this concept in its rawest, most unformed state, and not only did its pace and impact suffer, but the evening revealed just how much people expect and demand of the celebrities they admire.
Worse was when things got uncomfortably intimate. One person asked—and received—a hug from Cave. Another dared to ask how his son was still coping with the accidental death of his twin brother (a question Cave wisely pivoted to instead talk about how he and his wife got through the loss). Worse was the person who bestowed upon him a tear-and-snot-stained handkerchief, that Cave, for some reason, accepted. Most used their time to reveal something personal about themselves as a lead-in to their question. Here was their chance to seek that little flicker of attention from their favorite artist. Cave gamely gave it to them, offering up thoughtful and sometimes funny replies to even the most meandering of questions. As with Red Hand Files, he didn’t need to be so unselfish with his time and mental energy, but he gave it willingly.
What, though, is Cave getting out of this, as he wrote, “freewheeling adventure in intimacy”? Is it a way to feed into the devotions of his already devoted fanbase? If you’ve ever seen Cave perform live, you know just how ardent those folks are. Was it to offer a kind of group therapy experience for everyone in the room? Perhaps, but that it was attached to a small concert somewhat diminished the benefits of such an experience. Especially because the conversation segments were squeezed between the short bursts of music.
Cave did a marvelous job using certain questions to inform what songs he did play. A question about singing a song with the late Johnny Cash inspired Cave to perform a bold version of “The Mercy Seat” (which Cash covered on 2000’s American III: Solitary Man) in a medley with Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche.” When asked about his early days as a musician, he jumped at the chance to celebrate former bandmate Rowland S. Howard with a meltingly beautiful take on “Shivers,” a song that the late musician wrote for Cave’s first band, the Boys Next Door. He played “Breathless,” a song from his 2004 double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, after one woman mentioned it was important to her and her family. I was less excited to hear an unprompted run through “Stagger Lee,” a song that Cave and his many male fans should really have outgrown by now.
There’s a version of this type of show that could be as great and affecting and illuminating as The Red Hand Files. Last night was this concept in its rawest, most unformed state, and not only did its pace and impact suffer as a result, but the evening revealed just how much people expect and demand of the celebrities they admire. Nearly everyone who got to hold a microphone and talk to Cave exhibited some version of that needy expectation. Or, in the case of a few folks near where I was sitting, got distressingly angry when their requests for the microphone were ignored. As eager as I am to see where Cave takes this idea, my jaw still hurts from gritting my teeth through the show’s current form.