Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Seven).

“When I bought my first copy of the Bible, the King James version, it was to the Old Testament that I was drawn, with its maniacal, punitive God who dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief at the very depth of their vengefulness”.

– Nick Cave, Introduction to The Gospel of Mark, 1998.

In a career spanning nearly four decades, Nick Cave has continually pushed the boundaries of the written word in song, literature and screenplay.  One of the many striking things about Cave’s literary skills is the ever-present Biblical and Christian influence.  In terms of his music output, this has been a mainstay of his work since his days in pre-Bad Seeds outfit The Birthday Party.

In Cave’s 1985 single, Tupelo, from the album The Firstborn Is Dead, he uses Biblical imagery in order to describe the birth of Elvis Presley during a heavy storm in Tupelo, Mississippi.  The title of the album simultaneously refer to both Elvis, whose identical twin brother, Jesse Gardon Presley was delivered stillborn 35 minutes prior to the birth of Elvis, and to Exodus in the Old Testament:

“Moses said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.  Moreover, there shall be a great cry in all the land of Egypt, such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again …”

– Exodus 11: 4-6

Cave’s next album, Kicking Against the Pricks (1986), takes its title from a passage in the King James Version of the Bible, which reads “I am Jesus whom thou persecutes:  it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).  The phrase refers to the pointlessness of an ox kicking at the sharpened wooden rod, known as a prick, when the driver is tilling soil.  One of Cave’s heroes, Johnny Cash also used the phrase to great effect on his song The Man Comes Around from the album American IV: The Man Comes Around in 2002, a song also packed with Biblical imagery.  Cash had covered Nick Cave’s song The Mercy Seat on his previous album American III: Solitary Man in 2000.

The Mercy Seat, from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1988 album Tender Prey, as is the case with a majority of the writer’s work is laden with double meaning and Biblical imagery.  The Mercy Seat is a vivid first person narrative of a man on death row about to executed by the electric chair.  The term “Mercy Seat” refers to both the electric chair and the throne of God which the song’s protagonist knows he will soon be visiting.  In the Old Testament, the mercy seat is the symbol of the throne of God over the Ark of the Covenant.

“And thou shalt make an ark-cover of pure gold:  two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof and a cubit and a half the breath thereof.”

– Exodus 25:17

In the chorus of The Mercy Seat, Cave sings:

“And the mercy seat is waiting

And I think my head is burning

And in a way I’m yearning

To be done with all this measuring of truth.

An eye for an eye

And a tooth for a tooth

And anyway I told the truth

And I’m not afraid to die.”

This refrain, repeated fifteen times over the course of the song with a number of variations on the lyrics was inspired by Leviticus 24: 17-12, which states:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbour, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.  Whoever kills an animal shall make it good and whoever kills a person shall be put to death.  You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord, your God.”

At the start of The Mercy Seat, we see the convict suffering from apophenia, an unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied by an abnormal meaningfulness, seeing “a ragged cup, a twisted mop” but also “the face of Jesus in my soup”, the only image of forgiveness for the convict’s actions in the song, whilst the convict remains adamant that he is “nearly wholly innocent, you know”.   The image of “Those sinister dinner deals …” is suggestive of the convict’s last meal, a special meal provided for those on death row shortly before execution but in relation to the Biblical imagery within the song, also makes a connection to The Last Supper in the Bible.  The image of “a blackened tooth” in Verse 3 of the song suggests isolation but also martyrdom as if the convict is the tooth chosen to be blackened.  In Verse 4, Cave sings:

“I hear stories from the chamber

How Christ was born into a manger

And like some ragged stranger

Died upon the cross

And might I say it seems so fitting in its way

He was a carpenter by trade

Or at least that’s what I’m told.”

Religion is a subject that is frequently encouraged in prisons and this verse tells of how the prisoner hears Biblical stories from his cell.  This verse sees the prisoner finding it ironic that Jesus was a carpenter but was crucified on a wooden cross.  Here, we see another link with Johnny Cash, who was imprisoned on a number of occasions, and recorded the song Jesus Was A Carpenter on his 1973 album, The Gospel Road.  Jesus’s trade is said to be that of carpenter in the book of The Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, just as the prisoner in The Mercy Seat is by society:

““Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?  And not His sisters here with us?  And they took offence at him”.

– Mark 6:3

As the song continues, the convict becomes more anxious about his impending death and reckoning.  In the lines “And like the moth that tries To enter the bright light”, we see the narrator drawn towards the light of God as he approaches death.  This not only diminishes the importance of the song’s character but also shows his spiritual longings to be a compulsion.  We are given various suggestions of guilt before his final admission in the song’s closing line, “And anyway I told the truth but I’m afraid I told a lie”.

The Good Son, the album that followed Tender Prey in 1990, continued the use of Biblical imagery in Cave’s work, most notably in it’s title which was coined from The Parable of the Good Son (Luke 15: 11-32).  The sheer amount of inspiration that Cave has taken from the Bible continues to this day, across a wide spectrum of musical styles, most recently on albums such as Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008).    Speaking about the Biblical influences on his music, he said:

“I’m not religious, and I’m not a Christian, but I do reserve the right to believe in the possibility of a God.  It’s kind of defending against the indefensible, though; I’m critical of what religions are becoming, the more destructive they’re becoming.  But I think as an artist, particularly, it’s a necessary part of what I do, that there is some sort of divine element going on within my songs”.

– Interview with Nick Cave, Los Angeles Times, 2010.

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day Six).

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be putting me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me coming you better run”

Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killing done?”

God says, “Out on Highway 61””

– Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, from the album Highway 61 Revisted, 1965.

Long before his fully fledged conversion to Born Again Christianity in the late 1970’s, When he released the full on Christian themed albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980), Bob Dylan was already referencing The Bible.

On Highway 61 Revisited from 1965’s landmark album of the same name, he begins the song by referencing the story of Isaac and Abraham.  In the story of Isaac and Abraham, God commands Abraham to kill one of his son, Isaac, in order to prove his devotion to him:

“Some time later, God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am”, he replied.

Then God said, “Take your only son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region

of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you””.

– Genesis 22.

Adding significance to the use of the story in Highway 61 Revisited, Abram, the original name of the Biblical Abraham, is the name of Dylan’s own father.  The use of the Abraham and Isaac story could also be used as a protest symbol against the Vietnam War.  It is probably no coincidence that the President at the time of the American Civil War was Abraham Lincoln.  Therefore, Bob Dylan may be making a connection between the Bible story and historical events via his own father in order to make a comment about the Vietnam War.  Is Dylan about to be sacrificed as a warning to America not to kill it’s sons by sending them to war in the same way Abraham Lincoln did in the American Civil War?

Highway 61 is the road which runs through Bob Dylan’s home town down to the Mississippi delta and the same road that he wanders down in One Too Many Mornings.  The route passed near to the birthplaces and homes of influential musicians such as Muddy Waters, Son House, Charlie Patton and Elvis Presley and had already been the subject of Roosevelt Sykes’s 1932 song Highway 61 Blues.  It is also the road where Bessie Smith died after sustained serious injuries in a car accident.  But most significantly in terms of music history and relating to the first verse’s religious imagery, it is the road where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil, at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 49.  So therefore, through the song’s Biblical reference, is this God telling Dylan’s father that he has to kill his son at the same place that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil?

Song of the Day: The Bible in Music (Day One).

The Pixies were never shy of writing songs about subjects you wouldn’t expect a rock band to touch and their song Dead, from their 1989 album Doolittle, is no exception.  There are a number of biblical references on the Doolittle album, including the assertion in Monkey Gone To Heaven that “If man is 5, Then the devil is 6, Then God is 7” and the retelling of Samson and Delilah in the album’s closing track, Gouge Away.  Dead is another Biblical retelling, this time of the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11.  The fascination with Biblical themes on the Doolittle album can attributed to Black Francis’ teenage years, during which he and his parents joined an evangelical church linked to the assemblies of God.

Dead is written from the perspective of King David.  In the first verse of Dead, David seduces Bathsheba (“You crazy Bathsheba, I wancha”).  The song goes on to tell of how after Bathsheba tells King David that he has impregnated her, David sends for Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittie, a soldier in David’s army.  David tells Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet”.  David asks Uriah to do this in order that he will go home and sleep with his wife, thus covering up the pregnancy.  Unfortunately for David, Uriah, being a faithful servant refuses and sleeps outside the entrance to the King’s palace.  The song is called Dead in reference to the way in which David sends Uriah to the front line of battle, where he dies.  The incredibly quotable line “Uriah hit the crapper” refers to the death of Uriah, with “hit the crapper” being a crude way of saying ‘died’ and “hit” also being a reference to ‘Hittie’, Uriah’s ethnicity.

If we were to take the way in which the French refer to the orgasm as ‘the little death’, then the use of the word ‘dead’ in the song could also be making the connection between the themes of death and sex in the story of David and Bathsheba.  This can be seen in the following verse:

We’re apin? rapin? tapin? catharsis

You get torn down and I get erected

My blood is working but my

My heart is, dead, dead.

Further to this, following the death of Uriah, thus covering up Bathsheba’s infidelity and David’s dishonesty, David and Bathsheba’s baby dies.  This could to be the inspiration for the song Hey on Doolittle, where Black Francis sings “Uh is the sound that a mother makes when the baby breaks”.  Also included in the song Hey are the lines “Whores in my head, Whores at my door, Whores in my bed” and “whores like a choir” before Black Francis asks, “Mary ain’t you tired of this”, which could infer that this song is also Biblical and that this song is a continuation of both Dead and the Pixies retelling of the David and Bathsheba story.

Dead is a suitably dirty song for a dirty Biblical tale, one of illicit affairs, extramarital sex, pregnancy, betrayal and death.  Due to Black Francis’ religious background, the Pixies had a longstanding fascination with religion.  This fascination was first seen on 1987’s Come On Pilgrim with songs such as Caribou, Nimrod’s Son, The Holiday Song and Levitate Me, all of which feature either religious references or language.  On Doolittle, these references and language are expanded into full songs, tiny bite size retellings of Black Francis’s favourite stories from The Bible, told in only a way that the Pixies could.