“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.