Three Doses of Deep Smarts from Rocker Nick Cave

Excerpts from his treasure trove The Red Hand Files

There’s often deep, universal wisdom in the best of songs. The alchemy of melody, rhythm, and lyrics prepares and serves that wisdom to us like an elixir potion just right for our ills and inquiry.

Rarely do we get access to the interiority of a prolific songwriter the way we do Nick Cave in his Red Hand Files newsletter. As a beloved musician, Cave receives and reads, according to a recent tally, fifty or more emailed questions and notes from fans and followers every day. And he responds publicly to some of those, often with deep vulnerability, searching wisdom, and humility.

I recommend it without reservation. And as a teaser, I’ve gone through and selected three excerpts that piqued my interest below.

On the Multitudes that We Contain

Walt Whitman famously wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” In its context, Whitman rescues nuance and diversity of aspects from the jaws of those who might judge such contradiction as unreliable or a weakness.

In Red Hand Files #99, Cave builds on this concept. He pitches in active terms the inner process of friction and battle that is at play in this journey of the evolution of self.

“There are those who have an identity that is contrary and evolving and forever at war with itself. It is perpetually in the process of challenging its own best ideas.”

What moved me about this update in the ‘multitudes’ frame is how it raises up and honors the challenge, the give and take, the active conundrum of being in such a state or identity. It’s not easy, it’s not a sign of weakness, but rather a chafing conversation — one that we should welcome.

On the Necessity of Humor Always, but Particularly Now

These gnarly times are fraught. The hostility of this moment is overwhelming. And the mainstream and social media and the rhetoric of those in power in the states all feed the beast that is tearing the fabric of our society to shreds. We need a pause and a reprieve.

This is a time for more humor, for the archetypal energy of the trickster, for the comedians of our time. Not as escape, but as Cave writes in Issue #75, as “the antidote to dogmatism and fanaticism.”

“Anarchic and troublesome, comedians are the canaries in the coal mine of ideas, often saying things that cannot safely be said elsewhere and taking significant personal risk to speak truth, not just to power, but to stupidity too, to outrage and self-righteousness.”

We all want things to be better, I’m convinced, but as a culture we’ve habituated to bias, dogma, and binary thinking. And the information flows we are all hosed by day and night support that wrong-headed positioning.

“Humor is the way in which we maneuver ourselves through the things that are difficult to talk about, that require subtlety of thought, that are counter-intuitive, uncertain and mysterious.”

And the culture of zero-tolerance reactivity is a severe glitch in the operating system of a would-be thriving system. Cave continues, “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society.”

We should move towards a policy of zero-tolerance for cancel culture writ large. It will hasten our morbidity, individually and culturally.

On Prayer as a Secular Practice

In the face of all the heaviness and uncertainty of today, this week, this year, our times, I thought this excerpt from Cave’s Issue #92 was an apt closing:

“The act of prayer is by no means exclusive to religious practice because prayer is not dependent on the existence of a subject. You need not pray to anyone. It is just as valuable to pray into your disbelief, as it is to pray into your belief, for prayer is not an encounter with an external agent, rather it is an encounter with oneself. There is as much chance of our prayers being answered by a God that exists as a God that doesn’t. I do not mean this facetiously, for prayers are very often answered.”

So with that, sincere prayers for some grace and healing for us all as we emerge through this day, this week, and this year.


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