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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Nick Cave: Mercy On Me'

Reinhard Kleist's 'Nick Cave: Mercy On Me.'
Reinhard Kleist's 'Nick Cave: Mercy On Me.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

November 29, 2017

How well does the new graphic novel Mercy On Me capture the spirit of Nick Cave? Take it from the musician himself. As blurbed on the book's back cover, Cave says:

Reinhard Kleist, master graphic novelist and myth-maker, has — yet again — blown apart the conventions of the graphic novel by concocting a terrifying conflation of Cave songs, biographical half-truths and complete fabulations and creating a complex, chilling and completely bizarre journey into Cave World. Closer to the truth than any biography, that's for sure! But for the record, I never killed Elisa Day.

Not every artist would get behind a biography that depicts him literally injecting ink into his veins and being sucked into a whirlpool of paper, only to be dragged out by an ex-girlfriend. Nick Cave isn't just any artist, though. A doom-haunted, eccentrically literary, and surprisingly melodic singer-songwriter, Cave has spent his four-decade career defying expectations. He's a writer, he's a visual artist, he's an actor, he's a composer, he's a singer — either a brilliant one or a terrible one, depending on who you ask. He's even an unconventional sex symbol.

It's not at all surprising that Kleist was drawn to Cave as a subject. Among music fans, the German artist is best-known for I See a Darkness, his 2009 graphic novel about Johnny Cash. An inspiration to Cave, Cash shared the Australian's willingness to journey through dark places in the hope of finding God on the other side.

That journey, rendered literally, becomes the climax of Mercy On Me, with Robert Johnson riding shotgun as Cave steers a car into the Large Hadron Collider (inspiration for Cave's 2013 song "Higgs Boson Blues"). "Are you with me?" asks Cave.

"I wouldn't have got in the car if I weren't, mister!" says Johnson.

That surreal episode is typical of Mercy On Me, which interpolates characters and events from over a dozen Cave songs into a recursive narrative that loosely follows the musician's journey from the bars of Melbourne to international stardom. Kleist particularly focuses on Cave's years in London and Berlin in the early '80s, when Cave fronted the Birthday Party, known as "the most violent live band in the world."

"Birthday Party concerts are just about seeing who gets punched next," says Cave, in the book, to guitarist Mick Harvey. Creatively restless and ready to move on, he ultimately formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (also with Harvey), and once the book hits that point its narrative accelerates. The story grows less specific in later years, and doesn't directly treat the recent tragedy of Cave's son's death in 2015, which inspired the devastating 2016 album Skeleton Tree.

As Kleist visits the worlds of Cave's songs — "Jangling Jack," "Mutiny in Heaven," "Hallelujah," "Where the Wild Roses Grow" — he suggests that Cave exorcises his personal demons by releasing them upon his characters. Near the book's end, the condemned murderer who narrates "The Mercy Seat" (a song Cave, in the book, refers to as "my life") directly confronts his creator.

"Can you forgive yourself for what you've done to us?" asks the man. "For what you do to yourself?"

"By striding forth," replies Cave, "we try to find forgiveness for all that we do to others."

Pretty heavy, but...well, that's Nick Cave. In addition for the allegorical journeys into Cave's psyche, the portions of the book set in the real world feature cameos by Lydia Lunch; Iggy Pop; Soft Cell; the Psychedelic Furs; Siouxsie and the Banshees; and others. Kleist's evocative ink drawings, dark and violent with regular hints of humor, suit their subject perfectly.

Cash, famously, covered "The Mercy Seat" on his 2000 album American III. In Mercy On Me, Cave is seen imagining himself enacting the lyrics to "Folsom Prison Blues."

"I don't care what anyone thinks of me, what they expect of me," he tells his girlfriend and collaborator Anita Lane on the facing page. "I wanna write about what I am."

"An outsider," she says. "An outlaw...pretty sexy!"

Below, listen to the songs featured in Mercy On Me.