Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Firstborn Is Dead

The Firstborn Is Dead (1985)


1. Tupelo 2. Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree 3. Train Long Suffering 4. Black Crow King 5. Knockin’ On Joe 6. Wanted Man 7. Blind Lemon Jefferson 8. The Six Strings That Drew Blood


What is it about music made by old black guys from Mississippi that has so enraptured the imaginations of foreign honkies for the last 50 years? I can only assume said honkies love archaic blues music for the same reason that I love eating tortilla chips while watching all those scenes in Lost In Translation with Scarlett Johansson in her underwear: it’s delicious and it gives me a boner. But you and I are smarter than that – just because something’s awesome doesn’t mean people are going to love it. There’s always a cultural context to this sort of thing. Most Americans didn’t give two shits about the Delta blues that sprung forth from the loins of their own nation until a bunch of funny looking British teenagers started turning it into rock ‘n roll. I often wonder how stupid the Beatles and Stones, et al, must’ve thought the citizens of this fine country were when they first came over here… we had this incredible musical heritage under our noses, and instead we were listening to Perry Como (just like today, when instead of listening to Drive-By Truckers, we listen to Ke$ha… but I digress).

Anyway, the point is that Nick Cave found an ideal source for his natural inclination for desolation, depravity and sorrow in the Delta blues. Some of that old stuff from the 20s and 30s is, at least to me, a hundred times more haunting, terrifying and darkly powerful than the blackest metal band I’ve ever heard. If I want to hear some guy belching about skull fucking a corpse, I’ll watch Law & Order SVU… ancient blues is where the real evil lies. And what Nick and the band do with The Firstborn Is Dead is emphasize that aspect of the blues music they had become fascinated with, and they treat their take on the form with an almost mythic reverence. For instance, in the slow, atmospheric “Blind Lemon Jefferson,” ostensibly an ode to the Texas bluesman of the same name, casts the titular character as a horror movie-worthy, death-bringing specter, when in reality he looked like a history professor. But when legend overtakes reality, just sing the legend… case in point, the fearsome epic “Tupelo,” which is like a Greek tragedy as written by John Lee Hooker. It’s very loosely based on the Hooker song of the same name that documents a 1927 flood that nearly wiped out the town of Tupelo, Mississippi. But Cave completely remakes it with his own trademark apocalyptic flair, besetting the tale with biblical imagery and allegorical references linking Jesus, the king of Israel, with Elvis, the king of rock ‘n roll, who was born in Tupelo. His fiery performance is edge-of-your-seat thrilling, violently gusting like a true rock ‘n roll storm.

The remaining tracks on The Firstborn Is Dead are not nearly as creative in their interpretations of the blues as “Tupelo.” There are plenty of gutturally twanging slide guitars and foreboding Cave performances (“Black Crow King”), but half the album just seems to shuffle along in familiar bluesy style without ever really getting out of second gear. So something like “Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree” swings pretty nicely with its simple, catchy three-note guitar riff, but I’d sure like to hear it eventually pick up a head of steam like the barreling choo-choo train imitation “Train Long Suffering” or the cover of Johnny Cash’s Bob Dylan-penned “Wanted Man” do. Nonetheless, the fact that these songs are soundly based in blues rather than um, frenzied noisemaking like much of From Her To Eternity was means that, structurally and melodically, they’re much easier to latch on to for a blues rockin’ fella like me… hardcore Birthday Party fans may beg to differ. The one slight stylistic diversion is “Knockin’ On Joe,” a seven and a half-minute jazzy, suicidal piano dirge that owes a debt to one of Cave’s idols, Leonard Cohen. It’s a first stab at the more refined style of piano balladry that the Bad Seeds would soon master, and though I find this particular song more mopey than I do terrifying like some of their later work, it’s still a striking composition.

Even if not every song here is up to grade-A Bad Seeds level quite yet, not enough can be said about how acutely Nick embodies the atmosphere and spirit of the spookiest strains of Delta blues. So much so that as I look at him intensely glowering at me from the shadows on the album cover like he would stab me through the heart if given half a chance, I begin to wonder if he really would. That’s what happens with the greatest performers: perception-wise, it becomes difficult for us as an audience to separate the persona from the reality. Especially when he grows an awesome mustache. I never trust anyone with a mustache. You know who had a mustache? Hitler. Exactly.

Speaking of Nazis, this blog is awesome.

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