#79: 1988, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, The Mercy Seat

by George_East on February 5, 2011

I am now a huge Nick Cave fan but I have to confess that I didn’t get him at first. I remember hearing John Peel playing various tracks from The First Born Is Dead and Kicking Against The Pricks in 1985 and 1986 and just not understanding what was good about them. The time was one of fey clever indie music – the C86 scene after the cassette given away with the NME of that name in that year. The Smiths were the band, my band, and when I needed noise or something more musically extreme, there was The Jesus and Mary Chain who had just released their feedback ridden debut, Psychocandy – a what the fuck moment, if there was ever one. But it was all sixties infused cool – The Byrds on the one hand, the Velvet Underground (via Phil Spector) on the other.

But Nick Cave, what was he all about? There was garage blues punk songs like Tupelo which crossed the rawness of the earliest delta blues with a punk attitude to covers of crooner classics like By The Time I Get To Pheonix. It didn’t fit with much else that was going on at the time and my mid-teen self heard it on Peel but just didn’t get it.

Until I heard this, that is, when it came out, in my last year at school. Peel played it and it blew me away. I bought the album, Tender Prey, with Cave looking ultra-cool in his black jacket, quiff and red shirt. No one else looked like him at the time either. But initially I didn’t really get beyond this track which opened the album. I would sit in my bedroom and play it repeatedly.

That spoken introduction is like the introduction to a novel  – ˜it all began when they took me from my home and put me on death row, of which I am nearly wholly innocent you know”. How could you not fall in love with that “nearly”   you know you are encountering genius songwriting just by the placing of that one word. And then that thrashy guitar sound before we have 5 minutes of a man, a religious but uneducated man (‘he was a carpenter by trade or at least that’s what I’m told), a murderer (˜an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but anyway I told the truth”), contemplating his last few minutes as he sits in the electric chair ‘made of wood and wire‘ which he compares to God’s throne ˜made of gold’, waiting to die – he says repeatedly that he is not afraid to die, but is that true, or is he just trying to convince himself. The pace and power of the song, its use of repetition – those ˜Ands”, almost makes you feel like it is you that it is ˜weighing up the truth’ and that it your ˜head that is burning’.

On his famous Live At Folsom Prison album Johnny Cash played 25 Minutes a song about a man in his last moments facing the hangman’s noose. A song with a similar idea underpinning it – but without the seriousness or the empathy. Without the intensity. The Man in Black though covered The Mercy Seat on American Recordings III and its religious southern gothic feel is ideally suited to Cash’s style. It is a great cover version.

But it is this, the original, which really packs the punch. A truly astounding track by an astonishing artist, backed by the most amazing performance by the Bad Seeds at their absolute best.

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