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Higgs Boson Blues
The Secret Chord Podcast on Nick Cave
This episode explores the generally misunderstood biblical concept of "an eye for an eye" as well as Nick's thoughts on science, prayer, and music. To listen, click here.
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Hello, and welcome to the Secret Chord Podcast. My name is Adam Jacobs. The secret chord explores spirituality through the lens of great music. Each episode explores a new artist and unpacks some of the hidden spiritual richness of the music and lyrics. Thanks for joining me. Let's listen.
Nicholas Edward Cave was born on the 22nd of September, 1957, in Victoria, Australia. He is a singer, songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer, and an occasional actor. He's known for his deep baritone voice and for fronting the rock band Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. His music is generally characterized by an emotional intensity, a wide variety of influences, and a lyrical obsession with death, religion, love, and violence, making him the perfect candidate for this podcast. Nick also runs the Red Hand Files, a newsletter-type blog uses to respond to questions on any topic from his fans, and they get into a lot of deep stuff over there. You should check it out. His work has been the study of academic studies, and his songs have been covered by a wide range of artists, including Johnny Cash, Metallica, and even Snoop Dogg. He was inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Hall of Fame in 2007 and named an officer of the Order of Australia in 2017.
Like most of us, when Nick was a kid, he went to his first concert. It was a festival, and it was a triple bill from England, Manford Mann, Deep Purple, and the band Free. He said it was awesome. I'm just a kid, and suddenly I hear amplified music for the first time. Music that tore my head off, and it was very, very exciting. I don't remember much about the concert, but I remember sitting there and feeling physically the sound going through me. Later, a childhood girlfriend introduced him to the music of Leonard Cohen, who he later described as the greatest songwriter of them all. And, in fact, he sounds that way to me. He sounds as if Iggy Pop or Tom Waits wrote Leonard Cohen-style songs, deep, dark, broody, and surprisingly spiritual. His songs also tend to be a little bit on the longer side, so we're only going to be able to hear some clips today, and let's start that now. This is off of his 1988 Tender Prey album. This is the Mercy Seat by the great Nick Cave.
That is one intense tune. I think that some of Nick's work is best appreciated as a kind of tribal chant. The same idea repeated over and over and slowly crescendoing and sinking in as it does. He still has a lot of his 80s goth feel here, which mellowed more and more over time. If you listen to his later stuff, listen to the whole tune for the full impact. So the concept of the Mercy Seat supposedly refers to the lid of the Arc of the Covenant, believe it or not, as well as the electric chair. This is an exploration of the concept of strict justice, and I looked on a website called Got Questions because I wasn't familiar with the term, The Mercy Seat. And it says, in a manner of speaking, the mercy seat concealed the people of God from the ever-condemning judgment of the law.
It's not referred to anywhere in the Bible as the Mercy Seat specifically, but that is a theological interpretation of what it means. So, on the one hand, I'm delighted that an artist even attempted to tackle a subject like this. Nick is very smart, but he is not a theologian. So I don't blame him for accepting what he read or was taught, but it's a complete misunderstanding of what the text means from the translation to the intent. And there is this concept that the quote, “Old Testament” God is full of wrath and judgment. But let's contrast that with a few quotes from the Hebrew scriptures. “Don't take revenge, don't bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself,” also known as the Golden Rule. That's Leviticus 19. How about “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” That's Micah 6:8.
Or how about “The Lord, a God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding and kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving, inequity, transgression, and sin.” So to me, that's a much more balanced approach. Yes, of course, there's a concept of justice, but on the other hand, there's a concept of love and mercy. And it's not that this lid of the arc is just protecting people from this terrible law. The law ultimately is good. Nonetheless, he wrote and sang, “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 and proof, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And anyway, I told the truth, and I'm not afraid to die.”
Allow me to take one more moment and to clear up a fallacy about what an eye for an eye actually means. And though it sounds like more of the name of a cartoon villain, the term “Lex Talionis,” which means the law of retribution, is the Latin name for the Jewish concept of an eye for an eye. Sadly, many false conclusions about Judaism and its morality have emerged from the general misunderstanding of this important principle. But there are four ways, at least by which we can know with certainty that Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, is referring to a monetary compensation. And not that you should actually poke out somebody else's eye if they have poked somebody's to begin with. Number one, there's a concept in Jewish law that when one verse is proximate to another one, that the proceeding verse applies to the one following and vice versa. In this case, we are first taught that damaging another's animal requires a monetary fine. So too, in the case of damaging another person, a fine must be paid.
Two: Bible scholar Benito Jacob noted that an eye for an eye is stated in the context of injuries that are caused by accident. Importantly, the proceeding verses are discussing cases of deliberate assault, but it doesn't legislate an exact retribution. Therefore, it's illogical to conclude that when someone seriously damages another with intent, we should let him off easy with a fine. But if he did it by accident, we should be more stringent and do to him as he did; that doesn't make sense. Number three, in Hebrew, the literal meaning of the verse is “an eye instead of an eye” and not “an eye for an eye,” this implies that something must be given in place of the lost eye, which would not be achieved by putting out the eye of the perpetrator. And finally, the text that deals with Lex Talionis, which is Leviticus 24, also commands that we have one law.
Based on that, the Talmud asks the obvious question of what should be done if a blind man blinded another man or if a cripple crippled another man. Would the court be able to exact the exact same retribution, ie. Poking the other guy's eye out? Could toothless people roam around bashing other people's teeth out with impunity? The only way to fulfill the “one law” requirement would be to apply a monetary compensation to the tooth and toothless person so that the exact same law would apply to them equally.
Okay, now that we've cleared that up, let's talk about Nick's spirituality for a second. In his recorded lectures on music and songwriting, Nick said that “any true love song is a song for God. I think, as an artist particularly, it's a necessary part of what I do that there is some Divine element going on within my songs.” Let's see if we can find some of that divinity within the next song, which is our feature for today. This is Off His Push the Sky Away album from 2013. This is the Higgs Boson Blues by the greats Nick Cave.
My gosh, what a totally out-of-the-box song. It's mostly just two chords that vamp back and forth, yet it's hugely compelling. There's something particularly poignant about the backup voices with their gentle “oo’s” and later much louder “ah’s,” that just signals that something dramatic and important is being conveyed. It obviously has that slow build that I mentioned earlier. Higgs Boson Blues was entirely improvised. Nick Cave and bandmate Warren Ellis recorded it as they wrote the song. They said, “we don't know the outcome, how long it will be, the trajectory of the lyric. So everybody's listening, playing off of what goes on. To me, that song has this beautiful, unstable adventuring sound that you'd never get if we did it again. It has that strange energy, and the performance is wobbly.” Warren said he'll take it every time over one where the performance is good.
But you can tell that we know the song, and that's very brave. It's a brave way of recording. So what is the Higgs-boson that he's singing about? Well, it's also known as the “God Particle.” It's a particle in physics that was named after physicist Peter Higgs, who, in 1964, along with five other scientists, proposed the “Higgs Mechanism” to explain why some particles have mass. That's wild. Particles acquire mass in several ways, but a full explanation of all particles has been extremely difficult. This mechanism required that a spinless particle known as a Scaler Boson should exist with properties as described by the Higgs mechanism theory. This particle was called the Higgs Boson. So somehow, this particle takes matter and gives it mass. I don't claim to really understand how it works. This was proven in Geneva in 2012. And about it, he wrote, “I was interested in the popular press's take on the experiment to find the quote “God particle.”
Nick told the press there was this idea that if they discovered the Higgs Boson, that it would negate the existence of God. It didn't. It was a remarkable scientific discovery. But some of the hubris of the achievement irked Nick. And he wrote something about it and listened to the lyrics. He says, “and if I die tonight, bury me in my favorite yellow patent leather shoes with a mummified cat and a cone-like hat that the caliphate forced on the Jews. Can you feel my heartbeat? I'm driving my car down to Geneva.” So I'll admit that I don't know precisely what this song is about. And as much as the improv did, it seems to be more of a kind of stream-of-consciousness exploration of this idea. I know that he is very curious about the inner workings of life. He's always and forever striving to know the unknown.
And he regards that phenomenon as a kind of prayer; as he once wrote, “a prayer provides us with a moment in time where we can contemplate the things that are important to us. And this watchful application of our attention can manifest these essential needs. The act of prayer asks of us something and, by doing so, delivers much in return. It asks us to present ourselves to the unknown as we are devoid of pretense and affectation and to contemplate exactly what it is we love or cherish. Through this conversation with our inner self, we confront the nature of our own existence.”
Well, that's pretty deep. There's so much more to be said here, and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what Nick Cave is about, his music, his lyrics, and him as a person. I encourage people to go out and check out his catalog. He is a fascinating person. His writing at the Red Hand Files online and his music on Spotify, wherever you listen. And those are my thoughts for now on the great Nick Cave and his contribution to the musical world. Thank you for listening.
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