On “Art Heroes” and Letting Your Idols Be Human

What one fan learned through being disappointed and comforted by Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files.

Alex DiFrancesco | Longreads | May 15, 2019 | 8 minutes (2,099 words)

As I type this, the blackened letters tattooed on my hand flash across the keyboard. BAD SEED is inked down my middle finger. It can be read as juvenile; I’m sure it is by many. It’s one of my homage tattoos. I got it the day I signed a contract for my second novel, a few months after I had seen Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in concert for the first time, after more than a decade of fandom and made the decision that I had to, uncompromisingly, unabashedly, dedicate my life to art. Nick Cave’s sprawling career is a testament to such dedication, from his baby post-punk days in the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party, to his decades with the Bad Seeds. Cave’s music, which vacillates between the aggressively abrupt and the mournfully introspective, has carried me through some of the most intense periods of my life. It’s the kind of music that saves you, if you happen to be the sort of person that music can save. It gives you the ability to grit your teeth and spit on your enemies, or weep while walking down the street with your headphones, as needed. You can play it at a wedding or a funeral (though it’s not a big hit at karaoke); you can lull yourself to sleep with it, or wake up fighting to it. It would be easy for me to call Nick Cave one of my heroes.

But this essay isn’t really about Cave’s music, as important as it is to me. It’s about The Red Hand Files.

In September 2018, after the tragic death of his young son Arthur, after his mournful album Skeleton Tree, Cave started a newsletter intending to answer fan questions as honestly as he could. I was elated and a little terrified. The softer, gentler Cave of modern days, any long-term fan knows, is a newer development. Many of us vividly remember Cave’s brief and doomed “ask me anything” that happened on Twitter in 2013, when he responded to every question with condescension and barely contained rage. “What would you recommend for young musicians hoping to be as great as you, Nick Cave?” one fan asked in the experiment. “Lower your expectations,” you could practically hear Cave growl through the internet. What would we learn about the inner workings of my hero through these letters? Would it be a similar (hilarious, in character, and utterly beloved) disaster?

But the Cave of 2013 has been softened by grief, loss, and mourning — he spoke extensively in many interviews around his Skeleton Tree tour of feeling connected to the world around him — and his fans — in a way that he hadn’t before then. In the first edition of The Red Hand Files, he writes, “I kind of realized that work was the key to get back to my life, but I also realized that I was not alone in my grief and that many of you were, in one way or another, suffering your own sorrows, your own griefs. I felt this in our live performances. I felt very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together.”

Cave’s musings on grief are, as they have always been, profound. The Red Hand Files, which usually arrive early in the morning, here in Eastern Standard Time, often feel like letters about all that make being human worthwhile to me — art, love, loss, tenderness, and introspection. I read them at 5 or 6 a.m., often reveling in the gift this artist is giving us all.

Except for when he’s not.

Because there have also been times when I’ve been so disappointed with Cave and the project that I wanted to unsubscribe.

We live in a cultural moment when many fans are (often understandably) “canceling” the work of many artists. In cases like Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, I think this urge is 100 percent justified. Those who commit crimes against others and use their star status to stay free of consequence are villainous. But the cultural moment we live in also seems to expect perfection from people, lest they be canceled as well. It seems to allow little room for people to fuck up, be messy, or be flat-out distasteful. Cave, in his letters, has proven himself imperfect, often frustrating, not, perhaps, the way people wish him to be. The Red Hand Files has been a lesson, for me, in the intricacies of fighting the urge to hit the buttons that, in the digital world, cut us off from someone else, delete them, disappear them, make them virtual ghosts whose traces we have to look for to find, rather than have delivered to us.

The Red Hand Files has been a lesson, for me, in the intricacies of fighting the urge to hit the buttons that, in the digital world, cut us off from someone else, delete them, disappear them, make them virtual ghosts whose traces we have to look for to find, rather than have delivered to us.

One of the most disappointing moments for me, as a Cave fan, came when he announced that he would play Israel on a recent tour, despite being urged not to by Brian Eno and many other artists promoting a cultural boycott of Israel. Cave’s response, publicized in a press conference on the issue, showed him to be things I found repulsive — arrogant, self-centered, an artist who could appear to claim that the deaths and torment of the Palestinian people were less important than Eno and company trying to “censor” artists like him. I was disgusted that someone I held in such high regard could be that blind to the issues facing the people of Palestine.

But, I learned through an early edition of The Red Hand Files, that was not the entire case. Cave provided nuance to the discussion in his December 2018 letter when a fan asked about his stance on Israel and the Brian Eno–supported cultural boycott. The Cave in this letter (and perhaps some of it has to do with being a man more comfortable at a typewriter than a press conference?) provided context that coverage of the issue had not. Cave was not quite as he’d been painted in a few broad strokes by the media. He said, in the response to his fan’s questions, “I do not support the current government in Israel, yet do not accept that my decision to play in the country is any kind of tacit support for that government’s policies. Nor do I condone the atrocities that you have described; nor am I ignorant of them. I am aware of the injustices suffered by the Palestinian population, and wish, with all people of good conscience, that their suffering is ended via a comprehensive and just solution.” I felt my own activist rage — I am a firm and longtime supporter of the Palestinian-lead Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions [BDS] movement — soften as Cave described his nuanced feelings on the subject via the newsletter. Cave went on to express an ambivalence that had been utterly absent from the arrogant stance in press conferences: “Occasionally, I wonder if The Bad Seeds did the right thing in playing Israel. I cannot answer that question. I understand and accept the validity of many of the arguments that are presented to me.” I felt my anger lessen even more when he described Brian Eno as a force that had taught him to make music, a hero. Cave saying no to his hero, with obvious anguish and deep thought, reinforced what these letters were doing for me in terms of the allowances for our heroes not to replicate our own selves, our own ideals. In letting ourselves disagree with them, be upset with them, sometimes revile them, and still acknowledge that their place in our own patheon is enormous, regardless, is an act of understanding and allowing for nuance in a world that often feels black and white.

I certainly came close to reviling Cave when the letter about women, consent, and #MeToo appeared. “As to the recent ‘cultural sea changes’ affecting women,” Cave wrote, “I feel that they are in danger of eroding those bright edges of personhood, and grinding them down into monotonous identity politics — where some women have traded in their inherent wildness and sense of awe, for a one-size-fits-all protestation against a uniform concept of maleness which I’m not sure I recognize.”

As a lifelong feminist and a transgender person who believes that gender identity is of deep importance to understanding one another, I find it hard to explain how much this particular letter disgusted me. I felt like I was listening not to a hero who had once written a gorgeously vicious song about a woman who was gang-raped, then murdered all of her assailants, but someone’s curmudgeonly old grandfather who was holding forth about women in his day. I almost canceled my subscription to the newsletter. I seethed with rage. I talked to anyone who would listen about how disappointing it really is to see the inner workings of the people who make the art you love. But I hung on.

Ultimately, I’m glad I did. While Cave’s politics and views on gender may not be anywhere near what I wish to see coming from someone I’d consider a hero, there has frequently been reminders of the reasons I adored Cave to begin with. When he speaks of deeply human sentiments — love, loss, art, beauty — there are few who can parallel him. His own recent (and enormous) losses, have provided fodder for many of the more poignant essays. These things, as he has frequently said, are what tie humans together, and it has seemed to me from his music and now from these letters that he had somehow tapped into the epicenter of these human links.

A few months ago, my first love, who had been ill with multiple sclerosis for some time, passed away. I wasn’t quite ready for the enormity of the feelings I would experience around his passing. I kept thinking — this person I once loved, who was gone now — there were so many moments, long ago, that only the two of us had shared. I was the sole caretaker of those moments now. It seemed unfair to hoard them. I wrote a letter to his mother, attempting to share some of them. As I did, I pulled up Issue #6 of The Red Hand Files, in which a fan writes to Cave about losing many loved ones, and Cave writes back his awe-inspiring meditations on grief.

As I wrote the letter to my once-love’s mother, I added the line, from Cave’s letter, “It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is nonnegotiable.”

Becoming softer and more tender by watching that which you love show its cracks is an act of generosity and love in a world that seems to increasingly want to draw strict lines of perfection.

I come from a background staunch in its refusal to allow others slack. I came up as a militant anarchist and activist, I watched people excommunicated from social circles, artists “canceled” all through my formative years. I have gotten older since then, I have softened; I am not the proponent of the one-and-done approach to ideological difference this background might portend. Reading Cave’s series of letters has helped me soften further. I’ve developed the specific term “art-hero” to reflect my adoration of someone who’s work I can find no fault in, yet who is terrifyingly, mundanely human just the same. An “art-hero” is not the same as a hero, sweeping in, perfect, saving the day, sweeping out. An “art-hero” is human in all respects but the glorious works they create. An “art-hero” is perhaps tapped into the divine and inscrutable place that I romantically believe art comes from, but they breathe, they bleed, they are messy, and they are not all the things we wish they could be. The room I allow the creators of the works that move me has seeped into my personal life, as well, giving the people I love more room to fail, to fall, to fuck up. Becoming softer and more tender by watching that which you love show its cracks is an act of generosity and love in a world that seems to increasingly want to draw strict lines of perfection.

I’m talking about the prickly, the imperfect, the difficult. I’m talking about letting your heroes fall — and fail — and still hold the unique place in your heart where they were before they revealed themselves as all too human.

There is, in art and, I suspect, life, a richness in letting people be themselves, as flawed or different in ideology as that person may be. I’m not talking about forgiving the willfully hateful or obtuse (we must still draw lines). I’m talking about the prickly, the imperfect, the difficult. I’m talking about letting your heroes fall — and fail — and still hold the unique place in your heart where they were before they revealed themselves as all too human.

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Alex DiFrancesco is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and journalism who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, and more. Their first novel, an acid western, was published in 2015, and their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their second novel All City (Seven Stories Press), in 2019. Their storytelling has been featured at The Fringe Festival, Life of the Law, The Queens Book Festival, and The Heart podcast. DiFrancesco is currently an MFA candidate at Cleveland State University. They can be found @DiFantastico on Twitter.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross