On June 9th, hours before my own birthday party was getting started, the other Birthday Party, with a comparable amount of snot and crying, was winding down. Of course, the heaving and sobbing that was occurring in the Crystal Ballroom in St.Kilda was both heroin heavy and par for course. While mine—equally par for course—stemmed from my having lost a rolling-down-the-hill race, and my being eight years old. I have been assured by more than a few astrologists in Bad Seeds t-shirts that there is no such thing as coincidence, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to see the line connecting Nick Cave singing his last rendition of “Mutiny In Heaven” on the same date as my eighth birthday, and me growing up to be some fat cunt behind a screen.
Course thus set, I have devoted a fair amount of my life to thinking and writing about (and occasionally cosplaying) the Birthday Party, and all of its offshoots. I have studied the direct offshoots (the Bad Seeds, Crime & the City Solution, These Immortal Souls et al.), the indirect (Grinderman, the individual ex-Birthday Party members’ later solo work), and the all the artists separated by more than one degree—but less than five—who wouldn’t exist without the Birthday Party having, in their short (1977-1983) time on Earth, made the case for never again touching any of the top five buttons of one’s dress shirt (Gallon Drunk, Flaming Stars, etc etc etc etc etc etc.).
What made the Birthday Party so influential—both to myself and countless others—is easy. One needs only a passing interest in James Dean, tragicomedy, and/or Count Dracula to get it. Consider even just the surface details.
1. Nick Cave asking for a show of hands re: wanting to die.
2. Rowland S. Howard’s phlebotomistic six-strings.
3. Phil Calvert playing the drums like John “Drumbo” French auditioning for the Stray Cats.
4. and bassist Tracy Pew simultaneously inventing the Jesus Lizard and demonstrating that it was acceptable for over-literate pastepots to present as S&M cowboy beboppers.
Toss in the requisite/legendary ill fate of the band (and half the band’s members), the violence, the hurt feelings, and you get a story as classically resonant, rock and roll, and American as Romeo & Juliet, Cain & Abel, the throuple of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago, or Kurt & Courtney. Really, anyone who has listened to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” and felt, to an unhealthy degree, that song’s lyrics—with its doomed narrator inhabiting the viewpoints of both the vampiric man-children and the deranged-about-Elvis aristocrats who open their Christ-dappled legs to them—should be able to see the appeal.
The reader doesn’t have to be convinced of the Birthday Party’’s virtues to understand that, when I heard that there was a documentary devoted to the band, I was giddy. Even though I know much of the basic story by heart (having written about Nick Cave, and many of the Bad Seeds, regularly, and having briefly documented the Birthday Party’s journey from Australia to London to Berlin to Oblivion, in my Pitchfork Sunday Review of Junkyard), the literature on the band—its context, and its frontman in particular—is voluminous. Being occasionally busy, and often jealous of other writers, there’s a lot of it that I haven’t read. And, no matter how many years I’ve spent listening to the Birthday Party and thinking about the characters and catalog, I still love the band. With an enthusiasm that, unlike my “Release the Bats” tattoo, has not faded with time (or, for that matter, grown distorted as my tummy expands).
Point being; as soon as I heard that Mutiny In Heaven, the new Ian White directed film, was playing in NYC, I bought tickets (for myself and Zohra) to see it at the DCTV Firehouse Cinema. And, when I was at the last minute asked to travel to Canada to cover the POP Montreal festival, I agreed on the condition that my flight home would get in early enough that I could run to my apartment, drop off my bags, and still make the 7PM Monday showing. I didn’t want to wait and watch all the promised live footage and exclusive interviews on some streaming service. I wanted my wife and I to see Mutiny In Heaven on the big screen, with presumably a bunch of batcave weirdos.
In many regards, my enthusiasm was justified. While Zohra had to miss the screening, there was indeed no shortage of old head gothic types, many of whom were old friends whose attendance would have made seeing Mutiny In Heaven worth it even if the movie had been awful. Which it wasn’t. In fact, Mutiny In Heaven was quite good. It sounded and looked amazing, so much so that one suspects that some live footage was synched with studio sound. The animation aspects, which make use of Reinhard Kleist’s 2017 graphic novel, are winning. The in-studio scenes—replete with Nick Cave’s isolated vocal tracking and him occasionally pouting as he struggles with Rowland S. Howard’s lyrics—are fascinating. The film felt brisk, even at 1 hour and 26 minutes. Seeing the live footage, along with old photos of Cave looking like a lil’ pencil troll, was well worth the admission fee. Everybody I’ve talked to who has seen it has enjoyed it. If you want to stop reading now, do so: I recommend Mutiny In Heaven. I’ll probably see it again. Better than Cats etc…
And yet. I do have another point here, if you can stand to hear it.
Other point being: I, in my enthusiasm for what might be my favorite band, I fucked up. And I fucked up in a way that I don’t usually fuck up, at least not when it comes to music documentaries.
I find most music docs to be fatuous, disingenuous, tedious or worse—with Summer of Soul being the most notable exception, all that Woodstock ‘99 bullshit being the norm, and that unsettlingly sketchy Betty Davis doc being the most recent example of a notable bum-out. As part of my job, I still have to watch a lot of them. I manage to do so by keeping my expectations somewhere above Lemuria and below Atlantis.
However, in anticipation of Mutiny In Heaven, because I was too close to the case, I forgot to adjust my expectations…
Because I love the Birthday Party.
Because I was excited about the live footage.
Because I was excited to see Rowland S. Howard get his due. Because I knew Lydia Lunch had taken part, so I knew that he would.
Because I was excited to see how the Birthday Party’s legacy would be discussed; whether the music would be seen as part of a Captain Beefheart/blues tradition, the Stooges taken to an illogical and thrilling extreme, or simply within the context of goth music. Because I was excited to find out who gave Mick Harvey his first olde-timey suit.
Because I was excited to see—in the absence of any regular goth documentary talking heads—who was going to take the place of Dave Grohl, Henry Rollins, or Thurston Moore.
Because I was so excited to see Nick Cave with a full head of hair, and not a lick of profound wisdom regarding the ineffable to share.
Because Anita Lane.
For all these reasons, I went into Mutiny In Heaven with high expectations. Like some kind of new jerk.
And I do feel like a jerk. Partially, yes, for once again being put into the position of Not Letting People Enjoy Things, about a movie that’s clearly a labor of love, and one that will undoubtedly provide a lot of joy to a lot of people I like on a personal level. But partially (mainly) because Mutiny In Heaven provided me a fair amount of joy, and was simultaneously so fucking frustrating that I found myself squirming in my seat, having to restrain myself from shouting at the screen/director/universe at large.
The documentary’s failings are especially frustrating because there isn’t a single one that couldn’t be avoided, and avoided easily. While there’s nothing untrue (or, at least for the first five or six times, uninteresting) about all the analysis devoted to how transgressive and craaaaazy the Birthday Party was (the shows were violent! The band really liked heroin! You’ll get no pushback from me about either point), that’s not all the band was. At one point, someone expresses surprise at how a band so transgressive could have achieved popularity; as if the popular allure of a band of extremely smoldering and brilliantly dressed young men making throbbing, bass heavy music about sex and death was just too novel for words. As it stands, there’s about forty odd minutes devoted to really driving home the point that young people, living during the societal freefall of the early 1980s and often on drugs, aren’t typically super hot about adhering to societal norms. Had the filmmakers cut maybe ten minutes of the (again, often hella entertaining) “holy cats, we were pretty messed up” stuff and maybe instead thrown in a few lines about how “Mutiny In Heaven” (you know, the song that the movie is named after) was written, how the band was actually dissolved or, perish the thought, INCLUDED A SINGLE LINE REFERENCING ANITA FUCKING LANE BY FUCKING NAME (as opposed to simply showing some pictures, and a reference to “the girlfriends” coming along for the ride), that would have gone a long way.
(For those keeping track; the band’s breakup and quickly brushed aside with an old interview of Nick Cave describing the Birthday Party ending—typically, rightly or wrongly, attributed to being the singer’s decision—as something that “just happened,” free of any particular agency, like the weather.)
(And, perhaps informing the omission of Anita Lane despite her large and distinct role in the band’s history, the first female voice doesn’t enter the movie ‘till around the 1 hour and 10 minutes mark. It’s two quick quotes from Lydia Lunch. Neither of her quotes are specifically about Rowland S. Howard. As to whether or not Lunch had more to say on that particular topic than what was included in the film; I’m *cough* fairly confident that she did.)
Look, I’m a believer in judging whether a piece of art is successful based on the artist’s intentions, not by how successfully said art fulfills what I wanted the artist to intend. By those standards, assuming that Ian White and Co. wanted to make a kick-ass document of the Birthday Party—a band that telegraphed being utterly alive so vigorously that burning so bright could have only one natural ending—then Ian White and Co. succeeded. Mutiny In Heaven is boisterous and compelling. It makes clear at least a few (genuinely important) aspects of what made, and makes, the Birthday Party so thrilling.
I should also again make clear that what the filmmakers accomplished is very much what a lot of Birthday Party fans wanted. As my friend Pieter said, as I was whining to him after the movie, “man, I dunno… I was so relieved that there weren’t any shots of Thurston Moore explaining the Birthday Party to me.” To that, I can only say, “fair point.”
On the other hand, intention inshmension: if you’re going to make a documentary, you better tell me something I don’t know, and that doesn’t mean that the only available options are studio tutorials or a series of 60-something boho-alt-historians looking directly at the camera and comparing “Nick the Stripper” to Albert Ayler. There’s a middle ground. Which, to reiterate my frustrations, Mutiny In Heaven comes so close to. But then, for reasons I find impossible to figure out, it simply declines to spare the ten minutes it would require to show the Birthday Party as more than a hard rockin’ grotesquerie; a sentient (and multi-gangly-limbed) Harry Crews novella. Which matters (to me!) because if you render a band like the Birthday Party—a band with sexualized psychodrama, prog-blues ambition, and sheer ecclesiastical tomfoolery to spare—as just mad lads, an art school AC/DC high on priestly ambivalence and vodka, then you risk exposing the thrilling as something far more banal.
I’m the first to admit that, in my lifelong admiration for the Nick Cave oeuvre, one thing that’s been consistent is my bellyaching about fellow admirers not liking the art in the correct way. On one hand, this is undoubtedly informed by some deep seated need on my part to be special in my fandom. Which isn’t particularly wonderful on my part. Conversely, coming at this shit slightly sideways, with a bit of discernment, isn’t exactly brain science. It just requires a bit of lateral shuffling and an admission that Nick Cave and I owe each other exactly the same thing; jack shit. He can do what he wants. He can make the most devastating and beautiful and whip-smart funny rock and roll music ever recorded by man or beast, and he can also occasionally, in lieu of just answering documentary interview questions like a normal person, intone his own journal entries as voiceover like he was some sort of NPR Jesus narrating the most beautiful and important episode of How I Met Your Mother ever. And I can respond in part, with my usual whip lashing between jaw drop and eye roll. I still love him, unconditionally except when otherwise noted, and he still remains unaware of my existence. In this way, we both stay free.
Mutiny In Heaven fits nicely within the conditions of my relationship with the film’s subject. What the movie wants and what I want are two different things. I admire the movie, with caveats that keep me up at night while not quite being dealbreakers. I give it two thumbs up, accepting no responsibility for what any of my other fingers might be doing. Mutiny In Heaven is the movie the filmmakers set out to make. What they left out is the movie they didn’t want to make. That’s fine.
That said, Mutiny In Heaven is also like if, in Wings of Desire’s famous nightclub Bad Seeds scene, where Nick Cave approaches the mic—ready to sing one of the handful of deathless songs he co-wrote with Anta Lane—and intones the film’s semi-classic internal dialogue of “One more song and then it’s over. But I’m not going to tell you about a girl… I’m not going to tell you about a girl.”
But then, instead of how the scene currently runs; with the black and white film turning to black and red as Nick Cave kicks off the staggering lurch of “From Her To Eternity,” with a matter-of-fact intonation of “I want to tell you about a girl,” the singer instead decides not to. Then the movie ends.
UPDATE: Emily Colucci wrote an excellent review of Mutiny In Heaven, that raises many of my issues with the film. I recommend reading it!
BONUS ALBUM REVIEW
Armand Hammer - We Buy Diabetic Test Strips
The NYC duo’s first album on Fat Possum. The signing makes some kind of sense when one considers how Elucid & billy woods—like labelmates Rowland S. Howard and Grifters—are also inclined towards enunciating a clarity of vision over occasionally scuzzy or abstracted sounds, and also share with all those dead rockers that particular rapture that comes with picking at an emotional scab till it—and everyone in the old wound’s proximity—bleeds.
On “I Burnt Your Clothes," Rowland S. Howard sang:
“I left you in the hospital,
and you don't have a stitch to wear
'cos the doctors cut the clothes right off your back
and guess what I don't care”
On “Niggardly (Blocked Call)," Elucid raps:
“I have to admit I enjoy watching you wander the wilderness
You betrayed your brother, burnt every bridge
When your end come, you'll be alone
When the end come I'll actually answer the phone just to drink your pain”
Where are men like this supposed to go? Dischord Records? I’m not saying Fugazi couldn’t have pulled off—as billy woods does on “The God Must Be Crazy”—a joke about Henry Kissinger guesting on In On the Kill Taker, I’m just saying some of their audience wouldn’t have laughed.
Anyway, We Buy Diabetic Strips is bleakly hilarious throughout. Shoutouts to various revolutionaries—like Walter Mosley and the Hernandez Bros.—abound. Yeah, the album feels slightly “difficult” at first. By listen six, it’s practically delightful. What seemed abstract at first is revealed as good-bone architecture; no more loosey-spooky than a skeleton necessitates. As always, even the flightiest flights of sonic fancy are grounded by woods and Elucid, two rappers who have never once not made a line feel like anything other than a hard, hard truth. Doesn't hurt that, right in the middle—when the album might be verging on the beautiful—Curly Castro shows up with Willie Green and Junglepussy, and the three proceed to go about simply wrecking the joint.
And if you think I’m projecting when I insist on comparing every Backwoodz-adjacent project to my usual roster of ‘90s post-personalities, Elucid just straight up says “Body-worn Christ with thrice the charm, it's electric/Everybody want to be naked and famous/Tricky said it, I'm like, 'go ahead'” You think these fuckers aren’t working in and out of all available traditions? You think Elucid and billy woods aren’t aesthetes? Like they aren’t responsible for bringing back the written word and New Kingdom both. Like they aren’t our fallen civilization’s last stand against the forces of hauntology? The dream of Mark Fisher, realized too late? Of course they fuck with Tricky! And are on the same label as Spiritualized, for some reason! Fuck you for doubting them (and me). If my digressions don’t make it clear, We Buy Diabetic Strips is perfect. Best album of all time. Or the most perfect album for these times. Same difference.
(Also, I’m glad that Elucid and jpegmafia made up. I’m sure it was a minor blip to them, but mr.mafia implying that Armand Hammer and doing cocaine might be mutually exclusive really hurt my feelings.)
Further Reading: A Bunch of Stuff I’ve Written about Birthday Party and Bad Seeds
A guide to Nick Cave (old) https://www.vice.com/en/article/nejxnb/the-guide-to-getting-into-nick-cave
Moth Culture Like Mods to a Flame
Jim Sclavunos The One-Man Oral History of New York Rock
Push The Sky Away https://zacharylipez.ghost.io/21st-century-bad-seed/
We Call Upon the Author Notes On "We Call Upon The Author" - Abundant LivingShareShare
Teenage Snuff Film Rowland S. Howard, “Teenage Snuff Film” | Bandcamp Daily
Mick Harvey Mick Harvey and a Conversation with a Legend
Birthday Party The Birthday Party: Junkyard Album Review | Pitchfork