Mar 21, 2024, 06:28AM

Classic Songs: “The Mercy Seat”

Nick Cave, art, and the presence of death.

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In 1988, Australian rocker Nick Cave released the song “The Mercy Seat.” The five-minute dirge expresses the personal ruminations of a death-row inmate before going to the electric chair. The song has a double meaning. The mercy seat refers to both the electric chair and the kaporet, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant that holds the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25: 19–22).

Cave’s musical tale gets into the head of the soon-to-be-executed man on the last day of his life. He takes in the minute details of his final meal, “A ragged cup,” “a hooked bone rising from my food,” “the face of Jesus in my soup.” All the while “the Mercy Seat is waiting” and the inmate “is yearning to be done” with this life and the thoughts that have led to this moment.

In his 2020 book Stranger Than Kindness, Cave reflects on how he came to write the song. “In the early 80s I was fully engaged in the writing of my novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. I sat in a small room in Berlin, typing away, day and night, sleeping little. When I reached an impasse with the novel, I would scroll the odd lyric line on a scrap of paper beside me, ostensibly a song about a man going to the electric chair. The song was at best a distraction, a doodle, a song I never looked fully in the eye. But songs have their own journeys and in time assert their sovereignty. ‘The Mercy Seat’ was such a song.”

In the Bible, atonement for the tribes of Israel is possible only when a rabbi adorns the Ark’s lid (“the mercy seat”) with sacrificial blood. When Cave sings the story of the doomed inmate, he sings of death in this life and God’s judgment in the next. Cave juxtaposes the eye for an eye retribution of the Old Testament against the forgiveness offered in the New Testament. The inmate knows his hours are numbered and his thoughts turn to God.

In Heaven His throne is made of gold
And the Ark of His Testament is stowed
A throne from which I’m told all history does unfold
Down here, it’s made of wood and wire
And my body is on fire
And God is never far away.

Cave was always fascinated with religious imagery. He grew up in the small town of Wangaratta, Australia. At nine, he joined the choir of the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church. He loved the music but rebelled against the religious teaching. His father, an English teacher, read him books like Crime and Punishment and Lolita. Cave was expelled from high school and then went to art school to study painting.

At 19, he attended his first rock concert, featuring Manfred Mann and Deep Purple. He felt the music “physically going through” him and left the venue “a different person.” Two years later, Cave’s father was killed in a car accident. Cave wrote, “the loss of my father created a vacuum, a space in which my words began to float and collect and find their purpose.”

In 1973, he formed a band with friends called The Birthday Party. They moved to London and immersed themselves in the post-punk movement. The music was filled with screeching guitars, screaming vocals and angry lyrics. The band earned a reputation as “the most violent band in Britain” and often fought physically with fans.

Throughout this period, Cave never stopped going to church if only to find “reasons not to believe.” He related to Christ’s teachings “way before I had any notions of God… I couldn’t resist the ringing intensity of Christ.” He became fascinated with the Stations of the Cross and the story of the devil “as a character seeking forgiveness in some way.”

Cave went solo in 1983. His music merged blues, gospel and rock and his songs told stories about grim characters and a judgmental God. His first solo album From Her To Eternity includes the song “Well of Misery” where Cave sings “the same God that abandoned her has in turn abandoned me.”

By the time Cave was 30, he was obsessed with imagery about God and death. “The Mercy Seat” became a favorite among fans. Many were attracted to the refrain “I’m not afraid to die” repeated 15 times. Cave later acknowledged, “I don’t feel as cocky about death as I used to. I wake up in mad panics about death approaching.”

The protagonist of “The Mercy Seat” doesn’t panic about death. Yet his imminent death brings him no closer to knowing truth from falsehood. (“I’m hoping to be done with all these weighing up the truth.”) He still has questions. Is death an end? Is there an afterlife? Is a there a God to provide forgiveness and offer mercy for our sins?

“The Mercy Seat” was inspired by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash’s inmate sang, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” (Cash later released a cover of “The Mercy Seat” in 2000, three years before his death.) Cash was moved by early-20th century blues songs like Bessie Smith’s “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Lectric Chair Blues.”

In most murder-ballads, the convict confesses his sin. In “The Mercy Seat,” we’re not certain whether the convict committed murder. (“Anyway I told the truth, I’m afraid I told a lie.”) Cave told The Sun, “I think that’s why we can continue to play it at pretty much every concert. It remains mysterious and ambiguous but genuinely thoughtful.” In 2019, Cave told Mojo magazine, “I always thought it was clear the guy did it. What’s in question is the concept of guilt and innocence, in the sense that he may have done it but that doesn’t mean he’s a guilty person in a broader sense.”

Cave understands that killing a killer does nothing to resolve the man’s actions on earth. True judgment remains solely in the hands of God.

In 2015, Cave’s son Arthur died after falling off a cliff in England. Cave lost his mother in 2020 and then his other son Jethro in 2022. He went public with his torment and suffering. On his website The Red Hand Files, he responded to fan questions about God.

“I’ve been circling around the idea of God for decades. It’s been a slow creep around the periphery of His Majesty, pen in hand, trying to write God alive. Sometimes, I think, I have almost succeeded. The more I become willing to open my mind to the unknown, my imagination to the impossible and my heart to the notion of the divine, the more God becomes apparent.”

Like the character in “The Mercy Seat,” the presence of death has made Cave question God’s presence in his own life. His life has imitated his art.


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