Nick Cave and the unbearable aloneness of Istanbul

I’ve been in Istanbul for the past month, waiting for my Greek visa to renew, in an apartment in Cihangir with a view from one side to the Galata Tower and over the Golden Horn to the domes and minarets of Sultanahmet. On the other side I look across Akarsu Street into the fourth floor apartment of a young woman.

Her curtains are usually drawn until the late morning or early afternoon, when she sits with sleep-touseled hair in a window seat with a lit cigarette and a bottle on the small table beside her, and she stares at a television that she doesn’t always turn on. Late at night I see her in the same chair with many more bottles. She has wound a string of coloured flashing Christmas lights around the TV and I stand in my window and she sits in her seat and we both stare at the same screen, which flickers silently for me and perhaps for her too.

I check on her at night before I go to bed, hoping that tonight she’ll be asleep already, or out with friends. I’ve seen her picking out texts on her phone, and I’ve wondered whether she should send them. I’ve seen her typing at a laptop but not for long. I’ve seen her writing by hand on a sheet of paper and hoped it wasn’t a note to be found the next morning. Last week I woke early with the sunrise and she was still awake and sitting out on her tiny balcony, her foot jiggling and fingers drumming on the metal filigree of the railing, drinking a beer with a man who must have arrived some time during the night.

I know, because I have been there, that she is nowhere good, and I wish I could call out across the street and say something, but what would I say, and how would I say it? I don’t have any solutions for her, and I am tired of people who believe they have solutions, but I wish there were a way to let her know that wherever she is, others have felt it, that really I am her and she is me and we’re all together, that we are just at different points on the line of time.

I felt helpless, watching her, and when I sat down to write today I wondered what the point of it is. If you can’t connect as a living person to another living person, what other real connecting can there be?

Last night I went to a Nick Cave concert at small open-air venue on the other side of the Beyoglu ridge. It was a warm clear night and the sky was purple and then black with white seagulls passing high over the hills and bats that swooped and jerked between the lights as though on wires.

If you don’t know who Nick Cave is, it doesn’t matter, but he’s a musician and a composer and a screenwriter and a poet and a novelist. He’s an artist who has always meant something to me, and in recent years has come to mean far more. Three years ago this Saturday – tomorrow – his 15-year-old son Arthur took a dose of LSD, fell from a cliff and died in a Brighton hospital. Before the fall, Cave had just finished writing a new album, a stark, spare silhouette of spectral songs arranged around themes of loss and falling and death. The first words of the album, written long before Arthur went to the clifftop, are “You fell from the sky and crash-landed in a field”.

Nick Cave is 60 now, intensely private yet publically grieving while continuing to work and make art. He described the first period of grief as a physical trauma that filled him up and left no space for creation, but then the first wave receded and he watched his wife, Arthur’s mother, return to work as a fashion designer, creating and making, and he forced himself to create and make as well.

He recorded the songs he had written and felt them change as he sang them. In concert he also sings songs from twenty and thirty years ago and feels them change too. “We don’t live life in a straight line,” he says. “The events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well.”

He recorded songs that were not about his son’s death but that are also at the same time entirely about his son’s death, and in concert he offers them to crowds of strangers for whom they do not have to be about anything at all. “I don’t want people to be forced into going through my trauma,” he says. “I want to give them something that’s theirs.”

I stood slightly above and to the side of the crowd last night and felt anxious. How do you walk out in front of thousands of people here to have a good time and forget the politics of the world and their own breaking country, and give them something so quiet and spare and personal about the death of your son? What if they shuffle and become restless? What if they boo? Or worse: what if they cheer and whoop and call for your big songs as you stand there opening your heart?

Two minutes early, the band walked out and took their instruments and then Nick Cave walked out in his black suit with wide white lapels, thin as a stranger, and started to sing, and something powerful and alchemical happened: I remembered what I had forgotten about why we humans make art and offer it to each other and why it matters that we do.

He opened with “Jesus Alone”: slow and devastated and devastating and spectral and unsparing, a song that returns again and again like a slow, hopeless prayer to the same heartbreaking line: “With my voice,” sang Nick Cave, his eyes searching for pity across the heads of the crowd, “I am calling you.” And he was calling us and he was calling his son and his father and his wife and a God in whom he doesn’t believe and he was calling a made-up character in a made-up song and all those things were true at the same time and we were all calling and we were all being called.

This morning I looked out from my window across Akarsu Street and the windows were open and the light was streaming in and there were no bottles on the little table beside the chair. She had tied up her hair with a bandanna and she was sweeping the floors. She had bought some flowers and they were in a vase and they were bright red and yellow.

The Times, 13 July 2018