The First Video That Meant Something To Me: The Birthday Party’s “Nick the Stripper”
by John Darnielle
Part of a series for the new Awl Music app.
MTV didn’t come to southern California when it came to the rest of the country, because southern California got cable television later than everybody else. I forget exactly why this was, but there’s a story to it: something about networks not liking cable, I think, and being able to flex their muscles a little harder in their natural environment. I’m not sure exactly. Like most southern California kids, anyway, I first encountered music video on shows that resembled American Bandstand. DJs from local radio would host a room full of dancers while videos played.
My friends and I were snobs, and we basically did an annoying-theater-kid version of Beavis & Butthead with these shows every damn day. Spotting the Lou Reed bite in the last bridge of “I Melt With You.” Soaking up the pre-Prince Charming Adam & the Ants videos. Wondering what anybody saw in Translator. Although it would be fair to say we liked music videos more than we admitted, none of them really meant anything to us; the bands we liked didn’t make videos that we got to see. There were rumors of Cabaret Voltaire videos, and whole VHS copies of A Factory Outing at prohibitive prices behind the counter of the record store, but there was no way to see them: they were strictly for-sale items. Even once southern California got MTV, they weren’t showing the stuff we were curious about.
But then I turned sixteen and drew a paycheck or two and I got my hands somehow on the Pleasure Heads Must Burn video. Maybe Joel bought it, I don’t know. It was a live Birthday Party show. They’d broken up before we’d gotten hip to them, so we’d missed their only L.A. show; a damning review of it in the L.A. Times had made me curious about the band, and I’d bought a cut-out copy of Junkyard, and that record changed my life. Nick Cave released his first solo album shortly after we’d gotten into his old band, and we all drove out to Pasadena to see him live, and I got major religion about it; and our collective what-we-missed Birthday Party obsession grew with each hard-gotten piece of the back catalogue until finally we got around to seeing the video for “Nick the Stripper,” from the Prayers on Fire LP.
There is little bleaker in the history of rock video than “Nick the Stripper.” Young Australian men with wild hair held firm by drying egg whites mill about a night near a fire where pigs’ heads on sticks are hoisted high. Black paintings of spidery skulls glow and pulse, red and white. The band plays in a tent. Nick Cave is shirtless and has painted the word “HELL” on his chest. The band saunters out to join the broader, burning party: people carry empty birdcages or wear masks. The fire spreads to a nearby river. The atmosphere is anti-Bacchanalian: crowds of people revel in the void of degradation. There is a guy hanging from a cross. Cave sings to a goat that seems destined for sacrifice on a nearby spit. Tracy Pew, may he rest in peace, keeps his cowboy hat on.
I want to say “my friends and I were dicks,” but it’s wrong to speak on behalf of those who aren’t here to defend themselves, so let me just say that I was kind of a dick back then. Anything that looked like good plain fun was for squares, as far as I was concerned, and music video was largely an evangelical pulpit for uncomplicated good times. As far as uncomplicated good times went, I was against ’em. I would eventually grow out of this attitude. But joyless dicks need love, too, and for 16-year-old me, the “Nick the Stripper” video was a vindication. There were people elsewhere in the world who wanted to paint as dire a vision as possible and record it somehow so that somewhere along the line it might cross paths with similarly dour-minded people. There were people who liked dark things and only dark things. There was somebody besides me who thought painting some scary-ass word on your body was a bad-ass thing to do. It wasn’t everything, learning this. But it was something. It was enough.
John Darnielle is the singer from the Mountain Goats. He believes chopped salads will shortly make a comeback of truly historical proportions.