Sep 27, 2008

Populism, Elitism, 905ism


A few days ago I posted Play Anon's first official interview. Owing to its length, I decided to publish in two pieces. I interviews Malcolm (in the middle) x, a Toronto theatre personage. In the first half, we discussed artist mobilization, politics, and subsidies for various industries.

The first half ended with Malcolm sharing his view that the $45 million being cut from arts programs is a "drop in the bucket", when compared to the subsidies other industries in Canada receive. With that, we pick up the thread for the interview's second half.

Enjoy.


x: What forty-five million dollars, what it does, in terms of promoting Canadian culture, is huge. Mr. Harper lies -he lies when he says it isn’t ideological. It is ideological. They’re cutting it, and they’re on-record all over the place, cause they can’t keep their mouths shut; they’ve said constantly, “We don’t like the kind of art some of these people are doing. We think it’s against family values. I don’t believe the government has any place in that arena.” But if we are a civilized society, we have to allow all the voices: Muslims, Muslim extremists, Christians, Christian extremists, homosexuals, homosexual artists -if, that is, we’re going to live in the kind of society we say we like. Artists should be talking to citizens and going door-to-door. They should say, “I’ll tell you what I do for you. This is what I do for you: I tell you who you are. I hold a mirror up to you. This is who we are. I’m the guy or gal saying, ‘Isn’t it horrible the way we treat each other? And we do it in a way that makes people cry and makes people laugh.’”

me What about people who say, "Well, I don’t go to those things, that’s something I never do"...?

x: Well then you lose that argument with that one person, but go door-to-door until you bump into a certain percentage who say, “Yeah, I do think it’s important.” Then vote. Vote for the party that is going to support art. Name me a great society, a great country, that didn’t have great artists. Name one. And do you think it’s accidental? You think it’s a trickle-down economy?

me: Well, to promote a country for something like its sports alone seems limiting. It’s like saying, “I’m going to go to France for the great skiers, or Australia for the great swimmers.” Even in the States, it’s the culture that is really their biggest export.

x: No, American, market-driven entertainment is their biggest export…

me: … oh, well now we might get into an argument about what art is…

x: … but we should. That’s what Stephen Harper’s questioning.

me: He talked about art as being related to populism.

x: Populism is what appeals to a broad spectrum of the population; there’s this is mind-numbing pap that sells. It’s consumerism –it’s not populist. I think it’s consumerist. I think there’s a big difference between the two actually… but I do think blogging’s being used in a very positive way. So long as it leads to open dialogue, which the jury’s out on, artists actually don’t get hoodwinked but start debating interesting arguments, including a criticism of mainstream art.

me: And yet Harper insists that most people aren’t interested in the arts.

x: Ah, this “people aren’t interested” thing –you say that long enough, they won’t be. Which is why artists need to go door-to-door. I mean, okay, people went down (to the Theatre Centre) and saw Naomi Klein. Big fucking deal! Preaching to the converted. “We’ve read your books, we think you’re fantastic!” –what good is that going to do you? More like, “Excuse me, how many people here are going to go door-to-door with the politician of their choice and tell people why they should vote for arts-friendly policies?” (puts hands up) How many people? Or will you just feel comfortable venting your anger and calling Stephen Harper names?

me: Claire Hopkinson mentioned something interesting. She said to go out, get involved, go to all-candidates events, and she also said, “Go to the 905 areas that are going to determine this election.” And there was this ripple of laughter, and I wondered at that: was it because people knew they should’ve been engaging the 905 all along, marketing to them, telling them what they’re about and why they should care, or was it laughter in that tut-tut way, as in, ‘those ignorant 905ers’… ‘cause there is that attitude.

x: It’s sad that a great number of people feel that way. But why should the 905ers care about you if you don’t care about them? Why should you turn up your nose at them? “They’re ignorant” –what does that mean, “they”? There are people living out in the 905 region that care deeply about the arts, you’re just not talking to them enough.

me: There are the ones who don’t know, they genuinely don’t know, either about the arts in the 416, or about how the funding system works. I’m still learning. I’ve taken friends down to TPM and The Young Centre and such, and they’re all so grateful, they say, “I wouldn’t have known this was on, or that this even existed”. They love it. I think MK Piatkowski’s right when she says artists do a shitty job marketing themselves. I think artists need to start reaching out past the 416.

x: Well how many artists are posting on Conservative blogs or comment boards? Thoughtful people? How many? We’re only going to our own blogs… talk about polarity! They’re all the same people, saying the same things to each other, agreeing… but how many people are going out and reading Conservative blogs? Or out-of-the-way ones? There’s this one, Old Ladies For Dion or something like that. It’s made by a bunch of older women that really believe that Harper is destroying our country, and the only shot we have is the Liberal choice. So they have their own blog. How many artists have gone onto that blog? Or go neo con. Google it: “neo con blogs”. Instead of just provoking people, go passionate. Have people attacking you for your position and start a conversation that way.

me: I was involved in a conversation with an artist on Myspace who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; he thinks artists should fend for themselves, with no funding.

x: So he’s a market economy artist. And that’s a good argument to have, it’s important. We should be engaged with other artists in these discussions. It would be fantastic to read artists who take other artists seriously. Then you can start a dialogue.

me: But there are so many who accuse arts, and artists, of being elite. Even some other artists throw that accusation out.

x: But what do you mean, “elite”? You go to an industrial bowling alley –it’s elite. Only industrial people go there. “Those are our crowd, we’ve got our own thing”.

me: So it’s a community…

x: Oh yeah! What percentage of our population actually goes to the theatre? It’s very small, but by the same token as the bowling alley, is that a reason not to have it? What it gives birth to is important. There are problems when people in theatre don’t reflect the society they’re living in.

me: People hear and see certain things getting funding and they say, “oh that’s idiotic, that’s just garbage”… but then you’re always going to get bad apples in any taxation system.

x: One of the PC candidates in Kingston, I think, said, when First Nations people wanted to come and speak at a meeting, “Are you sober?” She’s making an assumption, saying, implicitly, that all natives are drunks. Then another candidate said regarding grants to the arts, “Well they’re all freeloaders” –this is the perception that we as artists have to change, because in fact, we are leaders in an increasingly growing area, which is self-employment. Mr. Harper himself is getting a leg among us, with self-employed women especially… He’s recognizing that self-employment is increasingly becoming a major share of income earned in this country. Artists are leaders in this, in how to survive and how to prosper. They’re leaders. I’ve been doing this for many years. I own a house, I have mortgages and loans… am I a freeloader? I don’t think I am. I am certainly not getting a pension when I retire.

me: Well not everyone has the freedom to.

x: No, I know. Mine’ll be “Freedom 88”, at Paul’s Funeral Home.

__________________

The second PlayAnon interview should be up within the next fortnight (as in, two weeks). Between then and now, I'm hoping to attend a number of various arts cuts events and engage in more dialogue with members of all political stripes. Stay tuned!

Credits: The cartoon used above came from this rather hilarious article. Irony? Hmm.

Kudos: Malcolm (in the middle) x. Thank you for your time and your insights.

Sep 26, 2008

"A blue one who can't accept the green one"


Before posting the second half of my interview with Malcolm (in the middle) x, I wanted to address the issue of "ordinary" vs "elite", and the way culture is being used as a divisive wedge issue during this election.

I was raised by a single mother in the suburbs. As a kid, my mom would take me (in the wood-paneled station wagon) down to the then-O'Keefe Centre, where, for two or three hours, she'd marvel at the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart et al, and I'd try to figure out what the heck was going on. I'd fall asleep in the car on the way home, but come the next morning, I would ask her a million questions about what I'd seen the night before, at the opera. One of my favourite memories is seeing Carmen for the first time; I couldn't stop singing the songs (with my own words) once I'd heard Bizet's crazily-beautiful music. There was never a debate about whether it was "doing me good" or if I, as a child, was engaging in "elite" activity; my mom was sharing something with me that she loved. Period.

Once the Toronto Symphony Orchestra moved into the then-newly-built Roy Thompson Hall, there was yet another occasion to get into the station wagon (okay, by then it was a Crown Victoria). My mom had worried that I wouldn't be able to see in the TSO's old digs, Massey Hall. I remember looking over the balcony onto the actual stage during my first visit, entranced. The first time I heard Beethoven in a live setting, I thought I'd been hit over the head -but in a really, really good way. Saturday afternoons our house was filled with the sounds of the Met, live on Radio Two. When the Treasures of Tutankhamen visited the ROM from Cairo in the late 70s, we waited in the long line that snaked down University Avenue, eating popsicles and drawing. Again, it wasn't so much a case of, "this is good for you", but was something she was interested in and something she wanted to share with her child.

Does this mean we didn't do so-called "normal" things? Not at all. We still went to movies (and, with the advent of the new-VCR technology, rented them), watched The Flintstones and Three's Company, ate KD, played board games, and jumped rope. I got a kid's baking book which I loved, took piano lessons, went bowling, and rode my bike to the library. We went to church (it happened to be very music-oriented) and ordered pizza Friday nights. Video games and MuchMusic came along, and kids like me thought they were the coolest things ever.

My love for theatre probably began a friend of my mum's who was a regular attendee (and subsequent supporter) of the Stratford Festival. I remember wonderful summer weekends filled with the sounds of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Avon Theatre. One of my favourite memories is setting Doug Chamberlain in The Gondoliers, and Nicholas Pennell in... well, any and everything. It may have been Nicholas who got me interested in seeing Shakespeare, in fact. I remember loving his voice, and his warm onstage presence. Years later, I'd learn that he'd chosen to stay in Canada, with the Festival. It struck me as sort of cool. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was the first heady piece of theatre I was exposed to, and my mum was worried I'd be bored. But I clearly recall being entranced by the language -its rhythm, its cleverness, its flow -and the wonderful performances. I couldn't have been more than 10.

There are so many other things I could mention, but, in the interests of brevity, I'll just say this: "ordinary" means many different things to many different people. My single mother raised me to culture -to love it, to live it, to share it. "Ordinary", for me as a kid, meant a lot of driving, a lot of sleeping in the backseat, and sitting through a bunch of stuff I didn't understand. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. Culture is not something that divides, but something that connects. It's not for a "niche"; it's for everyone. I'm ordinary, I'm Canadian, and I'm eternally grateful.

Sep 24, 2008

First Interview: "Believe it or not, we do have a soul, and believe it or not, the soul is important."

Frequently, I've worked around artists of all stripes, but I realized that when it comes to funding, I’m ignorant to a lot of the issues they face.

I believed there was a real “entitlement” attitude, and a “free handouts” system for most artists. Why should they get funding when others have to work? But it bothered me when I began to talk to people, and ask questions.

As I got to know more, I realized most people (like me) have no idea about how arts funding works or the impact the arts makes in a number of sectors within the fabric of Canadian society. My stance was founded on ignorance about how the systems works and how a lot of artists –people I’d only interviewed or known professionally –lived. I started this blog to open dialogues with people on all sides, and to engage in an intelligent online conversation about art and the role of the artist in 21st century Canada.

So, in that spirit, here’s my first Play Anon interview.

Malcolm (in the middle) x is a Toronto theatre personage.

We recently met in a midtown Toronto coffee shop to toss around ideas around funding, entitlement, the “economics of culture”, and the importance of political involvement.

Because it was rather lengthy, I’m going to be posting the interview in two chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on party let-downs, the relationship of business and the arts, and why the heck art matters –and more importantly, why Malcolm (in the middle) x thinks culture should be publicly funded.

Enjoy.

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me: So what’s your take on all this?

x: If you ask people what the most important issues are, they’d say wait times in hospitals, they’d say lack of work, or gas prices, a whole bunch of things, but they wouldn’t say what Harper’s done to the arts. And yet, we are citizens. We are part of the process of being citizens. It’s our job to tell our fellow citizens why they should care about this. It’s not our job to talk to just each other and then bitchslap Stephen Harper. We’re just preaching to the converted doing that. What we have to do is get involved in the electoral process more seriously.

me: Did you see the article on Jim Fleck last week?

x: Yes, I did, I thought it was really good. Jim is essentially saying the same thing: you have to become part of the electoral process. What I also liked was that he used that “we” –the rich-individual “we” –and said they and the parties have got to care more about the arts, cause it’s essential. The Governor-General’s husband… (Jean-Daniel Lafond) .. did you see that article? He said the same sort of thing.

I have friends that are feeling simply depressed, who’d like to get involved in the political process; they go knocking door-to-door. It’s something I’ve done with my MP, go and say, “vote for this person”. My MP is Jack Layton. I have, on several occasions, belonged to the NDP party, I’ve been a dues-paying member, and twice now I’ve not renewed because I’ve been so disappointed by them as a party over issues where they don’t listen to their own rank and file when they got elected. …Recently I joined, to help somebody I know get elected. When there was a nomination meeting, I got emails from the NDP reminding me it’s next Tuesday, in the evening. I sent an email going, “I’m a non-traditional worker, I don’t work 9 to 5, and there’s a lot of people that don’t, so what’s the alternative for this community?” “Well, there is none.” “How do I get to vote? I’m happy to vote by proxy.” “Oh, we don’t allow proxy boxes. I emailed someone and said, “Look, people work nightshifts… how do they vote?”…

me: …plus there are people who work in the arts who support the NDP…

x: …yeah, and they just didn’t have an answer, so… that’s disappointing. A lot of people that I know… I’m hearing a real depression, because they don’t know who to campaign for. I know that Dion came out the other day with an announcement for culture, that he’ll jack up the payments for the Canada Council to where they were before -so it’s not really new funding -but anyway, I was very disappointed in Layton's stance about Elizabeth May and the Green Party, so I sent an email. Two days before, I received a phone call from the party saying, "Will you put up a sign on your lawn for Jack?" I said yes, but I added that I need to know what his policy on arts funding is, cause I haven’t heard a thing. They said, “Oh, there will be an announcement in the next couple of days”, which I haven’t yet heard. Then he tried to stop her from being on the debate, so I sent an email saying, “I will not campaign for you, and I will talk to all my fellow artists about how you’re behaving exactly like Stephen Harper." I guess they must’ve received a lot of emails like that, cause they did a backpeddle on the issue, but I have yet to see any major announcement on the arts from the NDP.

me: There’s none, but the arts is so beyond partisanship, it’s something everybody goes to, not just something NDP supporters go to.

x: It‘s something all the parties are silent on. There’s not a peep from them, because they think, and they’re probably right, that people don’t’ care. But people only care if the party says “we care: if you vote for us, then you vote for this, and this, and this… “

me: So you think it’s up to artists to raise people’s consciousnesses?

x: Absolutely, it’s up to artists to do their job, to go and say to their fellow citizens, “this is why you should care.

me: … but not be so partisan about it, because frankly, I don’t think calling Harper a Philistine helps, it neuters us. I’m in an area where there’s a lot of PC signs on lawns, and I know they don’t’ know what Theatre Passse Muralle is, or the Young Centre, but they like Harper, and they understand the language of finance.

x: There’s a bit of a problem with Mr. Fleck’s view, though. He’s stressing the importance of culture financially. And I’m saddened by the fact that artists… arts councils, theatres, etc. -have bought in that argument so fully over the last fifteen years. There was a very gradual shift in focus: “You gotta show people that we’re business-people too”. That’s not why arts exist.

me: … but it’s a language many Tories and their supporters understand…

x: So fight that fight when you get there. When you start defining yourself by market economy values… well, that’s exactly what Stephen Harper is saying.

me: I agree, but I’m saying for voters unaware of culture and its importance…

x: … so go to those voters then and say, “Listen, this is why you should vote for the arts”.

me: How do you persuade them?

x: You have to be passionate. You have to be relentless. How many artists do you know who are going up to their candidates of choice and saying “I want to go door-to-door with you”, and “I want to raise the issue of the arts door-to-door with you”? How many do you think have done that? None! They’re so content to sit, to groan and moan, “Oh, Harper’s gonna get elected anyway, what’s the point?’ I mean... “vote him out of office”… ? How?! Until you get on your feet and go out and knock on doors and be willing to have doors slam in your face –“you bunch of lazy artists”, "you fucking wastrels” –you’re not willing to fight the fight.

I don’t believe in insulting anyone. Getting up and saying ‘I think this policy is wrong’ –is that fighting? Some might call it insulting, but really, this is wrong, this is a stupid policy. Some might call it insulting, but the emphasis is, the arts matters because it does pump money in to the economy, and it does lead to forward-thinking minds. It is important for us, because believe it or not, we do have a soul, and believe it or not, the soul is important. Believe it or not, the arts are important for defining who we are as a people, what makes us different from others. And if you’re going to talk to people, you have to make that your passionate argument. You have to say, “Imagine a world without a song. Imagine a world without a painting. Imagine a world without opinions.”

me: But then the argument comes back: “Nobody subsidized me. Nobody subsidized my work. Nobody subsidized my job.”

x: Ask them, which industry are you in? The auto sector... nobody subsidized you? The aeronautic industry... do you work for Bombardier? Nobody subsidized you? You work in farming... nobody subsidized you? You work for Hydro... nobody subsidized you? Every industry in this country has been subsidized, as it is in the States. And that’s the big lie down there: “We don’t believe in government bailout of industry”. Well… the financial industry is being subsidized. What do you think it is when you’re paying exorbitant, up-and-down yo-yo gas prices? Who do you think you’re subsidizing? But you go “no, that’s the business world…” The money that was cut by the Conservatives in budgets for artists leaving Canada to promote themselves, to work abroad -forty-five million dollars -is a drop in the bucket, relative to the amount of dollars that are thrown at other industries.
Drop. In. The. Bucket.

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The second half of my interview with Malcolm (in the middle) x will be posted this week; we cover funding and ideologies, questions around defining art, and the importance of reaching out to the 905 region.

Please feel free to send your comments and questions. This blog has been created to foster discussion and debate, not simply as a means of preaching to the converted -another issue Malcolm (in the middle) x and I discussed at length.

Your voice -on whatever side you lean towards -really matters.

Sep 19, 2008


The past week has been filled with driving, theatre-going, more driving, many conversations, and much reading.

Just before I drove out to the Shaw Festival on assignment, I came across MK Piatkowski's excellent, thoughtful piece over at one big umbrella that outlines arts funding schemes in Australia and New Zealand. Read it. It's inspiring. It's also great that MK is thinking in terms of solutions, not engaging in griping and moaning. Sure, the situation stinks for the arts right now in Canada, but it's vital to look to models that are working, and viable, and then figure out ways to implement that system as much as we can. Intransigence on either side doesn't seem to be much of a solution to this dilemma.

With that mindset, I read the Star's interview with arts patron Jim Fleck Wednesday morning over my eggs and bacon. The byline caught me: "Calling Stephen Harper a Philistine doesn't help". Very interesting indeed. Bless Mr. Fleck; I only wish there were more like him in office. A play like Goodness wouldn't be in the sort of dire straits it now faces.

In case you're wondering, the Globe's article about Goodness details how the arts cuts will be affecting this important piece of work and its impact in a much larger sense. Wow. Entirely distressing.

Over at Dead Things On Sticks, writer Denis McGrath offered his fantastic, witty, insightful input into the threatened arts cuts situation, summing up (in bold) thusly:
A nation that does not venerate, celebrate, and embrace its own culture does not have a soul. And if you believe in the Rise of the Creative Class, then it doesn't have a future either.
It is a strange, exuberant echo of something I read recently:
So, you may ask, what is the use of studying a world of imagination where anything is possible and anything can be assumed, where there are no rights or wrongs and all arguments are equally good? One of the most obvious uses, I think, is its encouragement of tolerance. In the imagination our own beliefs are also only possibilities, but we can also see the possibilities in the beliefs of others. Bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their belifs and actions that they can't see them as also possibilities.
The author? Northrop Frye. It's taken from his 1962 Massey Lecture, The Educated Imagination. It bears reminding one's self that intransigence -whether our own or someone else's -is not a good idea. Shutting off possibilities, particularly in light of this country's cultural woes, is the last thing we ought to do.

First Play Anon interviews will hopefully be up within a fortnight (as in, two weeks). Stay tuned.

Sep 14, 2008

Ideas and Inspiration




Lots of ideas floating around this week.

The passing of longtime Stratford Fest Artistic Director Richard Monette got me thinking -about the nature of art, theatre, and audiences; what with all the arguments back and forth about populism and arts funding, his passing seems, past its sad reality, to be a significant symbol of that fiery debate currently happening online right now.

The notions of the importance to the arts in Canada, and its role in our lives, is also looming large. In my neighbourhood, gas prices are a lot more important to most people than questions of a cultural or artistic nature.

The artists involved with the film festival got involved, taking advantage of the media presence in Toronto to put on a press conference decrying the upcoming arts cuts; it was a proud moment, but I was dismayed at how little coverage it seemed to receive locally. "Is there anyone out there?", to quote a friend. It makes me wonder.

I'm in the process of organizing artists for upcoming PlayAnon features; if you are an artist with something to say about the current cultural climate in Canada, please write. I would love to hear from you.

Sep 11, 2008

Scorched, Tomorrow Morning.

An interview, that is.

Wajdi Mouawad's play Scorched is considered to be one of the finest pieces of Canadian drama. Everyone, from audiences to critics alike, agree it's an important, vital, and deeply moving work.

The Dora Award-winning Scorched examines issues of war, family, and identity, and is on now at Toronto's famed Tarragon Theatre, where it runs until September 28th before heading out on a nation-wide tour.

Tomorrow morning on Take 5, I speak with actor Sergio DiZio (best known from the television series Flashpoint about his role in the play, as the troubled, amateur-boxing son Simon Marwan.

Sergio and I will be discussing Mouawad's work, as well as the playwright's soon-to-be-famous letter on the recently-announced arts cuts.

Support Canadian culture and tune in, just after 9am!

89.5FM Toronto
ciut.fm Worldwide

Sep 6, 2008

Yada Yada

The threatened arts cuts seem to produce some passionate feelings -both for and against.

Over at my Arts and Thoughts blog, I've been engaged in an online debate with a working artist. Without posting the entire thing (which you can read here), I'm publishing snippets to promote discussion.

My online artist-acquaintance expressed his frustration with other Canadian artists, saying he's "tired of (them) making themselves out to be victims of the gov't..time to stand up and join the jungle...". I expressed the idea that I don't think most artists feel victimized, so much as their work is, and the idea that most artists are, to use his term, already "in the jungle"; this brought the following comment:

Quite honestly I think the Canada Council should be abolished altogether. Artists should be no different than mechanics or lawyers....make a living or do something else...or as I and many do....Do something else as well....But stop crying starving artist expecting the gov't to bail you...it's pathetic....


Expressing my feeling that I don't think art should be utilitarian, the response came again:

Oh but it is very much a trade, at one time it was taught as a trade with internship, now anyone who can dig up the tuition at OCAD or afford the rental of a gallery wall can call themselves an artist. It is time to cull the herd.....I will never believe in gov't handouts as a viable way of supporting the arts. I much prefer the American model of private foundations. They tend to be far more selective....


What do you think? Should artists be treated the same as lawyers and mechanics? Should their work be held to the same standards as other national economic engines? And is it time to "cull the herd"?

Any and all comments are welcome, from every side of this issue. The more we talk, the more we understand. Intransigence from any angle can't be a good thing right now.

Sep 5, 2008

Welcome

Not long ago, I got into a huge argument with a friend of mine. Our initially-polite discussion about the threatened arts cuts turned into a huge torrent of emotion and passionate debate; I realized, in speaking with this person, that, despite my being an arts writer, I still had a lot to learn about the arts in Canada, and of the nature of the lives of working artists.

The recent announcement (make that non-announcement) of the cuts to the Prom Arts and Trade Routes Programs, among many others, has sparked a heated debate within the arts community. What with the promise of a Canadian election on the horizon, I can think of no better time to foster an ongoing dialogue with artists, as well as those outside the arts world, about the role and nature of culture in Canada.

I've started this blog to allow for a more free-flowing discussion, of not just the threatened cuts, but about current affairs issues that relate to arts and culture within this country.

What makes this blog special, or different, from the myriad of others covering the same topics?

I'll be putting my interviewer skills to work, and featuring artists, as well as public figures, sounding off in their own inimitable way, about current affairs. All interviews, unless noted, will be anonymous. The focus will be on the issue, not the person. Context for the individual (and their views) will be provided.

Look out for lots of talk within the next few weeks. In the meantime, I'll be re-posting my blog from Arts & Thoughts here, so that everyone can comment, not just those with a Myspace account.

Enjoy.

There'll be no road too narrow
There'll be a new day
And it's today
For us
-Nick Cave