Midnight Pub

Nick Cave on finding good ideas


Nick Cave maintains a newsletter of sorts, called The Red Hand Files, where he answers questions from readers. They're consistently thoughtful and interesting.

The following is a question I had actually asked him myself awhile back, even if it's not directly a response to me. The question is, basically, how do you know when you've found a good idea? His answer is, as he almost always is, spot on. See below.


In Issue #87 I wrote about my favourite line from the New Testament —

“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained standing there in front of the tomb.”

To me, this line seems to sum up, among other things, the process of songwriting. William Blake said ‘Jesus is the imagination’ and these words have always resonated with me. They have bound together the notion of Jesus and the creative act, and lifted it into the supernatural sphere.

A large part of the process of songwriting is spent waiting in a state of attention before the unknown. We stand in vigil, waiting for Jesus to emerge from the tomb — the divine idea, the beautiful idea — and reveal Himself.

Often, the beautiful idea that has formed is at first unrecognisable to us. We don’t see it for what it is, because it is new and implausible. Just as Mary Magdalene does not recognise Jesus when He first appears to her outside the tomb, the beautiful idea may emerge dimly and appear peculiar to us, not announcing itself but standing, half hidden and improbable, in the shadows.

So, we continue to wait. But while we wait we must remain prepared and alert, and one way to do so is to write things down, in order to advance the idea, as this indicates a readiness to receive. Beware, however, of the idea that comes too easily, as this is often a residual idea and only compelling because it reminds us of something we have already done. We don’t want an idea that is like something we have done before. We don't want a second-hand idea. We want the new idea. We want the beautiful idea.

One day, you will write a line that feels wrong, but at the same time provides you with a jolt of dissonance, a quickening of the nervous system. You will shake your head and write on, only to find that you come back to it, shake your head again, and carry on writing — yet back you come, again and again. This is the idea to pay attention to, the difficult idea, the disturbing idea, shimmering softly among all the deficient, dead ideas, gently but persistently tugging at your sleeve — the Jesus idea.

Love Nick


I've got to admit that I flinched at his take on #metoo. Not really what I would've expected.

What are your thoughts on the current state of modern rock music?

(But I can appreciate an interesting and fresh perspective even as I disagree with it, or at least cling to his blanket caveat about "pure malevolence".)



The thing is, I think he's right, both on this and #66:


It's easy for us to forget that, say, 1960s protest music, which seems surprisingly quaint now, was every bit as transgressive then as something like a singer having said something transphobic is now. Or what Martin Luther did in the 1600s. You can argue that the underlying morality is different (and I wouldn't disagree), but this brings us to a difficult place. It's difficult to allow only some kinds of unpopular ideas and not others.

That being said, I do think society has a right as a general thing to allow for certain bright-line rules. But I also question whether deplatforming, cancelling, whatever you want to call it, does more than drive those ideas underground. At the very least, it's going to make someone be less exposed to contrary opinion, and thus less likely to change. Pushing back directly just leads to the person digging in their heels.

Or as Nick Cave wrote in #66:

Antifa and the Far Right, for example, with their routine street fights, role-playing and dress-ups are participants in a weirdly erotic, violent and mutually self-sustaining marriage, propped up entirely by the blind, inflexible convictions of each other’s belief systems. It is good for nothing, except inflaming their own self-righteousness. The New Atheists and their devout opponents are engaged in the same dynamic. Wokeness, for all its virtues, is an ideology immune to the slightest suggestion that in a generation’s time their implacable beliefs will appear as outmoded and fallacious as those of their own former generation. This may well be the engine of progress, but history has a habit of embarrassing our treasured beliefs. Some of us, for example, are of the generation that believed that free speech was a clear-cut and uncontested virtue, yet within a generation this concept is seen by many as a dog-whistle to the Far Right, and is rapidly being consigned to the Left’s ever-expanding ideological junk pile.

Really the only thing I disagree with here is the suggestion that Antifa is somehow as organized as the Far Right movements we're seeing, but that's a quibble in this context.


This pub also has some "guidelines" on speech.

So I believe there are some limits to platforms—for example, I don't want anyone to be able to phone me up in the middle of the night to rant & ramble, nor do I appreciate people scrawling hate slogans with glue on my front door. Nor do I want someone to jam every radio frequency with their own channel over the other radio channels.

So for me, unlimited platforming as a philosophical concept is out.

That leaves content. There are things that, for me personally, I don't wanna die a Voltaire-like death in favor of. I'm just not up to defending them. Such as vengeance porn, doxxing, falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater (or the equivalent on Pennsylvania Avenue).

So unlimited free distribution of content is also out for me philosophically, personally.

I can't categorically say that I want to provide unlimited platforming to unlimited content.

Luckily, neither does the US Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

A good law. If the press is forced to publish false statements—if Twitter and AWS are forced to host false statements—the press is not free.

It's not just that the differing underlying morality, as you rightly point out, affects our sympathy for the speaker.

It's that hate speech and harassment is itself silencing by way of its chilling effect.

It is in and of itself speech-suppressing and tyrannical.

In linguistics, speech can also be acts—speech acts. And saying "STFU f*g" is an illocutionary act with an intended and often realized perlocutionary component. As in, the speaker is trying to silence the other person, and that often succeeds.

Free speech is an obstacle for free speech.

Martin Luther's speech certainly had dire consequences.

Horrific consequences on the speech of, and even lives of, the Jewish population in Europe.

Nick Cave is a good and interesting writer even when I disagree with him, as I do with him regarding metoo, Antifa, and wokeness.

A huge component of how "hi we have free speech here" became a dog-whistle, a moth-flame, to Nazi, is to be shouldered on the right wing itself. The left wants to protect the speech and expressions of groups that the Nazi would want to extinguish or enslave.

Now, it's unknown what the consequences of deplatforming is. Many seem to believe, and this does make sense to me, that the growth of the groups would've been slower but the depths of their hatred would've been deeper. So the ultimate consequence would've been a function of the unknown extent of those two factors.

Arguably if DJT would not have had such a huge platform, for his "birtherism" lie ten years ago, we would've seen a different world today.

I think these issues are not clear cut. They are difficult philosophical questions that humanity are still working out.



Sorry for the link-out, but this reminds me of a post I wrote a while back:


TL;DR - I grew up as a conservative American, so the 1st amendement feels sacred. But when I ask myself why I feel more at peace in Europe, a key answer is that I am free from the violence of hateful speech.

So, now, I believe the limits on hate speech that nearly every society has are necessary, yet dangerous! A healthy, never ending public debate is needed over where the line is drawn. Unfortunately, the prevailing discussion seems to be choosing between “I can say anything I want” and “don’t hurt anyone’s feelings”.



Ibadore Nick Cave and had no idea he had a newsletter. I'll have to go read it!



It is fantastic! One of only a couple newsletters I'm actually subscribed to.



That's beautiful. And I would argue, applicable to many creative domains.



My thinking as well. I feel compelled to write often, but struggle with knowing if I have anything "worth" saying.



Not sure if it's exactly what you're referring to, but Imposter syndrome seems an ailment most of us struggle with, in every area. I see it in my profession as well.



Not quite, or better said this isn't what I'm referring to (or what Nick Cave is, if I'm reading it right). Instead, it's just wondering when something is "good enough" to put out there, not whether I myself am capable of ever getting there.



Understood, important distinction there.