We know who you are

I’ve always had trouble sleeping. On trains, on planes, in beds. Haven’t you?

It was on the way to Colombia, suspended somewhere over the vast, dark Pacific, that I first heard Nick Cave’s Push the Sky Away. I say “heard” but the way I usually handle long-haul plane flights is to find something listenable and put it on endless repeat. Thus I “heard” the album to saturation in that 14-hour void.

Listening to it now, of course, brings back all the delirious panic of that journey. I was going first to Bogotá, a city whose name I knew only from an in-flight magazine from the year prior, when I chased Darwin to the Galapagos. Bogotá, whose taxis were fake and whose drivers would kill you. Bogotá with its unclimbable hill (the path lined with thieves and kidnappers). Bogotá, whose biggest threat, I would soon decide, was traffic.

As my seatmates drifted into effortless slumber, I remember putting on those stupid airline headphones — I had brought none with me and would be without personal music for a full five months—and listening to the album over and over and over. I remember the piano in We know who you are shattering like perfectly-timed shards of glass over the drone of the jet engines. The outright generosity of Wide lovely eyes. And the chest-rupturing relief—finally, finally, how many hours now?of rasping strings swelling across Jubilee Street’s endlessly repetitive, sleepless, solitary guitar.

When I was a kid I’d taped a Triple J interview with Cave on the release of Let Love In, and I listened to it often through the brutal lifetime of insomniac highschool nights. My grandmother would buy me that album on vinyl for Christmas that year, not because vinyl was cool, but because my tape player had proven itself untrustworthy by eating Janet Jackson’s Control, and we still had my mum’s old record player.

I can still remember that interview. It’s branded on my mind with all the small-hours luminescence of a shooting star above a regional town. Cave described Red Right Hand as “catchy” and every time I heard him say it—my house otherwise full of the likes of Lionel Ritchie and Thriller—I’d snort and think, friend, I don’t think you think that word means what you think it means.

Yet here was We know who you are echoing the same black menace, the same delicious inescapability of fate as Red Right Hand even as I set out to do the very thing those songs warned against. Colombia was a denial of reality like none that had come before. I might have thought I was escaping, but Cave knew who I was, and he knew where I lived, and he knew there’s no need to forget.

It was a threat, but also a promise. Here, in the suspended animation of flight, my countryman would turn a knife in my soul just as he had decades ago, in an entirely different kind of trap.

Eventually we did reach LA, and I sleepwalked along the economy-class carpet to the portal—it is like a portal, don’t you think? The round corners, the bend at hip-level to accommodate the shape of the fuselage—and out into the sunshine of a different hemisphere. I was lost here, unknown. But I had Cave’s advice in my head.

No matter what the trouble, no matter how terrible things might seem, the key was to push the sky away. And the Andes, where I was headed, turned out to be an okay place to do that.

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