Songs about places aren’t always written as an ode or expression of a fond memory. Some set out to describe the seedier sides of a town or city for dramatic effect, like Lou Reed’s take on New York with Dirty Boulevard –‘your poor huddled masses, let’s club them to death and get it over with and just dump them on the boulevard’. There are others, however, that paint it black because of some thing bad or sad that happened to them there and that place will forever be in shadow regardless of how sunny it might appear to others. Kirsty MacColl’s Soho Square paints a heart-rending picture of an empty bench in Soho Square but, at least in this song, there remains some hope.
One song devoid of any such faint optimism is Grief Came Riding by Nick Cave, a study in introspective gloom with the Thames as backdrop. Nobody can do melancholic darkness quite like Nick Cave - at times, his songs make Leonard Cohen seem like the cheerleader of a happy-clappy revivalist meeting- and this sketches a dispiriting and bitter view of London and its inhabitants as a consequence of depression. The mood is unrelenting - a dirty river with bridges crouching like malevolent gargoyles, the futility of existence, a memory of a psychiatric couch. Even so, there is a delicateness as well about it which makes it sound more poignant, with a haunting melody carried by piano, brushed drums and cymbals and muted guitar chords, with understated backing vocals (Kate & Anna Mcgarrigle?) towards the end. As first lines of songs go, Grief came Riding is pretty good: ‘Grief came riding on the wind, up the sullen river Thames’. It carries an image of something unpleasant coming towards you fast, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse racing up the river, just as ninth century Londoners had seen the Vikings sweeping up to the city in longboats.
From the lyrics - ‘the wind blew under Battersea Bridge and a tear broke from my eye’-the location is presumably Nick Cave’s houseboat at Cheyne Walk, just past Battersea Bridge. This makes the contrast of the physical place in London with Cave’s morbid view of it the more stark. The author isn’t sitting amongst the derelicts and closed-down markets of the Streets of London. Chelsea and Cheyne Walk had long been seen as a bright and upscale area of bohemian glamour, where Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful held court in the late sixties and Elvis Costello had sang that he didn’t want to go there in 1979 in his biting sneer at self-indulgent posers.
Battersea Bridge too, rebuilt in the 1880’s with cast-iron arches-and hence the song’s references to ‘hear the ancient iron bridge and listen to it groan’ - has often been presented by artists and poets in a very different light. Both Turner and Whistler painted it, Whistler describing it thus .’When the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry...tall chimneys become campanili [bell towers] and the warehouses are palaces in the night and the whole city hangs in the heavens and fairy land is before us’. The grief of the song’s author casts the scene in a very different light- ‘If the Thames weren’t so filthy I’d jump in the water and drown’. Battersea Bridge is no longer the description of poets, passing over ‘the smooth rolling river to the green banks of fair Battersea’. Instead it has become the route by which commuters wend their way back to their failures and boredoms. There is no reason to suppose that the commuters themselves felt this, of course- it is the sour view of the world transferred to others through melancholy.
There is something about the song and its delivery that stops it falling into maudlin self-pity, The opening lines brought to my mind The Highwayman, put to music by Phil Ochs and becoming a poem with a tragic ending sung by a singer with a tragic ending. For me, the setting of the song largely brings up a sunny childhood memory of a holiday visit to Battersea Funfair across the river on the south side and many people wouldn’t share Cave’s view of London here-‘how nothing good ever came of this town’. However, there may well be some other place that is shut away in their mind because it is too dark or depressing to look at-but a place to remember nevertheless.
Link to song