For anyone with even a passing familiarity with the two artists, the comparison is obvious. Country rebel Johnny Cash, and macabre Aussie Nick Cave. Cave largely co-opted Cash's sense of style, with flamboyant tailored black suits with frilly shirts, and high, unbuttoned collars. Like Johnny Cash, Nick Cave had an obsession with writing songs from the perspective of characters on the margin of society, the poor, the beaten, the people who maintained hope despite all hopeless surroundings. Though Cave is an obvious songwriter of the Leonard Cohen school, his sense of style and theatrics owes much more to Cash's demeanor rather than Leonard Cohen's understated stage presence. Cave covered one of Cash's songs on his early cover album, Kicking Against the Pricks. The title is not a cheeky pun, rather a biblical reference. Cave covered Johnny Cash's "The Folk Singer" (retitled "The Singer") on that record, a dark and apolyptical take on the song. He also recorded a Cash-influenced version of country standard Long Black Veil. (From my standpoint, though, Lefty Frizzel's version of the song reigns supreme.)
Soon thereafter, Cave wrote wrote what would become his signature song. On the album Tender Prey, he included his song The Mercy Seat. It is a tale of a convicted killer on death row, facing the very real fact that he will be executed for his crime. The titular "mercy seat" refers unambiguously to the electric chair, yet it is also a reference to heaven's golden throne. The original recording of the song is challenging. The production is part of it, a caustic sound, with Cave spitting the verses in a spoken-word style, and with the chorus repeating a million times at the end with subtle changes. Cave's original version of the song, though, casts some doubt on the narrator's veracity when he proclaims his innocence. From the beginning, he states that he was convicted of "a crime of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know." The chorus repeats many variations of the refrain "I've got nothing left to lose, and I'm not afraid to die." One of these refrains in the original recording states "I've got nothing left to lose, and I'm not afraid to lie," and the final refrain is "and I'm afraid I told a lie."
Cave has played this song at nearly every concert since the song was released in 1988. The song has varied dramatically over the years as Cave's musical tastes have changed. The recording on the album Live Seeds is, in my opinion, the canonical version of the song. He realized quickly that the verses need to be intelligible, and that the coda needs far fewer refrains. The song includes sung verses rather than the muttered lines on the original studio version, and generally the music is more listenable, starting simple and building to a crescendo as the narrator's fate goes from defiant to accepting. A result of the abbreviated storytelling, though, is more ambiguity about the narrator's guilt of the crime. It lacks the into with the flippant line about he is "nearly wholly innocent, you know." It lacks the line about "I'm not afraid to lie," though it does include the line "I'm afraid I told a lie."
As Cave's style became increasingly mellowed, so did this song. See the version he played on David Letterman. In support of the 1998 album Abbatoir Blues, rather than playing a cut from the album, Cave decided to do a solo piano version of this then-decade-old song. This plays into Nick Cave's iconoclastic style--he could have done one of the songs from the album (which certainly had plenty of great candidates), but instead he did this song purely to make his long-time fans happy. Letterman quipped "I've never been so depressed in my entire life," but clearly he signed off on the number. Letterman has alwayes been a supporter of fringe singer-songwriters, and this line was pretty clearly to add levity to the end of the program. Cave continued to adapt the song, trimming verses and refrains to boil the song down to its essence, as shown in this recording for KCRW.
At some point during Nick Cave's rise from esoteric post-punk provateur to international star, Johnny Cash experienced his own renaissance. Rick Rubin had persuaded Cash to do a series of stripped-down acoustic albums for his American Records label. This series, American Recordings, spawned a number of albums. Cash included a number of renowned covers--Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus, Beck's Rowboat, U2's One, and, significantly, Trent Reznor's Hurt. During these recordings, Cash was persuaded to record his own version of The Mercy Seat.
Cash's version of The Mercy Seat was significantly different from Cave's versions in a critical way. Whereas Cave's narrator always protested innocence in a cheeky way, Cash's narrator was unwavering in his innocence. His narrator was "TOTALLY innocent" of the charges. This cast a totally different perspective on the song. Cash's narrator is a literal martyr who accepts his impending death with stoicism and grace, unlike Cave's narrator who seemed to joke about innocence while never truly confessing his guilt.
In Cash's version of Hurt, he turned Reznor's petulant song about self-hate and lost love into an epic ballad about deceased loved ones and acceptance of impending death. In his version of The Mercy Seat, he achieved a similar task. He turned Cave's tale of a semi-repentant murderer into a story about himself, basically. It is a song about someone who has been accused of many things, yet maintains his innocence, and is not afaid of his own impending death.
(I lost a significant part of this entry when I tried to post, apologies if the second half is not as detailed as the first.)
if you can only listen to two clips from this post, please listen to Nick Cave's Live Seeds version and Johnny Cash's version. I recommemd going back and listening to all of the clips, though.