On sex in rock music

There are several good reasons to write about the song “No Pussy Blues” from punk band Grinderman’s self-titled debut, one of the foremost being to get the word “pussy” into a campus newspaper. This is one of last year’s best and bluntest songs; hopefully this essay will be seen by those who missed this gem of a song because of the FCC-unfriendly lyrics.

NPB’s qualities exceed its naughtiness. Though the song appears on a debut album, the songwriter is not a crude young man; he is a crude old man, a veteran of 25 years in music, as Grinderman is a side project of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, around since the ’80s. Heard through your stereo, Cave is a strong and bitter voice that speaks with archetypal authority. And what is he saying? That he cannot get any.

In the monologue that makes up most of the song, Cave describes how he approached a girl in the crowd at one of his shows, courted her in a variety of ways, and was constantly, repeatedly rejected because “she just didn’t want to.” We don’t know why, but the notable thing is that all tactics fail. Cave cannot clean himself up for her, cannot read poetry to her, cannot buy her presents, cannot talk sweetly to her, and cannot talk dirty to her: “She just didn’t want to” becomes an endless, frustrated refrain that drives the music forward.

Most rock songs are about sex. This is a fact; the name of the genre is itself a euphemism for the act. Yet there is a long history of rock songs featuring depressed young men who are afraid to ask a girl out, are left by a girl and can do nothing, or just don’t know how to love at all. Recently, emo has become famous for these fragile self-haters, but you can’t ignore Belle & Sebastian, Death Cab for Cutie, or Weezer, or most break-up songs. Are these bands and songs any less about sex? Absolutely not — they just choose to dodge or sugar-coat the issue.

Nick Cave despises himself as much as any emo naïf; at the opening of NPB he proclaims, “I must above all things love myself — I must above all things love myself!” He then launches into a description of how he fails to do so — and of how it felt to be broken by this anonymous woman. But instead of pushing the sex out of the picture, Cave shoves it to the forefront. His overtures, sweet and harsh, all fail.

The song, mostly consisting of a fast drum/hi-hat rhythm and low, distorted bass, bursts into pulsing squeals on the two choruses, creating an oozy, thrashing scream that is hard to imagine coming from a guitar. Cave yells over this, “I’ve got the no pussy blues!” along with “Woo!” and “Damn!” It’s this amazing release, this sexual burst that is the ultimate response to anyone who thinks that being rejected means wrapping up in a blanket and listening to The Softies. Cave has returned to the song’s premise. He has learned he doesn’t need her, that he must above all things love himself, and, looking down at his guitar, he has realized that he has all he’ll ever need right in his hand.