Nick Cave Monday #27: “Tupelo”


It was a dark and stormy night in April 1936. The city of Tupelo, Mississippi was ravaged by a tornado that killed more than 230 people. It is ranked as the fourth deadliest tornado in U.S. history.

Tupelo is also the birthplace of Elvis Presley. But the real reason we’re here is because “Tupelo” is one of the defining songs of The Bad Seeds….a song that tends to make it frequently into their live sets.

My fellow Bad Seeders, here is the original video from 1985:

“Tupelo” is the first track off “The Firstborn Is Dead.” On the B-side of the single version is a brilliant re-do of “The Six Strings That Drew Blood” originally released by The Birthday Party.

The Bad Seeds on the record are Barry Adamson, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey.

I love the the “Looka, looka yonder” line in the song. A reference to Leadbelly’s song “Black Betty” which Nick Cave has also covered.

Of course, leave it to Nick to make a storm and the birth of Elvis Presley sound apocalyptic.

From the song:

“Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals,
And a child is born on his brother’s heals,
Come Sunday morn the first-born’s dead,
In a shoe-box tied with a ribbon of red.”

The firstborn who’s dead is Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis Presley’s twin brother. Jesse was stillborn and Elvis was delivered 35 minutes later.

It’s currently in their live set as they tour the world. Since Barry Adamson is back with The Bad Seeds, it’s really cool to have him perform songs he worked on years ago with the band.

Here’s a great live version from 1992:

It’s a good thing Gladys rocked baby Elvis to sleep and kept him safe from the brutal pounding of nature on their “clapboard shack with a roof of tin,” or we wouldn’t have “The King.”

Here’s a photo of the house Elvis was born in and what Nick was referencing.


Here are The Bad Seeds performing the song for the BBC in 2008:

“The Firstborn is Dead” has been referred to as the blues record. The Bad Seeds have a habit of trying to keep things fresh and not delivering what’s expected. I love their anti-formula of sorts.

“The public gets what they deserve, not what they demand, unless we all decide to be a business, not a band.” (“Breakdown” by Agent Orange.)

This wasn’t the first time a song was written about the tornado of Tupelo, John Lee Hooker recorded his own version. In the video below the title says it’s about the 1927 flood of Tupelo, but that has to be a mistake since the major one happened in 1936.

Here are The Bad Seeds performing the song in 2009:

Some have pointed out the line in the song, “Water water everywhere” is a reference to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The video below is from their show in Mexico last month. The video isn’t too sharp, but the audio is decent.

In other news, The Bad Seeds are on world tour and as they perform I’ll try to keep up with video gems from recent shows.

Here they are in Brisbane on March 8th doing a killer version of “Stagger Lee”:

“O God help Tupelo, O God help Tupelo!”

Thanks for reading and come back next week for another edition of Nick Cave Monday.

Tony DuShane is the author of Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, Penthouse, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Believer. And, if you’re a Nick Cave fan, check out Nick Cave Monday. More from this author →