My thoughts on Nick Cave’s Sick Bag Song, part I

[The following is part of an attempt at making an episodic blog. My collected thoughts on the novel Sick Bag Song and my analysis takes up way more space than I feel like I can expect the average reader to read in one go. The following, then, is an attempt at something which should give a clear indication of what I think of Sick Bag Song and why, which will be elaborated in further in future installments.]

  Nick Cave’s third book Sick Bag Song is perhaps his most personal yet, and in many ways also the most artistic of his books. The genre is that of the epic poem, and it centers around his 2014 tour of Canada and the USA. Being a poem rather than a story there really isn’t a plot as such, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting to read. Through the various poems, each originally written down on airline sick bags, the reader is treated to an inside view into an artist who is confronting something very peculiar, the fear of not being creative.

  I find it hard to be anything close to objective around the works of Nick Cave. His music and writing have influenced me more than any other ever since I saw him in concert at a music festival almost twenty years ago. Back then I’d only heard “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and like most everybody else I really liked it. But when a friend dragged me off at that festival to hear Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, I was struck by a obviously drunk Cave who, despite some stumbling and accidentally tearing out the cord from his microphone a few times (and blaming it on the “bloody Danish wiring!”), managed to blow me away with a simple song about a certain motherfucker called “Stagger Lee”. I got a hold of Murder Ballads soon after and was forever changed. I was in my late teens at the time and the thin man with the black hair who railed, and hissed, and spat at the world from his stage with his portrayal of dysfunctional masculinities and their destructive behavior. When I think back to those days my emotional life was very much mirrored in the works of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the young Nick in the white tee screamed songs of bloody murder and self immolation into my ears through my SONY Discman, and when I fell in love for the first time, Let Love In put words to all the conflicting emotions which stirred in me. As the relationship ended The Boatman’s Call carried me on it’s melancholic wings while No More Shall We Part made me believe that love could still be found. I even used The Death of Bunny Munro as the basis of my master thesis at university. As you may imagine his works are like portals into my emotional memory. All of my hate, despondency, hope, love, exaltation, my darkest and brightest fantasies can be accessed simply by putting one of his records on, or by picking up a book and reading his musings on matters of faith, love, masculinity, or social alienation. And now I can add creativity to the list of subjects I can turn to.

  There you have it dear reader, a caveat emptor; a full disclosure of my bias before you go any further. To be utterly honest there are songs which I skip on occasion, there are chapters which I gloss over while rereading others. Push the Sky Away for example just didn’t do the same for me as Dig! Lazarus! Dig! did and Grinderman 2 wasn’t, in my opinion, as good as Grinderman. I am utterly enamored with the works of Nick Cave, but it isn’t wholly without criticism is what I am getting at.

  The edition I pre-ordered and read (the unlimited edition as I couldn’t bring myself to spend the €1,035 required to obtain a limited edition) included a hardback with pictures of the various sick bags Nick Cave used to jot down the basics of the poem. These para-textual elements add to the feel of the book and positioned before each chapter (each of which is named after the city on the tour) they create a temporal superstructure to the book. This gives the reader a sense of being along for the ride, a sense which is only enhanced by the train-of-thought narrative which Cave employs to great effect.

  The book begins as any other with the often difficult introduction which will make the reader pay attention and which is perhaps the part any writer rewrites more than anything else. As the epic poem begins Cave ponders the feeling of insecurity of taking the very first step towards his current profession. This takes the form of a boy standing on a railway bridge in Australia with a train bearing down towards him, we are quickly taken from this childhood-memory and into a hotel where Nick Cave is being prepared to get on stage. The Sick Bag Song‘s plot isn’t so much a plot in the traditional sense as it is an idea. The idea of returning home to his wife. The thoughts which we are privy to throughout the poem centers around three main themes; longing, fear, and ageing. Twenty or thirty years ago the poem would have been full of drunken debauchery, drug fueled rampages, and anonymous sex, but as Cave is in his fifties and kicked the drugs and alcohol more than a decade ago (the only rock-n-roll element, apart from the music itself, which is still present is smoking) the poem is more about the reflections of a sober and adult man than the exploits of a young rocker.

[To be continued…]