Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Book review: The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave

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Nick Cave’s The Sick Bag Song is a brief, lyrical, rollicking journey with Cave and the Bad Seeds across 22 cities during their 2014 tour of North America. The book – or as Cave calls it, a ‘long, slow love song’ — traces Cave’s musings as he criss-crosses the continent by bus, van and plane. His outlook oscillates between weary and wired as he is both energised and repelled by American culture and consumed by the trials and trappings of life on the road.

The book opens with the memory of a young Cave tempting fate on the train tracks of the hometown of his youth. This image of a boy testing the boundaries of his backwater existence and yearning for a glimpse of something more exciting and terrifying beyond, is returned to throughout as Cave leads the reader down the rabbit hole of his mind.

Replete with bright lights, bad food, groupies and after parties, The Sick Bag Song is a self-mythologising journey that portrays Cave as a rock star of gothic proportions despite the thinning hair, the 20,000 days on earth and the wife and family back home.

Woven together with an intertextuality you’d expect from Cave, his verse is brimming with angels, muses and dragons that elevate the everyday to a life less ordinary. The book steps across time and memory as well as American geography to present a range of intriguing characters. Cave’s nods towards American cultural icons who have influenced him enrich the journey with a warmth and purpose that may otherwise be lost in the neon lights, offstage excesses and lofty musings.

If you’re not a fan you’re possibly thinking: what a dick.

Reflections on the tenuous nature of romance and artistic fulfilment pervade The Sick Bag Song. Cave’s lovelorn wife won’t answer the phone as he totes his sick bag from city to city. His increasing agitation with the silent receiver compels him to craft and deliver love songs from his hotel room via the answering machine.

“I’m a fucking vampire!” he exclaims, guilty about the song-writing frenzy he experiences after a poolside encounter with a “white and handsome and very still” Brian Ferry, who hasn’t penned a song in years.

Cave later reflects on his own creative lifeblood being seemingly drained by a surreal and unexpected encounter with a ghostly Dylan at Glastonbury, this chance meeting with his hero leaving him faded and somewhat empty.

I take my own perverse pleasure from this story, having been received by a blank-faced Cave at a post-gig party I’d snuck into in Melbourne some years back. I was gripped by some ridiculous need to tell him I loved his work when clearly he and Warren Ellis had much more compelling business to attend to.

I consumed this book like I do most of Cave’s work — appreciative of the poetic turns of phrase, grateful for the elements of absurd, laugh out loud humour that takes the edge off the narcissistic self-aggrandisement, and conscious that if you’re not a fan you’re possibly thinking: what a dick.

Cave and I share the same hometown of our youth and it just so happens that the day before I picked up The Sick Bag Song I was walking my dogs beneath the railway bridge that reappears throughout the book. The once overgrown riverbank below the bridge is now a fancy cycling track. Looking up at the steel girders I wondered what kind of thunderous noise the XPT would make as it crossed this way to Sydney, and contemplated the last sad moments spent on this stretch of track by our Year 12 classmate the month before final exams.

When I read the closing words of The Sick Bag Song, the grown man and his boy-self standing defiant on the tracks as the roaring light and deafening shriek of the oncoming train compel them to some higher state, I feel a sadness that was never intended by Cave’s book.

Cave’s personal circumstances since its publication, with his own boy teetering too tragically close to the edge, lend the coming of age theme throughout the book a poignancy that makes it a little harder to reconcile with the rock god mythology it underpins.

You can by The Sick Bag Song (published by Text) here

2 responses to “Book review: The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave

  1. Interesting person Nick, he has a depth in some of his songs that you can tell he gives himself and is inside the song. Others fill gaps like writing a book.
    Still I admire most of his work.


    Tony Critchley

  2. So no tales of sex, drugs and debauchery, or is Nick too close to superannuation to be able to keep the rock star on the road lifestyle up any more? Or yet another celebrity self-penned tale that leaves the tabloid gossip stuff out?

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