Books Nick Cave gets the Mark Mor­due treat­ment

A book writ­ten on air­line sick bags is Nick Cave’s most per­sonal cre­ation to date, writes Mark Mor­due

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Mark Mor­due is a writer and critic. He is work­ing on a bi­og­ra­phy of Nick Cave.

The Sick Bag Song is the best thing Nick Cave has writ­ten in book form. Haters will see that as damn­ing him with faint praise in­deed. And few are as hated — or loved — in such oneeyed mea­sure as this renowned Aus­tralian rock star.

Cave’s ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sume ranges through song­writ­ing and per­for­mance to nov­els and film scripts, sound­tracks for stage and screen, an opera li­bretto about World War I, and es­says that em­brace ev­ery­thing from Kylie Minogue’s Bet­ter the Devil You Know to The Gospel of St Mark.

The vol­ume and va­ri­ety of this cre­ative poly­math’s work are what leaves him wide open to crit­i­cism. For those who wor­ship him, too much Nick Cave is never enough. For those who see him as an over­rated me­dia tart, weak points are ex­pounded with zeal.

An­tag­o­nists ar­gue that Cave’s first novel And the Ass Saw the An­gel (1989) was noth­ing more than a car­toon Faulkner quag­mire. And that it was fol­lowed some 25 years too soon by an un­ex­pected sec­ond novel, The Death of Bunny Munro (2013), a shrill black com­edy about a sex­ad­dicted English door-to-door sales­man who at one point mas­tur­bates into his sock. What next?

Beauty is in the eye of the be­holder, of course. De­spite its turgid nar­ra­tive voice, And the Ass Saw the An­gel was a rad­i­cally am­bi­tious de­but. Its over­heated grotesque ver­nac­u­lar and south­ern land­scape were a world away from the Aus­tralian con­text in which Cave was formed, though the meta­phoric wild­ness and un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor were closer to home lyri­cally. The novel was well-re­viewed for those imag­i­na­tive leaps and bursts of lin­guis­tic en­ergy when he pub­lished it, at age 32, and it has gone on to be re-edited for pre­dictably con­tro­ver­sial in­clu­sion in the Popular Pen­guins clas­sics se­ries.

The Death of Bunny Munro was a far more ac­ces­si­ble read, the writ­ing ac­cel­er­ated and cleansed by Cave’s work as a scriptwriter in the in­ter­ven­ing years. A dark romp through the male psy­che, it was only as aw­ful as it was of­ten hideously true. It made use of pulp fic­tion at­tributes — porn-lite, a se­rial killer riff, a splash of the su­per­nat­u­ral — to reach into deeper is­sues about father­hood, de­sire and mas­culin­ity, with an ob­vi­ous nod to Martin Amis and pos­si­bly Benny Hill. The most sur­pris­ing thing about the book was not its manic lewd­ness but a sen­si­tiv­ity that moved into ar­eas of fright­en­ing and boy­ish vul­ner­a­bil­ity. What next?

If you’re to ac­cept Cave’s de­scrip­tion, “an epic poem” called The Sick Bag Song. Though the whole thing can be ab­sorbed in an hour or two of read­ing time. For the price of en­try that seems al­most too easy. And, well, just not that epic re­ally.

Out­wardly, it’s Cave’s most per­sonal — and scrap­pi­est — cre­ation to date, con­structed from hand­writ­ten notes jot­ted down on the back of air­line sick bags dur­ing last year’s 22-date tour of North Amer­ica with his band the Bad Seeds. Th­ese notes are fur­ther re­fined into brief chap­ters that are a rolling mix of prose and po­etry. The scrib­bled-on sick bags are re­pro­duced here as art­works pref­ac­ing each sec­tion and act­ing as Rosetta stones for the main text. A few hand­writ­ten lines, how­ever, seem sus­pi­ciously like afterthoughts po­si­tioned to drama­tise the un­ex­pur­gated feel of the nar­ra­tive.

The Sick Bag Song is only su­per­fi­cially a tour di­ary, start­ing out in Nashville and end­ing in Mon­treal. Any­one ex­pect­ing sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll will be dis­ap­pointed, though Cave presents be­hind-the-scenes mo­ments in his own off­beat, hal­lu­cino­genic and oblique ways. Per­haps what’s most re­veal­ing is how much Cave is su­per­nat­u­rally ab­sorbed within him­self as a nar­ra­tor.

A typ­i­cal riff in­volves him head­ing back­stage in Cal­gary be­fore a show where “the air con­di­tion­ing is set to po­lar … By po­lar, I mean that when I try to en­ter the band-room, I find that it is frozen solid, a great block of trans­par­ent ice, and trapped in­side, War­ren [El­lis], like a psy­che­delic Early Man, crouches over his vi­o­lin.” The rest of the band is de­picted in sim­i­larly “snapfrozen” states un­til “an as­sis­tant tour manager shouts through the door Show­time! and the ice in­stantly crum­bles and melts away”.

By the time Cave is res­cu­ing “a small, pale she-dragon” from be­neath a bridge over the Saskatchewan River in Ed­mon­ton, Al­berta, you know you’ve en­tered an­other realm: “I turn on the flash­light app on my iPhone and ex­am­ine her — a lit­tle squa­mous Draka­nia — with in­tri­cate trace mark­ings curl­ing about her body. Her sex­ual or­gan is a neat blue-rimmed fold and the waxy skin on her belly un­der the light of the iPhone has an opa­line sheen that is heart­break­ing.”

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the dy­ing dragon and the iPhone light is sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive. Cave plays with those contrasts through­out, pen­e­trat­ing the ba­nal with the mys­ti­cal and vice versa. Draft­ing what he de­scribes as “a long, slow love song” to his wife on a set of air­line sick bags is part of that con­cep­tual strat­egy, gross as that may seem, invit­ing hints of pur­ga­tion and even ex­or­cism. Re­ports it went through one of the most rig­or­ous edit­ing pro­cesses his pub­lish­ers Canon­gate have ever un­der­taken sug­gest this ec­cen­tric di­ary poem is a far more con­structed ef­fort than it plays at.

Over­all, The Sick Bag Song func­tions as a mod­ern equiv­a­lent to The Odyssey, with Cave serv­ing as our rock ’n’ roll Odysseus try­ing to connect with his wife via unan­swered transat­lantic phone calls: a deus ex machina of sorts that gives our diarist’s writ­ing an un­der­cur­rent of driv­ing anx­i­ety, as if his jour­ney might be shap­ing it­self to­wards tragedy rather than a happy home­com­ing.

This con­fes­sional skin, pricked by nervy asides — “pick up the phone, pick up the phone”; “I’m the one that wed and fled” — can seem ex­ag­ger­ated, even syn­thetic. But in a strangely con­trary way, as if Cave’s overt ten­den­cies to ex­ag­ger­ate and fan­ta­sise for the sake of telling us a good story are stylis­tic cam­ou­flage to pro­tect more sin­cere, if lower-level, dis­tur­bances. To para­phrase one of his best-known songs, The Mercy Seat, Cave tells the truth while also telling us a lie.

“Celebrity is the mask that eats the face,” John Updike wrote in his mem­oir Self Con­scious­ness. It’s one of those epigraphs that can be wrapped around any­one from Kanye West to an ex­ces­sive Face­book user, but Updike was specif­i­cally deal­ing with his own mod­est prob­lems and how they af­fect a writer’s work: “As soon as one is aware of be­ing ‘ some­body’, to be watched and lis­tened to with ex­tra in­ter­est, in­put ceases and the per­former goes blind and deaf in his over-an­i­ma­tion. One can ei­ther see or be seen.”

The on­go­ing con­struc­tion on Nick Cave’s per­sona in films such as 20,000 Days on Earth and now in The Sick Bag Song sug­gests he is seek­ing a way out of this prob­lem, but it’s a fine line to walk. In in­ter­views Cave has gone so far as to sug­gest the nar­ra­tor of The Sick Bag Song is not re­ally him, just some­one like him, though it’s doubt­ful read­ers will dis­tin­guish be­tween a rev­e­la­tion and a fic­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the self. In the end it hardly mat­ters.

In what could serve as a man­i­festo for the book, Cave writes: “Ev­ery­thing is hap­pen­ing and has hap­pened and will hap­pen again. Ev­ery­thing that ex­ists has al­ways ex­isted and will con­tinue to ex­ist. Mem­ory is imag­ined; it is not real. Don’t be ashamed of its need to cre­ate; it is the loveli­est part of your heart. Myth is the true his­tory.”

His theme of mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties through­out time gives the book a pre­mon­i­tory hum. It opens with a se­quence of a boy on a rail­way bridge poised to leap into a river be­fore a train ap­proaches. Cave jump-cuts the scene with a star­tling sin­gle line — “The boy does not re­al­ize he is not a boy at all, but rather the mem­ory of a

boy” — that moves him into present-day Nashville, where his char­ac­ter is “be­ing in­jected in the thigh with a steroid shot that will trans­form the jet-lagged, flu-rid­den singer into a de­ity”.

This in­flated sense of self is quickly cut down. Later we see him in a ho­tel room, dye­ing his hair. “So that it sits like a sleek, inky raven’s wing / On top my multi-sto­ried fore­head.” Be­neath the bru­tal bath­room light ev­ery age­ing fea­ture is noted as 57-year-old Cave com­i­cally tries to “re­po­si­tion my face so I stop look­ing like Kim Jong-un and start look­ing like Johnny Cash”.

Al­lu­sions to he­roes and heroines and works of art abound, from the po­etry of John Ber­ry­man and Sharon Olds to movies such as

Rocky. A vam­pire theme is high­lighted in two re­mem­bered en­coun­ters: one with Bryan Ferry, where the singer is a pic­ture of en­nui in his swim­ming pool, no longer able to write a thing. And an­other, at Glas­ton­bury, with Bob Dy­lan, who “slowly, ex­tend­ing from his sleeve, / A cold white satin hand took mine”.

Cave ex­ploits the Ferry en­counter for his cre­ative ben­e­fit; with Dy­lan the po­lar­ity is reversed and Cave claims he felt “so emp­tied out I could fade away”, later re­leas­ing his al­bum

Noc­turama, “which was a flop”, while “Bob was back on top!” with Love and Theft.

Fans may find within th­ese lit­er­ary, mu­si­cal and artis­tic ref­er­ences a code for how Cave imag­ines him­self. He like­wise ap­proaches John Ber­ry­man’s po­ems “Like a mas­ter thief. I slow my heart­beat / And press my ear up the eigh­teen rails / Of dark vibrating verse. My in­nards rum­ble like a train.”

The book’s loose-weave com­bi­na­tion of prose and po­etry is very much of the lit­er­ary mo­ment as the con­tem­po­rary novel mu­tates into some­thing we are still try­ing to get a grip on. Which makes cat­e­goris­ing the The Sick

Bag Song a prob­lem. It is ob­vi­ously not a song, though freshly drafted lyrics and the song­writ­ing process are opened up by Cave. It’s def­i­nitely not a novel, but it’s hardly a mem­oir ei­ther, more a high­brow vaudeville con­fes­sional that hides as much as it re­veals. There are de­scrip­tive surges rem­i­nis­cent of Michael On­daatje’s early col­laged vi­sions; at other mo­ments Cave is so funky and re­laxed he sounds like Austin Pow­ers: “Right on!”

Let’s just call this work a bas­tard. And like many great bas­tards The Sick Bag Song’s blood­lines are both aris­to­cratic and dis­tinctly low-life. Henry James’s phrase for many allem­brac­ing and er­rat­i­cally bril­liant 19th-cen­tury nov­els comes to mind: “large, loose, baggy mon­sters”.

This is a leaner, faster, mod­ern beast in that same tra­di­tion. An ex­per­i­ment in form and de­liv­ery (the book, in var­i­ous lav­ish for­mats, is avail­able only through a ded­i­cated web­site) that shows Nick Cave is still jump­ing off that bridge. What next?

The Sick Bag Song By Nick Cave Canon­gate Books, 176pp, £30 (HB) Avail­able at www.thesick­bag­song.com

Nick Cave, main pic­ture, and per­form­ing in Mon­treal last year, left; from The Sick Bag

Song, top right

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