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 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