25 years ago, German filmmaker Uli M. Schüppel made The Road to God Knows Where, a documentary that followed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on a US tour. Shot in grainy black-and-white, this was not the hell-raising shenanigans of Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt: instead it was a meditative take on the highs of performing, alongside the logistical, tedious lows of touring. There is no voiceover, or narrative but it captures Cave before his profile rose because of things like The Ship Song, a Kylie Minogue duet and The Boatman’s’ Call. Six years ago Cave published The Death of Bunny Munro, a novel about a sex-crazed salesman, and before that King Ink, a collection of poems and lyrics, and a debut novel, And The Ass Saw the Angel (1989). When I first heard the premise for The Sick Bag Song, I tried to imagine him sheepishly pitching it to his publisher. Helpfully, he recreates such a scene in the book via a conference call with his marketing team: “It’s a road-poem slash horror-story – think The Hitcher meets the Book of Psalms… meets Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and anyone else who has drowned in their own sick… meets Kanye West… meets The SCUM Manifesto meets A Shropshire Lad…”
So are we really meant to get excited about the singer’s inflight doodling, even if it’s been repackaged in a rather fancy hardback with its own box (for Black Paul)? But Cave’s fiction is no side project; he’s committed to, and obsessed by, the written word. The Sick Bag Song is a hybrid of prose, poem and travelogue (written, as the title suggests, on white airplane sick bags). It has all the disjointedness of snatched scribbling between sound-checks and on flights. If anything, it resurrects Schüppel’s earlier documentary with its episodic, bitty form, but the ongoing concerns of Cave’s fiction and poetry are still present. Cave has always straddled the mythological and biblical worlds so there are typical motifs: the nine muses, angels (except these ones have AAA passes who hover sidestage and help out with songs), a dying dragon and dead bodies swollen by rivers. If that all sounds like familiar ground, persist, because alongside the phantasmal imaginings and the gig riders, is an earnest look at mortality and persona. In the midst of the gloom, there is humour too, like Beckett’s banana skin in Krapp’s Last Tape. Cave dyes his own hair in a hotel bathroom, pointing out his blemishes and comparing his looks to a certain dictator.
“I carefully concoct a paste in a bowl and I paint my hair black,
So that it sits… On top of my multistorey forehead…
“I reposition my face so that I stop looking
Like Kim Jong-un and start looking more like Johnny Cash.”
Images recur throughout the book and one in particular – of a frightened boy on a railway bridge – stands out. Whether it’s the train Johnny Cash heard a-comin’, or a young Cave back in Australia, the singer meshes both his influences and the idea of memory. Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche. John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Sharon Olds’ fellatio poems and, well, all of Elvis. The casual, fleeting nature of it all is evident in the book’s look and feel. Each tour-date city is presented as the aforementioned sick bag, date-stamped and hand-scrawled in coloured ink. From the random (visiting Bryan Ferry and seeing the Roxy Music man in his swimming trunks) to the humdrum (lost laundry, getting steroid shots when ill so that he can perform), it’s oddly compelling. His bandmates, “this brotherhood of transients” are largely peripheral, although he admits to passing off one of Warren Ellis’ stories as his own, but then this tour diary is Cave’s story, as wandering minstrel, albeit one who stays at the Ritz Carlton. He speaks of his fears around aging and self-criticism: “I read somewhere that my best work is behind me” and that an inner critic “walks up and down our veins and nerves ringing its bell. You are wasting your time. You are not good enough”. Mostly though, he reveals how much he misses his wife. Technology and time difference conspire to keep them from speaking, and he starts to worry when she consistently doesn’t answer the phone.
Humour and honesty underpin all the musical gossip and road trips, but the sick bag conceit is limiting. There’s a lot of white space in the book, and at times it feels like Cave is only getting started, before we’re packing our case and rolling on down the road. But maybe that’s the point? The journey – whether you’re a rock star writer or a newspaper reader – shares many of the same anguishes, joys and bad hotel bathroom lighting.
The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave is published by Canongate.
This review originally appeared in The Irish Times on May 2nd, 2015.