Book Review: The Sick Bag Song by Nick Cave

I imagine it’s difficult to be Nick Cave—to be the kind of person with an imagination and flair for the dramatic that just never shuts down.

I also imagine that it’s difficult to be around Nick Cave—not that he’s insufferable, or anything. But maybe he is. I don’t know. I’m just guessing having someone like this in your group of friends presents a challenge.

Compiled during The Bad Seeds’ summer tour of 2014, and released in a collector’s edition via Cave’s website in 2015, The Sick Bag Song was recently domestically released as a slim volume—part journal, part poetry, part prose—and Cave works diligently throughout each section to blur the lines between all three until you can’t tell what real and what isn’t.

Originally scrawled out on airline sick bags, the book shapes Cave’s musings, ideas, and observations into a self-aware, self-contained poetic cycle that follows him city to city—backstage before Bad Seeds concerts, in hotel rooms, and van rides to and from the venue.

As the Song unfolds, Cave continues to put things into his “sick bag”—including fragmented memories, interactions with or thoughts of those who influence him, like Leonard Cohen, Bryan Ferry, and Bob Dylan, as well as encounters he has with a mysterious young black girl—usually on a bridge in some city, somewhere.

Outside of the conceit of storing things in a metaphorical “sick bag” throughout his journey across North America, the main ideas that Cave includes in The Sick Bag Song are of weariness, loneliness, and possibly boredom—all of which allows Cave’s imagination to run wild and at times, out of control, as he explores various symbolism, tangents, and fabricated situations.

A recurring theme throughout Song is Cave’s inability to reach his wife via the telephone—whether this is indicative of a larger idea or bigger metaphor remains to be seen. He does recall two conversations between them—once early in their relationship while she was pregnant with their twin sons; the other, shortly before he leaves for tour—both of which are told with a restrained, tense, unnerving, and dramatic flair that leaves the reader wondering just how fictionalized they may be.

I hesitate to say that you must be fan of Nick Cave to get full enjoyment out of The Sick Bag Song, but it certainly helps. A cult figure for over 30 years—both with The Bad Seeds, as well as The Birthday Party, Cave has also penned two collections of poetry (long out of print, via Henry Rollins’ imprint), and two novels—1989’s also out of print And The Ass Saw The Angel, and the more recent The Death of Bunny Munro. Needless to say, Cave has a rabid following who probably would appreciate the pitch black humor of this collection more than a casual fan, or someone who was looking at this from more of a poetic approach, rather than Cave as a musician/icon approach.

Frenetically written, The Sick Bag Song provides some stark imagery and observations, as well as some surprising laughs, all while giving some minor insights into the multiple facets to Cave as a performer, a writer, and a person. 

The special editions of The Sick Bag Song are available from Cave's webstore; the domestic hardback edition is available wherever books are sold