Review: The Sick Bag Song

1 March 2016

Part tour diary, part extended poem, part fictional prose, The Sick Bag Song is a dark, swirling epic, fitting of the poetic prince of darkness that is Nick Cave.

A sick bag is luckily something I have never required. Yet after taking my seat on a flight to Queenstown, it was the first thing I looked for. The person next to me, were it not my girlfriend, would have probably asked to be moved immediately rather than endure the chunky perfume of my stomach for the entire journey.

However, I was not reaching for the bag to release my lunch but rather to fulfil my curiosity. I was about to read Nick Cave’s newest book, which he penned on sick bags during his 2014 American tour.

The standard measurements of an aeroplane sick bag are 240mm (H) X 120mm (W) X 60mm (D), designed to perfectly capture an unwanted meal or calm the nerves of a hyperventilating passenger. Yet for Cave, the sick bag that initially acted only as a substitute for his notebook quickly became a central piece of imagery and a firm bolt to tether his ramblings to. Cave’s sick bag acts as a store for his loves and loathings, his influences and his recollections. Writers like John Berryman and Emily Dickinson, musicians like Bryan Ferry and Patti Smith, and even mythical dragons and deities reside at the bottom of Cave’s bulging sick bag of inspiration.

The Sick Bag Song takes us on tour with an Australian rock legend. It is more a tour of Cave’s own mind and his exploration with love, inspiration and meaning than an ode to Spinal Tap. Each chapter, divided by city, is a mix of present and past tales, lines of poetry and prose, lyrics of songs borne of his own mind and others, even an account of adopting a small dragon. It’s such a mash of styles and ideas that when Cave attempts to describe it, he can hardly pinpoint its semblance. He hardly narrows it down in a page-full list of comparisons: “It’s a road-poem slash horror-story – think The Hitcher meets the Book of Psalms . . . meets Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and anyone else who has drowned in their own sick . . . meets Kanye West meets homespun American folk ballad meets The Book of Judith meets a bit of Greek mythology… meets Trip Advisor meets motivational manual… meets a bit of Chinese mythology meets PornHub meets Butler’s Lives of the Saints meets The Odyssey.

Cave opens with a boy on a railway bridge, an approaching train forcing him to take a leap of faith. We quickly see that this boy is a young Cave, caught in his memory as he “is injected in the thigh with a steroid shot that will transform the jet lagged, flu-ridden singer into a deity.” Throughout The Sick Bag Song, Cave explores the importance of taking that leap as an artist and the difficulty in doing so. He discusses procrastination, inspiration and drive, as if secretly writing a motivational manual rather than an epic poem: “The critic is the true voice of our destructive nature. It is the town crier of our innermost beliefs… step back, it says to the little boy. Step back!

Coming from an artist with such a powerful presence, these guiding words are pleasantly received.

Part tour diary, part extended poem, part fictional prose, The Sick Bag Song is a dark, swirling epic, fitting of the poetic prince of darkness that is Nick Cave. A must read for fans of Cave, music, poetry and good literature, it now sits in my own sick bag of inspiration.

Book provided by Text Publishing

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