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Swept up by Nick Cave's reminiscences

Books & Poetry

Musician Nick Cave’s book ‘The Sick Bag Song’ is no straightforward memoir – more an ‘exploration of the bleeding line between the creative space and everyday life’.

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It is 2014. In Nashville, Tennessee, Nick Cave is preparing for a 22-city North American tour.

The lead singer of revered bands The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman is unwell, jet-lagged and visited by memories of his boyhood self – a man and a boy dreaming each other.

It’s the start of a journey that involves looking back while moving forward, leaping into the world, conjuring a fractured vision of the genesis of artistic expression and a musician’s life on the road.

First, a word about what this book is not. This is no linear narrative, nor autobiography. It’s a long-haul flight away from a straight tour diary, more a hand-sewn quilt crafted from reminiscences snipped carefully into scraps and stitched into a delicate, imperfect record of moments in time.

There are references to Cave’s own songs and the music of others, literature and American history, idols, encounters with fans and random strangers. As the frontman and his band call upon choruses of angels and the nine Muses – “this diverse and squabbling army of inspiration” – to get their show on the road each night, the true highs and lows of large-scale touring are revealed.

The joy of a sunny day off in Calgary, Alberta, is more than offset by the boredom and frustration of traffic jams, and the endless search for decent places to eat in unfamiliar towns. The relentless mundanity of life on tour – head counts and paper coffee cups, food poisoning, freezing dressing rooms – is documented in notes on airline sick bags during trips from one location to the next. There are scrawled accounts of the adulation of crowds, of looking out into a sea of fans worshipping their rock gods, the view “like a rolling river of hands”.

At times deeply personal, the book sees Cave return again and again to his longing for his wife, who is home in England failing to answer her phone. He examines his ageing visage and greying hair, and laments the sorrow of memories both retrieved and mislaid along the way, of dragons and darkness, and the way fears can be amplified when we’re alone, lonely or seeking connection with loved ones far away.

The Sick Bag Song is an exhilarating exploration of the bleeding line between the creative space and everyday life.

It is simultaneously confusing, fantastic, poetic, lyrical and pretentious – a showcase for the abstract beauty of words which flow and tumble towards meaning. Its flaws only enhance the appeal of the whole.

This little book swept me up, and as soon as I finished it the first thing I wanted to do was to read it again.

The Sick Bag Song, by Nick Cave, Text Publishing, $24.99.

The Sick Bag Song, by Nick Cave, Text Publishing, $24.99.

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