When you’ve personally witnessed Nick Cave nodding out on heroin and slowly lowering his head into a candle flame – his mass of dyed black hair igniting as you rush over with a tea towel to extinguish the blaze – you are likely to do a minor double-take when, years later, you hear that he’s been made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Brighton, the English seaside town he calls home.
Such is the unlikely trajectory of a musician who, for more than three decades, has staggered along the fissure that separates low life from highbrow art. Like very few other “rock stars” – not a breed he has ever closely identified himself with – Cave has survived the thanatos of his self-destructive impulses to become a canonised artist of the transgressive. He’s made several acclaimed albums, written novels and screenplays, and been showered with awards. He’s even had his own South Bank Show.
Beyond all that, he has proved you can be middle-aged – and married, and even paternal – and still be a bit dangerous. This is one man who’s had his cake and eaten it. When I last saw him perform two years ago with his trusty henchmen the Bad Seeds, he was as magnificently wild and primal as he was when he risked life and limb in the crazed days of his old group, the Birthday Party. He was still kicking against the pricks of artistic convention, albeit at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Haymarket.
Yet even there, where the indie hipsters and the hip bourgeoisie abandoned themselves to the writhing grind of his more heated songs, an interesting tension could be felt between Cave as violent Dionysus and Cave as Apollonian littérateur – between, one might say, Iggy Pop and Leonard Cohen, the opposing poles of his musical influences. (I’ve always suspected the tension is actually an unresolved conflict between wanting to reject his English-teacher father – who scorned rock music – and needing nonetheless to impress him.) The more careful pieces from Push the Sky Away (2013) sounded clumsy and uncertain next to the raging might of Bad Seeds classics such as “The Mercy Seat”.
Leonard Cohen is one of many to get namechecks in The Sick Bag Song, an unappealingly titled text – complete with reproductions of the (fortunately empty) bags themselves – inspired by last year’s north American tour by Cave and the group he calls his “brotherhood of transients”. Evidently, on flights between cities in Canada and the US, the singer was moved to jot down fleeting pensées on said bags, fleshing them out later to create a hybrid work that’s part tour diary and part free-ranging rumination on the business of performance. (Cave includes in the book some wryly facetious copy that Canongate could have used in its press release: “It’s a road-poem/horror-story – think The Hitcher meets The Book of Psalms meets John Berryman meets …” The list goes on for another three paragraphs.)
This is not Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star (the lead singer of Mott the Hoople’s reflections on his band’s 1972 tour). Nor is it Spinal Tap, though it has its moments of comic honesty. “I carefully concoct a paste in a bowl and I paint my hair black,” Cave writes of one of his grooming rituals. “So that it sits like a sleek, inky raven’s wing on top of my multistorey forehead. There is a liver spot on my left temple. A spider-vein on my right nostril. The bathroom light is brutal. I reposition my face so that I stop looking like Kim Jong-un and start looking more like Johnny Cash.”
I reposition my face so that I stop looking like Kim Jong-un and start looking more like Johnny Cash
There can’t be many other stars of his standing who would lay bare such things, or who would cheerfully confess that at the tour’s end “we” (the royal “we” or the whole band?) have “masturbated in the Bowery hotel in New York City and the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood”. At the W in Austin, Cave and his Seeds wander into “the lunatic end of a Texan hen night” when “the band and I were little old Toulouse-Lautrecs” and the Texan hens asked to sit on the Seeds’ knees.
No, The Sick Bag Song isn’t Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue’s Heroin Diaries, and wouldn’t be even if Cave was still using heroin. It is, instead, a peculiar mix of the moving, the surprisingly candid and the intensely pretentious. In his overwrought way, Cave does capture the mind-frazzling disorientation of “the road” when you’re multiple time zones away from your “sorrowful wife” – Susie Bick as Nick’s very own sad-eyed lady of the South Downs – and does say a few interesting things about the kind of artist he is. The conceit of the sick bag itself – as repository of the up-chucking of influences from Emily Dickinson and Nina Simone to Sharon Olds and Roy Orbison – never quite works, but it does enable Cave to make mordant points about what he calls his “carrion songs … that deal exclusively in darkness, obfuscation, concealment and secrecy”.
Perhaps it’s those attributes that explain Cave’s enduring cult. Because he so consistently cleaves to the dark side of his psyche, he has long basked in an honorary role as rock’s gothic bogeyman that few of his fans question or think to deconstruct. Yet at his worst, he is not just a woefully poor singer but a faintly embarrassing writer. What’s more, he seems to know this, and devotes parts of The Sick Bag Song to his ceaseless battle with the internal critic, who sneers in his ears that he is no good – perhaps even a fraud. “The critic,” he notes, “is the true voice of our destructive nature.” No doubt that holds good for your reviewer, too.
One of the book’s more telling recollections is of meeting Bob Dylan backstage at Glastonbury in 1998. “A cold, white, satin hand took mine,” Cave writes. “Hey, I like what you do, he said to me. I like what you do, too, I replied. I nearly died. So emptied out I could fade away.” He notes that afterwards he sank back into the “dull, paralysing torpor” of heroin addiction, and each night dreamed of “that slow vampiric hand extending its awful cuff”. This is not a quote from a favourite gothic novel of Cave’s, and yes, there is rather a lot of that sixth-form verbosity in The Sick Bag Song.
At times, Cave even sounds like an Addams Family cheerleader for gothic teen misfits. “Don’t let them tell you that there are no monsters,” he protests. “Don’t let them make you feel stupid, just because you are happy to play down in the dark with your flashlight.” Elsewhere, he writes that “you will be judged and judged harshly, but only by those who dared not leap”.
It all points up what a self-doubting and self-punishing artist Cave is. Ever since his glam-punk, Alex-Harvey-emulating days in Melbourne, he has fought to prove himself and defy his own self-destructiveness: it has been an almost Herculean contest. But where his former paramour PJ Harvey has, I think, gone on to make genuinely mature and coherent art, I’m not convinced that history will remember Cave as the real deal. Too many are merely in thrall to his morbid man-in-black wickedness, and that may be mostly what The Sick Bag Song is about.
“I spend my days pushing Elvis Presley’s belly up a series of steep hills,” Cave writes in the typically narcissistic lyric “King-Sized Nick Cave Blues”. “Wanting everything is the everything that eventually kills. In the morning, I attach my king-sized shadow to my heels. Without my shadow I don’t know how the other half feels.” There’s enough concealed and obfuscated honesty in those words to fill several sick bags.