CANONGATE’S Jamie Byng tells how Nick Cave’s scribblings on airline sick bags turned into a Homeric saga and the ultimate collectable
WHILE discussing Nick Cave’s new book with his publisher, Jamie Byng, the director of Canongate, I keep returning in my mind to an old comedy sketch featuring Tracey Ullman as a fangirl overjoyed at the memento she has just received from her rock star idol – his saliva, which she has diligently collected in a jar after he walked past and spat at her.
Cave is not offering his gobbings along with his latest literary utterance, but perhaps the next best thing – the chance to own a unique Nick Cave airline sick bag. Be aware that, should you choose to part with the £750 required to secure this item – plus book and record, but we’ll get to that – your personalised sick bag will not contain any Cave upchuck but, rather, be adorned with exclusive writings and doodlings pertinent to one of the 22 cities Cave visited on last summer’s Bad Seeds tour of the US and Canada.
Cave began composing the prose opus that is The Sick Bag Song on the in-flight sick bags he had at his immediate disposal. “I’ve maybe only once in my life seen someone use a sick bag because they’re being sick,” says Byng.
Among its many other features, The Sick Bag Song contains pictures of the very bags used in the drafting of this book plus Cave’s pithy one-line reviews of their aesthetic appeal and suitability for the purposes of jotting and scribbling. Air Canada’s is deemed “elegant”, Virgin Atlantic’s is “hip” and “extroverted”, Qantas’s “exploitative”. Don’t even ask about British Airways or United Airlines.
But when it came to sourcing sick bags for the limited edition of The Sick Bag Song, Canongate had 220 of them printed specially – ten for each city touched down in during the writing of this alternative tourlog, a daily diary which is also scattered with memories from Cave’s childhood, encounters with muses, both physical and abstract, and some priapic images you might find a little too confessional.
Having said that, this is no Mötley Crüe memoir. It’s a brazen flight of fancy, pitched somewhere between tantalising tour tales and freewheeling fiction, with some mythical creatures tossed into the mix. There is a heightened poetry in the way Cave describes his surroundings and takes inventory of his tour; even the more familiar rock’n’roll environs are painted in an impressionistic light or skewed with dark humour.
“The journey became much more than just the physical journey of the band going through these cities touring,” says Byng, “but actually a journey into the past and inspiration and memory and identity and the creative process.”
It wouldn’t be stretching things too far to describe The Sick Bag Song as Cave’s take on the epic prose poem. In pulling all his ideas together, he was influenced by the American poet John Berryman, in particular his lyrical journal, The Dream Songs, while the repeated use of nine-line lists has classical parallels in the nine muses, say, or the nine circles of hell.
Byng regards The Sick Bag Song as a modern Odyssey, with Cave as Odysseus, overcoming obstacles, challenges, temptations and distractions in order to return home to his wife. The prize in his quest? That his Penelope would just damn well take his transatlantic phone call…
Will fans buying the much less expensive unlimited edition of the book, sans personal sick bag missive, learn much about Nick Cave from this idiosyncratic tourlog? Sure, probably about as much as they will learn about Cave from the first person songs he will perform on his forthcoming solo tour (with a little help from some Bad Seeds) or from watching last year’s Cave documentary, 20,000 Days On Earth, which ostensibly followed a day in the life of rock star called Nick Cave through therapy sessions and staged encounters with family, bandmates and famous friends including Kylie, who knows a thing or two herself about creating, then preserving a public image. Tellingly, Cave was credited as the co-writer of the film’s script. At least he’s being honest about the dishonesty.
The filmmakers for that project, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, have also made a series of short films for The Sick Bag Song (which can be viewed at www.thesickbagsong.com) in which Cave reads from his mystical memoir with alacrity, another bravura performance from a man who seems born to declaim. The two-hour audio book which is part of the package, along with the physical and e-book editions, should be a treat.
“Nick has always been into role playing,” says Byng. “He genuinely immerses himself in the idea of being Stagger Lee, or whoever it is; he likes investigating character through song and book but we’re all doing that. There’s no such thing as the stable self. We try to hold on to such a thing because we need to, otherwise we could go mad. That’s why I like The Sick Bag Song as a metaphor for what we’re all carrying around in our own skulls, this sick bag in our heads, and the sick bag is full of all sorts of things, good and bad, things that inspire you but also haunt you.”
Byng himself makes a fictionalised cameo in the book, brainstorming ostentatious marketing ideas in it. Back in the real world of our confab, he mentions something about rabbit suits and the London Book Fair but maintains that “we definitely didn’t have those conversations as reported by Nick in the book”.
The book also contains anecdotes about visiting Bryan Ferry, meeting Bob Dylan and hearing the music of Leonard Cohen for the first time, plus mention of Patti Smith’s 2012 memoir Woolgathering. “That was in a way Patti Smith’s sick bag,” says Byng, clearly warming to the metaphor once more, “and she’s one of the people who’s in Nick’s sick bag.” What a curious and somehow appropriately Cave-ian image. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about Tracey Ullman and her jar of spit all over again.
• The Sick Bag Song is available exclusively from www.thesickbagsong.com. Nick Cave plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 26 April and the Playhouse, Edinburgh on 28 April