Nick Cave's Great Gambleby Allyson Polsky McCabe
At some point during Nick Cave’s 2014 North American tour with the Bad Seeds, a series of ideas and observations casually scribbled onto airline sick bags began to morph into The Sick Bag Song, at once an epic narrative poem, an emotionally honest road diary, and a fascinating publishing experiment.
This is not Cave’s first literary foray. He’s previously released several collections of lyrics, poetry, plays, and other extra-musical output. Cave’s debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, was published in 1989. His second novel, The Death of Bunny Monro, came out in 2009.
Experimental in its concept and execution, The Death of Bunny Monro was released by the Scottish independent publisher Canongate in several formats including hardcover, eBook, binaural audiobook, and an innovative iPhone app. The book was successfully promoted through a series of intimate international appearances, featuring live readings and music, along with audience-centered Q&A sessions.
Returning to Canongate for The Sick Bag Song, Cave has gone even further in rethinking what a book can be. Gorgeously designed by Pentagram’s Angus Hyland, The Sick Bag Song begins in Nashville and ends in Montreal. Cave commemorates each destination on his 22-city tour with date-stamped sick bags that he’s festooned with handwritten sketches and observations. Inspired by John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, Cave intersperses vivid images with a narrative record of life on the road—from backstage to onstage and after the shows, a catalogue of the most and least glamorous aspects of touring and performing.
Describing his pre-show ritual, Cave reveals his anxieties about aging: “I carefully concoct a paste in a bowl and I paint my hair black so that it sits like a sleek, inky raven’s wing on top of my multistorey forehead.” A bit later: “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.”
There are many moments when Cave questions his continuing relevance, and others when he recalls what propels him to keep going. Reflecting on his adolescent discovery of Leonard Cohen, Cave writes about “suddenly being able to breathe as if for the first time.” He describes songs like those of Cohen’s as sacred, hiding places where one can seek refuge from the world. His desire to offer this kind of sanctuary is palpable. He frets about becoming complacent, and losing his creative hunger. He also worries about forgetting, and being forgotten. Cave’s voice comes across as candid, and authentically human.
Readers will find The Sick Bag Song to be among Cave’s best, most probing creative works—if they can get their hands on a copy. On April 8, Canongate released a £30 ($47) “Unlimited Edition” featuring a boxed hardback book bundled along with instant downloads of an eBook and an unabridged audiobook narrated by Cave. A “Limited Edition,” not set for release until June 4, was produced in a run of only 220, and priced at £750 ($1,167). It comes with everything in the “Unlimited Edition” plus a sick bag signed and customized by Cave, a signed and numbered special edition of the book, and a limited pressing of Nick Cave reading the book on a white vinyl double LP. Radically, neither edition is sold in bookstores, retail outlets, or via Amazon. The book is only available through the UK-based website “thesickbagsong.com,” and the prices quoted above do not include shipping costs to the U.S. in excess of $20.
Cave’s publishing approach, which aims at greater creative and financial control, is intriguing—and unthinkable for an artist without his unusually dedicated following. But its success depends on fans’ willingness to invest in a much deeper level of patronage than merely buying a book. Cave is implicitly asking fans to support the “true” value of his art, not its deflated market value. (Jay Z is making a similar play with subscription streaming service Tidal.)
The Sick Bag Song’s pre-release promotion was well executed, but its launch was limited to three exclusive sold-out events in Los Angeles, New York, and London. At the New York event, held on April 10th at Florence Gould Hall, I was surprised to see no merchandise table. Following Cave’s reading and interview with the novelist Hari Kunzru, Cave took questions from an engaged, admiring audience. When a woman expressed disappointment that she couldn’t buy a book because only 48 were on hand, Cave seemed flustered and directed her to the website. When she complained that she couldn’t get it signed that way, he offered to send her an autographed sick bag.
Cave managed the snafu as graciously as possible, but a book promotion without enough copies of a book not sold in stores struck me as a significant misstep. How many fans will be sold enough on the book’s innovative concept to follow through and buy it online, as I did? Cave has done well releasing music independently since 2013. Whether he’s as successful at independent publishing remains to be seen.
ContributorAllyson Polsky McCabe
ALLYSON POLSKY MCCABE teaches writing at Yale.