The Sick Bag Song

Nick Cave

November 17, 2016 
The following is from Nick Cave’s book, The Sick Bag Song. The lead singer of The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds, and Grinderman, Cave has been performing music for more than thirty years. He has collaborated with Kylie Minogue, PJ Harvey, and many others. His debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, was published in 1989 and was followed by the internationally best-selling The Death of Bunny Munro. Born in Australia, Cave now lives in Brighton.


Nashville, Tennessee

A young boy climbs a riverbank. He steps onto a railway bridge.

He is twelve years old.

He kneels down, under a harsh sun, and puts his ear to the track.

The track does not vibrate. There is no train approaching around

the bend on the other side of the river.

The boy starts to run along the tracks. He arrives in the middle

of the bridge. He stands on the edge and looks down at the

muddy river below.

On the left side is a concrete pylon that supports the bridge.

On the right, a half-felled tree lies across the river, its branches

sticking out into the dark water. In between there is a small space

about four feet wide.

He has been told that it is possible to jump in at this point, but

he cannot be sure, as he has never seen anybody do it.

The stones beneath his feet begin to tremble. He crouches down

and again he puts his ear to the track.

The track begins to vibrate. The train is coming.

He stares down at the dark, muddy water, his heart pounding.

* * * *

The boy does not realise that he is not a boy at all, but rather the

memory of a boy.

He is the memory of a boy running through the mind of a man in

a suite at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Nashville, Tennessee,

who is being injected in the thigh with a steroid shot that will

transform the jet-lagged, flu-ridden singer into a deity.

In three hours he will burst from the hotel room. He will move

through the empty city, crossing vast rivers, driving through

empty prairies, along tremendous, multi-laned highways, under

darkening skies, like a small god, to be with you, tonight.


Manchester, Tennessee

And I will walk on stage at Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester,

Tennessee, and become an object of great fascination to almost

no one. The dazed crowd will drift back and forth across the

fields and the sinking sun will flood the site with orange fire.

After the show, I will sit outside on the steps of our trailer

and smoke.

On the way back to Nashville, our van will be stalled on the

highway for two hours at the scene of a terrible automobile

accident. We will watch as ambulances and police cars speed

down the slip roads. We will see a helicopter chopping above us,

its searchlight cutting through the dark night. For an hour we

will sit silently in our van, smoking and drinking. Eventually our

tour manager will leave the vehicle to investigate. He will come

back to report that two vehicles have collided, up ahead, and a

girl lies decapitated on the road.

I will fall asleep in the back of the van, waking up when our

vehicle begins to move. From the slow-moving side window

I will see the decapitated body lying on the road, covered by

a grim, bulging, blue plastic sheet.

I will pick at a thread in my jacket sleeve all the way back to

the Sheraton in downtown Nashville. Pick, pick, pick.

An angel will unfold its wings and speak into my ear.

You must take the first step alone.

Then the angel will nudge me and send me sailing out into the unknown.

This is how I will begin The Sick Bag Song.


Louisville, Kentucky

You must take the first step alone.

I move tentatively toward the lip of the world.

North America stretches out before me like a split bag of sick.

The nine daughter-Muses sweeten their encouraging breath.

And the nine unfolding angels prepare to bear me away.

Bear me away on their white wings to Louisville, Kentucky,

Where I walk across the Big Four Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge,

Eating fried chicken, right across the mighty Ohio. Right on!

And leaning against the railing, staring down at the water below,

I see a black girl in a tiny stars-and-stripes mini-skirt.

I open up my sick bag and say, Right on! Jump in! By the way,

This is exactly the sort of thing that will end up getting me hurt.

The girl in the stars-and-stripes mini-skirt leans out.

She elicits the sympathy of the entire world by revealing

The touching forethought of a sudden matching thong.

I am going to put that in my sick bag song!

I don’t care about the flak!

I’ve got a flak jacket with the stars and stripes on!

The jacket is actually a sick bag,

And the sick bag is a long, slow-motion love song,

That has something to do with the ballad of ‘The Butcher Boy’,

Which ends with the line – That the world may know I died of love.

The girl places a single, shoeless foot on the railing of the bridge.

And then stands up on the barrier.

Take care, I say, and the girl turns to me and smiles and salutes.

My wife once heard ‘The Butcher Boy’ sung so beautifully she cried.

She folded up her flak jacket, closed her eyes and basically died.

I am a small god made of terracotta, trembling on a pedestal,

Interred in a maelstrom of sound.

Look what the little clay god has found, neatly folded!

A jumbled bundle of young black bones,

Secured by a teeny half-digested thong.

I read somewhere that my best work was behind me.

But where? When I turn around, the flying girl is gone.

* * * *

The next morning, I stand in the lobby of the 21c Museum

Hotel in Louisville, awed by four terracotta sculptures of naked

children, by the artist Judy Fox,  arranged in a row  behind

the reception desk. They are really something to see as you

check out of your hotel. The little child-heroes are small,

scorched gods. They press their young faces against the

windows of the iconic roles they are set to play.  Look at

them on their shuddering pedestals! Look at them standing

on the precipice of their child-selves, with their baked and

bletting bodies, preparing to leap! Look at them!

* * * *

Later still, we file onto the bus and our tour manager counts

heads and we cling to our paper coffee cups, and as the bus

turns into Main Street down comes a sudden summer shower

and someone puts on ‘Kentucky Rain’ by Elvis Presley and I see,

through the window, for an instant, along one of the adjacent

streets that leads to the Ohio River, under the Big Four

Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge, a group of representatives from

the emergency services, dressed in black jackets and peaked

caps, dragging something from the rain-pocked river.


Kansas City, Missouri

I am a nervous system that runs on rhyme and ghosts.

The ghosts howl through the words making them chime.

I’d no idea I may have tasted your sweet breath

For the last time,

And when I think of you at home I notice

A brief expansion of worried longing in my chest,

As we cross the state line into Missouri,

And park our bus by the side of the road and disembark,

And in the unhurried dark, enter the low grass of the prairie

On our bellies like snakes.

We enact the slaughter of the bison by William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody,

Then the Indian Wars including the Battle of Coon Creek.

And that night at the Intercontinental in Kansas City,

I try to call you on the transatlantic communications cable,

But the phone just rings and rhymes.

So I leave an obscure, disembodied message

On our answering machine. It goes—


You are the statuesque bison standing in the prairie of my leave.

You are Squanto’s grief upon returning home.

You are the tear spilt on the rawhide sleeve.

Pick up the phone

Pick up the phone

I am the skinned hump that paints the prairie red.

I am the guy with the flies. I am the one that dies.

I am the man that goes on tour and hides.

I am the one that wed and fled.

Pick up the phone

Pick up the phone

I am the dead.

Take a pill and go to bed.

* * * *

Under the bed sheet, I place the sick bag to my ear and shake it.

I hear the rattle of the nine Muses’ emblems—the writing tablet,

the scroll, the flute, the arrows of love, the tragic mask, the harp,

the lyre, the comic mask, the globe and compass.

I can hear the warm blood seeping onto the highway, from my

severed neck, as I phone home and you do not answer.

I can hear the young boy’s terrible heart calibrating itself to the

train that is rushing towards him.

I hear bloodless people, whispering, commiserating and plotting.

I recognise these voices as collaborators from a distant past.

My nine naked Muses sleep softly, piled on my chest, for their

work is done for today.

I regulate my breathing as the unfolding angels wing me away.

In sleep, I am borne across a gentle, purple North American

dreamscape—a panorama of solution and resolution, where the

next action that is best for us is effortlessly revealed.


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Then in the morning we bus it up to Milwaukee,

Where if you are not German then you’re a Pole.

At least that’s what the guy from Mader’s Restaurant says,

As he serves us a pretzel big as a severed human head.


Then into the rainy night we run, to the Intercontinental Hotel,

Our blue plastic flak jackets pulled over our heads,

Past the autograph hounds and into the bathroom mirror, I sing,

When I wear this mask the girls all scream

When I wear this one they laugh instead.

When I hit Milwaukee with a pint of cream,

They pull the sheets over their heads.

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 multi-storey forehead. I lean in and gaze deep

Into the confused crop-circles of my eyes. In the right eye,

In the blue, is a little brown discolouration and the whites

Are beginning to yellow. 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,

Or someone. Hang on! Just a minute! There you go! Like that!

* * * *

In a studio in Malibu, Johnny Cash sat down and played a song.

He was partially blind and could barely walk. I was there.

I saw a sick man pick up his instrument and be well.

With regret I have seen the opposite too. Pick, pick, pick.

I have seen well men pick up their instruments and be sick.

* * * *

Resist the urge to create.

Resist the belief in the absurd.

Resist by means of provocation.

Resist by means of sickness and sadness.

Resist by means of masturbation.

Resist by motivational manuals.

Resist by doing for others.

Resist by comparison to others.

Resist through the opinions of others.

These are The Nine Bedevilments of Advancement. They live in our

blood and skin and nerves. They are as present and cataclysmic

to our progress as a runaway train thundering towards us, as we

stand rigid with fear on the tracks.

The oozing entrails of my sick bag sweep stars and stripes

Across the sawdust floor of the USA. But, hark!

What is that sweet breath behind my ear, I hear you say?

It is the Muses and Johnny Cash blowing us along our way.


Minneapolis, Minnesota

I am vomiting up Milwaukee’s mussels and pretzel in an alley

Behind the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Minneapolis with its sensible weatherproof walkways,

And the State Theatre in the free Italian Renaissance style,

Its restored proscenium curving a hundred feet above the stage,

Bought by Live Nation in the year two thousand,

Then sold to Key Entertainment in two thousand and eight.

We arrive early but we get sick and we go on late.

The show of warmth from the crowd is staggering. Look!

The audience are turning their bodies into concrete pylons!

Their arms reach out like the lethal branches of half-felled trees!

The music rumbles towards us along the tracks!

We have waded through the blood of buffalo

And Cheyenne warriors to be with you tonight. Look!

The concrete pylons are turning into columns of light.

I stand like a flayed dog on my hind legs and reveal

An extending stripe of wet, pink skin. Leap! I say,

Fumbling with my doggie bag of sick. Leap, you fuckers!

And all the columns of light hold hands and, one by one, jump in.

* * * *

That late night in the Grand Hotel in downtown Minneapolis

I approach John Berryman’s Dream Songs

Like a master thief. I slow my heartbeat,

And press my ear up the eighteen rails

Of dark, vibrating verse. My innards rumble like a train.

Slowly, patiently the tumblers click and with terror

And comfort the entire world falls out. I yawn.


Then I dream on down to Washington Avenue Bridge,

Where the poet debated the subtle difference between

Flying and falling with the pretty lawny bank below.

You must take the first step alone—

A fraudster angel with paper wings tied to its back, like a sail

Said, You must take the first step alone! And, so too, the last!

Then he kicked John Berryman over the rail.


And as the concertinaed poet suffocated on the grass,

I hit the fourth line of ‘Dream Song 54’ like a runaway train

‘I prop on the costly bed & think of my wife’

And awaken with a rush and a shrieking need,

And dial, dial, dial, my wife! Don’t jump! My God!

My pretty baby, don’t jump! Pick up the phone!

As I remember, on the goodbye steps of our house,

Her wet, unstable eye, that said, huh, huh, huh,

Don’t leave. Don’t go. Stay home.

 * * * *

The Sick Bag Song is the leavings.

The Sick Bag Song is the scrapings.

The Sick Bag Song is the shavings.

The Sick Bag Song is the last vestiges.

The Sick Bag Song is the bile and the tripe.

The Sick Bag Song is the remnants and the residue.

The Sick Bag Song is the leftovers and the throwbacks.

The Sick Bag Song is the barrel’s dreggy bottom.

The Sick Bag Song is the rejectamenta, disgorged –

So that we can move forward and tomorrow leap differently.




From THE SICK BAG SONG. Used with permission of HMH. Copyright © 2016 by Nick Cave.

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