Sick of goodby’s

2 December 2022

“Some go on, some stay behind, some never move at all”
— Nick Cave, Girl in Amber

“Things move on, time passes, people go away, and sometimes they don’t come back.”
— Robert Frank

Recently, I was fortunate enough to hear Nick Cave speak about his life and work as an artist at the London Literature Festival. In the talk with Seán O’Hagan, Cave spent a good amount of time discussing loss, and how writing had allowed him to move on from the grief caused by the deaths of his sons Arthur and Jethro. “I don’t want to become a prisoner of events that happen to me,” Cave explained. “Suzie and I had to fight against the grief rather than give in to the alternative,” which would’ve been to retreat into his grief, cutting himself off from others entirely, and making it impossible to come out on the other side of it.

Cave spent much of the 90-minute talk ruminating about how he felt that work was often his “better side” fighting against his inner demons. Working on music allowed Cave to channel his personal flaws, and provided him with a way to cope with his suffering and transform it into something beautiful. After losing his son Arthur in 2015, Cave returned to the studio six months later to finish recording Skeleton Tree. Even now, he says, that album feels “unholy”, strongly pervaded by the memory of his son’s death even though Cave and his band had written most of the album before Arthur died. (The studio performances for Skeleton Tree were brilliantly captured by Andrew Dominik in his film One More Time With Feeling.)

Towards the end of last winter, we lost a family member to Covid. Around the same time, my wife Brittney had a cancer scare, and about a week after Roger’s death from Covid my mother suffered a stroke, leaving her unable to speak or use the left side of her body. I felt my world unravelling in very short order, and to some extent I’m still recovering from the shock of those events. We were lucky: Brittney received the all clear from the hospital and my mother made a near-total recovery from her stroke, which is extremely rare. But there was still the void that had opened up since Brittney’s stepfather Roger died from Covid. He is the seventh family member we have lost in as many years.

Robert Frank, 'Sick of Goodby's' (1978)

Nick Cave’s talk led me to think about a photograph by Robert Frank: a disturbing dual image of a mirror stained with what looks like blood, the words “sick of goodby’s” dripping from the glass. A hand holds out a small skeletal doll reflected between the lines. It’s a strangely compelling photo: haunting and sad and disturbing, with the words echoing the traces of loss we’ve felt at various times throughout our life. Lou Reed and Liz Jobey wrote about it for the Tate’s 2004 retrospective on Frank’s work:

“In 1974 [Frank’s] daughter Andrea died in an air crash in Peru at the age of twenty. The year before, his friend, the filmmaker Danny Seymour, disappeared and was presumed dead. His first marriage was over. His relationship with his son, Pablo, was difficult. We know all these things because Frank made pictures about them: fractured, stuttering, abstracted images, using snapshots and half-shots collaged into disjointed sequences as if bits of footage from his memory bank had been transferred directly on to paper.” — Liz Jobey

“…the desire to see it all again, to go out one more time into the wild flame only to be burned up forever and never be seen again except in these farewell photos, is moving beyond description. The photos speak of an acceptance of things as they are. The inevitable death of us all…” — Lou Reed

Seán O’Hagan interviewed Robert Frank in 2004 and 2014; the first on the occasion of his Tate retrospective, the second shortly before his 90th birthday. Frank was old and had seen a lot, experienced a lot. He had long since grown tired of photography. With his famous series The Americans, published in 1958, Frank sought to document the everyday life of America as an outsider, challenging the dominant cultural romanticism of American life at the time. Later, after the death of his daughter Andrea, photography no longer felt the same. Photography had “shifted from being about what I saw to being about what I felt,” he told O’Hagan in 2004. But even in his grief-stricken vandalism of his own pictures, such as Sick of goodby’s, there’s beauty in the sorrow: a heart of darkness.

What struck me about both Cave and Frank’s statements about their work was a common idea of art having the power to turn loss and trauma into something reflective and beautiful. The artwork as a testament to the transformative power of grief, to turn a terrible kind of suffering into a medium that speaks to both the universal experience and reluctant acceptance of loss.

Ultimately, beauty is interwoven with grief and loss. Robert Frank conveyed this outlook towards the end of his life, saying, “Life is not beautiful all the time. Life can be good, then you lie down, and stare up at the ceiling, and the sadness falls on you. Things move on, time passes, people go away, and sometimes they don’t come back.”

Studio, Hertfordshire, October 2022