It’s raining in February, the Cape Town equivalent of snow in hell. It’s Friday the 13th and I suspect the drizzle is the weather’s way of telling the politicians to calm the fuck down with the crazy shit and police assaults in Parliament. The Shack is stacked to the rafters. Frank and Q are already ensconced at a pool table when I arrive. Whoever is controlling the sound system tonight has access to the largest collection of 70s and early 80s pop and rock known to man. There’s so much cheese coming out of the speakers I’m surprised they don’t look like pizzas. Somehow it makes perfect sense; people are tapping their feet to songs that were hits when their parents were teenagers. It’s like everyone is looking for an excuse to escape to a different place and time.
I can tip my hat at the surprising timelessness of Thriller-era Michael Jackson, but when Boney M launches into “Ma Baker” I get an overwhelming sense of being stuck in an elaborate prank being televised via hidden cameras. Q notices my expression and proceeds to enthusiastically serenade me.
The rainy weather and larger-than-usual crowd contribute to a thick pall of smoke that shifts and eddies underneath the pool table light in sexy-lazy swirls. Perhaps it’s because I have just recovered from flu, but the smoke smells particularly acrid tonight. Thus it is with some trepidation that I watch a pretty blonde produce a hookah pipe from her backpack and set it up on a table next to us. Soon she is joined by a large group of friends. When the smoke from her corner reaches me it is unexpectedly sweet. I can’t pin down what it reminds me of; my mind keeps coming up with “Nutella”, but that’s not it. I stare at her thinking “not Nutella”, when our eyes meet. I smile, she smiles back…. sweet, but not Nutella.
Three days later I’ll be on my back in a puddle of my own fever-sweat, thinking less fondly of smoke-filled rooms and how the contents of my lungs could be used to mortar a wall; say, the Great Wall of China. Guess I hadn’t quite recovered from that flu first time round.
But that’s later. Right now the night is a rollercoaster that’s slowly climbed to the top of “real” and is about to topple over the edge into “unreal”. That moment arrives when the Bee Gees come on; everyone – and I mean everyone – loses their shit. Did I miss the memo? In fact, did I miss the rehearsal? Still no apparent hidden cameras, despite the fact that The Shack has turned into a giant musical with the entire cast screaming in falsetto “Sta Sta Sta Sta Staying Alive!” The sublime meets the ludicrous: Q adds disco dance moves to his serenading.
The pool games, by the way, are actually quite impressive. Everyone’s on fire. Challengers come and go. The girl with the hookah stays. We keep smiling at each other across the room.
There’s always a point when the night tips over into surreal, it’s a point that precedes a keen blade. Some people tip over whole – others are sliced; you can see underneath the masks.
Take my new pool playing partner, who has the exotic accent one can only acquire by growing up in a small town in another province. He looks uncannily like a friend I lost. He is overacting his happy mood so excessively even William Shatner would cringe at the large hand gestures. Each glass he pours down his throat fuels the inner rage and sadness so that I can see the flames light up all his cracks and fissures from the inside out.
Meanwhile Friday the 13th has made way for Valentine’s Day.
Not-nutella smiles, I smile back. How could I even begin to explain to her that a smile given and received is as much as I would handle right now? Unlike my lost-friend-new-friend at the pool table, I do not know how to be tragic. I’m cut (by my own hand, it is worth noting) and I’m bleeding….bleeding ink everywhere. The ink runs into these comments, into notebooks and sketchbooks, but mostly the ink just wells inside. There is an ocean of ink that I need to figure out what to do with. Who knew it was possible to bleed this much? I keep my distance because I don’t want to spill any of it on someone else.
Somewhere in the surreal early morning hours I realise that Frank and Q have departed and been replaced by V-man (who edits a magazine I’ve shot a cover for) and another guy. Three strangers challenge us to pool, but the one is clearly tripping; confirmed when he tells me “I’m too fucked to play.” and then repeats it several times more, each time as if it’s the first time he’s made this stupendous revelation. He stumbles off. I wonder what it must be like to hallucinate when you’re covered in that much ink, just staring at his forearms must be putting his mind through a blender.
The sound system operator is mugged because the music veers suddenly into Skrillex. Everyone loses their shit – again. There is jumping and headbanging. No holds barred. Zero fucks given. I really need to find out when they hold the rehearsals for these choreographed moments.Tripping-Tattoo stumbles back in – he’s fumbling with his penis, although he doesn’t seem to realise it’s still in his pants. Ever seen a toddler trying to tie shoelaces? His pathetic hand-eye coordination is almost pitiful. I remind myself that I don’t want to see what he intends to do with his member once he manages to get his hands on it.
The 70s DJ and the Dubstep DJ are trading blows. ‘Ma Baker’ returns and has a shootout with some Drum-and-Bass villains. Not-nutella is dancing with a tall guy; which is good. If given a choice between sitting and dancing, always dance. That’s some solid rock’n’roll wisdom for you.
I step out into the night to find the sidewalks crawling with hundreds of people arriving or departing Shack and Mercury next door. A long-haired guy is shouting at a car leaving the parking lot. For a moment I think he’s the mysterious coat-and-sunglasses East European character from a previous Shack evening. Two minutes later he’s banging on my car window, so I discover this is someone else. Evidently it’s the reincarnation of Jim Morrison – the resemblance is uncanny. I shake my head and keep the window up – he stumbles off, flinging a string of profanities over his shoulders. I drive slowly after him, hoping to slip past and out the parking lot exit, when one of his companions steps in front of the car. She’s smiling, but I’m already calculating what manner of violence is about to unfold. She bends down, looks intently into my eyes and then shouts at her friends: “It’s not him, guys.” She turns away, but I open the window, my curiosity demanding explanation. She explains that they mistook me for their friend “Grumble”. I burst out laughing; his mother called him what? “No, I don’t know what his real name is, ‘Grumble’ is just what we call him.”
Grumble, dude, if you’re reading this, come home, there are people that love you… even if they don’t know your real name, or what car you drive. Also you’re the inspiration for this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names.
I stop at the 24-hour garage convenience store in Orange, about as Cape Town an institution as the flat-topped mountain. I dodge around a kid in the aisle with eyebrows bushier than my beard. He’s got a shaving plaster on one eyelid. Then I come face to face with the spitting image of Kurt Cobain, complete with lanky bleached hair and eyes that have found the abyss and would not forget the sight even with all the lithium in the world.
I arrive home with 21 Pilots’ “Car Radio” playing on the car stereo; they sing that there are many things we can do, but only two work, and of the two “peace will win and fear will lose.” It’s not the whole truth, but right here and now, I’ll take it.