LOVE, DEATH & MAGIC – and the ball-crushing power of karma. End-March 2015

“I don’t know what’s real any more”, Fiona says as she leans closer, while squeezing my hand. I smile and say, “That’s the point. Isn’t it beautiful?” It’s after 4am on one of those improbable summery nights that Cape Town dishes up in autumn, and I guess I need to rewind to explain how we got here.

Nearly 12 hours earlier I leave the city for two friends’ informal birthday on the other side of the peninsula. The road hugs the northern and eastern flanks of the mountain like a cat rubbing up against its owner’s leg, before setting off over the plain past Dieprivier (which translates as Deep River) and Tokai (supposedly named after a series of hills in Hungary called Tokaj). Then leaps eagerly up the mountain via Ou Kaapse Weg (which translates as Old Cape Way) before writhing down to Noordhoek (translated as Northern Corner). One final bound over the ridge and down to the sea near Fishhoek (i.e. Fish Corner). At the water’s edge it veers once more and takes me up the valley into Glencairn (which is a phrase with Irish and Scottish roots referring to a narrow valley).

I like names. Names are symbols, monuments if you will. We capitalise them to make them stand out from the landscape of our language, and yet most people rarely think about where they come from and what they mean. Until something happens to a person or place and their Name is a monument on which we hang our ideas, the symbol for all our feelings about them. Names and symbols have power once we assign meaning to them. Meaning is ultimately always personal. And yet, when we share a symbol with others its meaning is negotiated…. even contested. And so it happens that when you hear the Name of your lover or child it fills you with the memories, hopes and anxieties inspired by your love for them, whereas the Name of a person or place you dislike becomes symbolic of all that you loathe about them…. yet, those same detested Names ring like sweet music in the ears and hearts of others.

My conundrum is that publishing these journals have created a feedback loop. Although I expected it, I did not expect it to be this pronounced or immediate. The names of people written about here echo in the real world; far more than I expected. To protect the innocent, and more importantly the not-so-innocent, I have begun to fudge names or assign pseudonyms where the identity of the person (especially my friends) is not critical to the telling of events. Bear with me, Dear Reader, because I can’t resist picking pseudonyms that amuse me in obscure ways.

Haha, all of which does not preclude me from name-dropping. Take for instance this birthday party: which includes authors Cat Hellisen and Toby Bennet rubbing shoulders with photographers, filmmakers and illustrators. The hostess and birthday girl is author Nerine Dorman. She’s a horror writer and editor – and sure to crop up again in these pages since she’s on the verge of launching a band with Sonja (lead vocalist for the iconic Terminatryx).

It’s in our nature to take things for granted – like being able to see. One of the writers announces that she’s bound for eye surgery in the near future. I try to put myself in her shoes. Seeing is so integral to my existence; how would I cope with impaired sight? A week later someone else will reveal that they are severely dyslexic, which drives the point home; imagine this world where every street sign, bank form, contract, office note, email, text message, and even this sentence you’re reading right now, becomes an indecipherable soup of alien scribbles. Which is why I’ve made an audio version of this installment, never mind how funny I sound to myself in recordings.

I leave the party after a few hours and effortlessly retrace the contours of the landscape in the dark, like a hand caressing a familiar body. Is this how writing with impaired sight would be? Feeling the shape of things?

April, said Eliot, is the cruelest month. I agree. For as long as I can remember, April has been my ferryman. Every year roundabout April I cross over to something new; sometimes good, sometimes not. Which means that every April I’m particularly aware of the ways in which we transcend ‘reality’, namely love, death and magic. By magic I mean music, writing and art.

You cannot avoid any of them, so my personal philosophy is to pursue as much of the love and the magic as I can until death comes calling.

Death calls with a sort of impetuous regularity and randomness in this country, more so than in many other places on the planet. It hovers at the periphery of our lives, never too far away.

I arrive in the inner city before the doors to Mercury Live have opened. I wander next door to The Shack searching for my friends. Walking up the stairs the girl in front of me is wearing denim shorts that do an admirable job of covering her hips…and nothing else. I don’t know if you could call these mere hot pants; more like a fire hazard.

A minute later I find Sontag, also waiting on our friends from Oh, Cruel Fate. She and I end up discussing the politics of the day, which is unwise given how sensitive the topic has become lately. There’s a campaign to remove a colonial statue that has become a symbol for many other things. I try to make the point that politics is a chess game – if you attach your issues to a single piece, your opponent will happily sacrifice that piece. A few weeks later the issue will be supplanted in the media by deadly outbursts of xenophobia and yet another suspected wife-murderer being arrested…and Sontag’s partner will have passed away. Like I said, death is always near – when it strikes it makes so much of what we do look frivolous and callous. At least she’s with him at the end. I didn’t get to meet him, but from the tributes I see afterwards he seems like a remarkable man.

When we love people we live multiple lives, experiencing our lives through our own eyes and through theirs. Our lives are a tapestry made up of overlapping threads of meaning, many of which are supplied by the people we care for. Even the simplest experience, like how you feel about the steam curling off your cup of tea on a winter’s morning, is coloured by how you know this person you love feels about it. Loving someone means negotiating the meaning of your life and theirs on a continuous basis; a subtle yet ongoing conversation. When that person is gone you still instinctively reach out for those shared meanings in the tapestry, but find that the threads are gone, or more accurately, that those threads are no longer being woven. The tapestry feels incomplete. The conversation is one-sided. To lose someone is to lose the meaning they added to your life, and to no longer know what to do with the meaning you would’ve added to theirs.

Back to the music. Finally, at long last I get to see Oh, Cruel Fate playing on a decent stage with proper sound and lighting. The effect is beautiful; wreathed in smoke and coloured lights they lay down their enticing storytelling, mesmerising the crowd.

They are followed by Black Moscow, whose brand of Nu Metal gets the crowd head-banging.

The final act is Subvers; unashamedly loud, unapologetically metal. The vocalist has the necessary chops to growl and scream with the best of them, but is also still capable of holding a note. Backed by a tight band, the ensemble produce what can best be described as an avalanche of sound, with just enough variation to emphasise the intensity of their all-out balls-to-the-wall moments.

Special mention should be made of Mercury’s sound and lighting guys for helping the bands sound and look great.

It’s midnight when I track my friends down at The Shack. It’s one of those nights when people drift around. The band members are still wired after their gig. Hemingway arrives late; apparently his date delayed him because she couldn’t settle on an outfit. The overcrowded vibe at The Shack isn’t helping things. A random idiot – let’s call him Paul – ends up at our table and makes a point of dishing out subtle insults to every woman that has the misfortune to come close. He asks Hemingway’s date is she’s “really a girl or just a guy dressing like one”. He doesn’t realise that she has a date or that he’s sitting at the table. Hemingway – being the nicest man I know – does not resort to violence… but that’s his night on a downhill. Eventually his date will ditch him and he leaves before he can succumb to the temptation of confronting Paul.

I notice Fiona, whom I had met next door at the gig, being jostled by the crowd and looking slightly lost. I offer her my seat. She accepts it but insists that I squeeze in next to her. Unbeknownst to us, Paul the Douchebag is sitting on her other side. He tries a few subtle insulting questions (including “you’re pretty… like a 12-year old girl”) which she brushes off. Paul – who incidentally has a girlfriend – is a disciple of the ‘pick up artist’ gospel, which advocates the supposed power of subtle insults to put women off their guard. Later he looks at me, then back at her and says: “It’s cute when brothers and sisters go out together.” Fiona and I exchange a glance and wordlessly arrive at the same conclusion. We put our arms around each other’s shoulders and lean towards him, “Actually”, I say “we’re a couple, and we’ve been screwing with you for the past hour to see if you’ll try to pick Fiona up.” Paul gapes. I plough on relentlessly, now laughing – which gets Fiona laughing too, “You ever see that movie where that couple does that?” More laughing. Paul is still slack-jawed, but I can see the anger slowly rising along with the heat in his cheeks. “I’m sorry,” I say “no harm meant.” I’m smiling and I’m not looking sorry at all. Paul’s acquaintance sitting opposite us has joined in the laughter; he must’ve seen this scenario many times before, but this is probably the first time that Paul’s become the butt-end of a joke. He insists on taking a picture of the three of us – Paul can do nothing but smile along. I notice that some of our friends have found a new table and we leave Paul behind.

Around 2am the clubs in the city start closing and there’s a sudden increase in the crowd at The Shack. The courtyard is gridlocked. Fiona looks up at the fairy lights strung overhead and says our conversation is like being in a blanket fort; flimsy, but it’s keeping the world at bay.

And for a while the blanket fort holds. Around 4am something about her smile reminds me of another place, another time, things lost, and threads missing from the tapestry. Some of it flickers across me face and she asks if I’m tired. I could answer without lying and still be untruthful. I could lie and take some comfort where it is being offered. Instead I try to explain that this is where the evening will end. At first she thinks this is a further riff on the earlier joke we played on Paul. She opens her eyes wide and affects shock: “Are you breaking up with me?”

It’s funny. Painfully so. I see the realisation dawn: “You’re friend-zoning me?”, she asks. “No… yes… no”, I shut my mouth.

Which is how we arrive at the point where she says “I don’t know what’s real any more.” I smile and say, “That’s the point. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Everything is possible until we choose one course of action over another. Conversation is the art of the possible, the act of considering more than one possibility. Of saying here are these symbols, but I will not impose my meaning for them on you. Conversation is the weaving of the tapestry of meaning. Conversation between a guy called Einstein and another called Schroedinger is what led to that famous quantum physics thought-experiment involving a cat in a box and the wildly divergent possibilities underneath the fabric of what we like to call ‘real’. There’s another famous conversation involving a cat that pre-dates Einstein and Schroedinger…that’s Alice, lost in Wonderland, asking the Cheshire Cat which path to pick. It doesn’t matter, he tells her, if you don’t really know where you’re going. Any path can get you there.

I’d like to believe that there is such a thing as karma – some cosmic balancing of the scales. That me mocking Paul is recompense for how he spoilt Hemingway’s evening, or that Sontag’s loss will somehow be countered by unexpected joy in the future. Either way, these pages are flimsy bandages over deep wounds.

Perhaps it does all balance out eventually, but with such infinite complexity that it is beyond our ability to truly fathom.

Take for instance the conclusion of the evening. Some random guy decides that he does not want to navigate through the throng in the courtyard, so without warning he steps between us onto our table. Bottles scatter everywhere. He lurches over onto the next table, people duck and more bottles clatter to the floor. From there he steps onto the staircase balustrade and swings his leg over the railing. He thinks he has cleverly turned a 10-minute journey into a 10 second traverse. Clearly, he also gives zero fucks about everyone he nearly kicked in the head and showered with spilt beer. At this point, he has raised himself onto a pinnacle and has all eyes trained on him. His foot comes done on the other side of the railing…. except it doesn’t. The railing is about 2 inches higher than his hips. He tries to get his foot down; but it just won’t reach. He tries to reverse, but it’s high and there’s broken glass down there from all the bottles he knocked over. He see-saws for agonising seconds, with his skinny jeans ensuring his entire weight is grinding his balls into the railing. Eventually he stumbles over and limps off. Guess who will literally be giving zero fucks for a while?

I can’t unravel the mysteries of cosmic justice, but at least I’ll take this little bit of comfort, if karma exists, it’s a ball-crusher.

It’s 4h30, when I leave. Four hours later I’m doing my weekly run along the Atlantic flank of the mountain. The miles roll by while I ponder love, death and magic. I don’t know about you, but I’m squeezing every last second out of this bastard.

Oh, parting shot, this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: The Blanket Forts.

THURSDAY SUBLIME – MIDDLE MARCH

The city surrenders itself to the night with a sooty belch as the office workers and 9-to-5ers flee by car, bus and train to the suburbs and townships. In the dusky hour before sunset large sections of the inner city become a sort of abandoned post-apocalyptic wasteland… the wind whistles down deserted streets with only the occasional fluttering plastic bag to keep it company.

 

East of the inner city the gentrification of the warehouse district is only surface-deep. The sun dips behind Lion’s Head, as if it would rather look upon Clifton’s famous beaches than Woodstock’s grittier face. Woodstock had a beach once, decades ago before the warehouses, rail yards and factories were built on land reclaimed from the sea. Looking at old photos of that beach will hurt your head…there’s sea where today half of downtown stands.

 

The shadows deepen and seem to conjure the people who make their living outside the confines and laws of 9-to-5.

 

I aim for Three Feathers Diner. I can only find parking on Main road, but it’s near the front entrance to the diner and there’s a big guy manning the door. His suit says 9-to-5, but his face says don’t-even-think-about-it. Unless the prospective car-thief is Chuck Norris, I reckon Alice will be safe.

 

The usual monthly market is underway. Around the courtyard custom bikes, big Harleys and muscle cars sit on their haunches with a sense of barely contained energy. Somebody turns the ignition on one of the beasts and a throaty V8 rumbles like a volcano. These aren’t toys, they’re built to go.

 

There are many familiar faces in the crowd; hugs and handshakes are exchanged before I go inside to sample one of the diner’s famous burgers. These are epic in size and equally tasty. Burgers are made to order in true diner-style at an open grill right behind the counter, so you know what goes onto your plate.

 

We drape ourselves over assorted chairs as Field of Giants prepares to open proceedings. This is one of Joshua Grierson’s projects and tonight is actually the public launch. Joshua’s been around the local music scene for a long time, but it’s been a few years since I last saw him perform. It’s just him, an electric guitar, no mic, and a few pedals. Turns out one of the latter is a loop pedal, which he uses to subtly weave layers of melody and rhythm on top of each other. Loop pedals have in recent years become endemic (some might even say pandemic) in live performance circles. With some acts it feels as if the looping is more important than the music. Field of Giants is thankfully a different story – the loop pedal is merely a means to an end. I assume that in time the act will expand to include various musicians and the loop pedal may disappear altogether. This is instrumental music; evocative and stirring in the same way that great movie soundtracks are. I’m not overly fond of genre-casting, but for the sake of reference I guess this could be called ‘progressive instrumental rock or metal’. Think of acts like Mono, Mogwai or God Is An Astronaut. Field Of Giants includes the occasional use of vocals in odd ways: almost choral, no words, but deeply emotional. Speaking of which, the performance itself is raw and sincere. Joshua’s face and body soar and contort along with the music – there is no sense of self-consciousness or pretension. I speak to Joshua later in the evening and I’m surprised to hear that much of the performance was composed on the fly.

 

Oh, Cruel Fate has a solid outing in preparation for their first gig on a proper stage within a few days, which I’ll talk about next time.

 

The weirdo of the night is a girl in a pastel-hued vest who wanders right up to the pinball machine in the middle of the Field of Giants set and plays a few games…which wouldn’t have been all that extraordinary except that the pinball machine is in the stage area and less than a meter behind Joshua. Kudos to him for not missing a beat. Think I’m exaggerating? Just scroll up to the photo above and see how close Joshua was sitting to the pinball machine.

 

We call it quits at midnight. Parting shot: this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names is: Pinball Rude.

 

ROCKETS AND A LOOSE CANON – DYING DAYS OF FEBRUARY

I’m on the other side of the bay. Cape Town’s inner city lights blink across the dark waters, just beyond it Table Mountain is a matte silhouette, more felt than seen… caught between the city lights below and night sky above.

This part of the city is called Tableview, because, you know, it provides a ‘view’ of – queue drumroll – the ‘table’ mountain. Supposedly you can’t reach the pinnacle of a career in town planning if you don’t have a finely-honed skill for giving neighbourhoods utterly banal names. I propose this special skill should be called inane-ing.

I’m heading to Woodstock for a music gig. Yes, reader from elsewhere, we have a neighbourhood called Woodstock. Apparently, the name was chosen in 1867 in a ballot by residents; coincidentally the voting took place at an establishment called the Woodstock Hotel. Politics and place names – it’s practically a national sport…perhaps inane-ing isn’t so bad after all.

Speaking of names – tonight’s venue is called the Three Feathers Diner. It derives its moniker from the original badge of the Pontiac – hence the lime-green GTO or it’s flaming orange brother usually parked inside. If you’re wondering where the Pontiac three-feathered logo originates (and if you don’t, I’m telling you anyway): it’s a tribute to the Native American Chief Pontiac. His is yet another tale of politics and places. It is perhaps the one thing that the English empire excelled at above all else; disrespecting people’s dignity and thus inciting rebellion. I guess respect is as good a reason to go to war for as any other. I love how a name can be a thread that runs back through the ages; names are often the echoes of history repeating itself.

Three Feathers Diner has no pretensions; musclecars, burgers and beer. It’s not rocket science, but there’s a raw beauty to well-executed simplicity. It’s the quartermile drag race of entertainment – the object is to get from zero to a good time in a straight line, in the shortest possible time. It succeeds admirably. There’s a large emblem nailed into one of the walls: a skull with knuckledusters for a jaw and spanners for crossbones, the whole design bordered by a sprocket. It even has glowing red brake lights for eyes. If you’re hoping for soft mood music and percale napkins, you’ve come to a drag race expecting to see a Rolls Royce.

There’s a single pool table, where I find Frank and Rich involved in an epic battle, not so much against each other, but against the table itself. Like every attractive novelty pool table design I’ve ever encountered, it looks pretty and behaves monstrously. Sections of this one seem to have discarded our universe’s laws of physics in favour of suggestions of physics originating in the library of the Unseen University. This analogy is strictly designed to give me an opportunity to say this: Rest well Sir Terry, your passing made countless hearts swell with sadness and fond memories….and thus, even as you departed you proved again that some things – like libraries, luggage and our hearts – can be bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.

There’s an informal market happening around the fringes of tonight’s event. Art gallery upstairs, clothing, lingerie and baked goods downstairs. All the diner tables are occupied and creaking under the weight of burgers and beer. And not a hipster in sight – guess Woodstock at night is just a bit too real to fit their sanitised grunge.

Among my vices, baked goods rank pretty high. While the pool table screws with my friends I find myself succumbing to the gravity of The Velvet Cake Company display nearby. Ranks of cupcakes sing hymns of redemption and everlasting bliss. I bow before the altar of Divine Diabetes and receive blessings in the form of a “Sweetie Pie” cupcake. It is a chocolate delicacy worthy of its own gospel, but this isn’t Pinterest so I’ll spare you further details.

We shoot pool, we shoot the breeze and I have another cupcake – told you it was a vice, but in my defense this one is a gift from one of the lovely ladies working at the stand.

The first act of the evening is Damian Le Sar, accompanied on backing vocals by Lliezel, whom I know as one of the leading body-modification practitioners in the country, if not the world. Lady of many talents. It’s a stripped-down sound, without being sparse. Damian’s vocals and guitar-play more than capable of carrying an audience, with Lliezel’s supporting vocals adding nuance. Halfway through their set she produces a tambourine. For me the tambourine is a decisive touch. It’s not The Doors, and Damian is more Mayer than Morrison, but I’m curious how the addition of an organ would round out his songs.

They make way for a folksy singer-songwriter Karla Valentine, who is followed by some cabaret-style covers from one of the diner’s crew, using the stage-name Che Rouge, including a rendition of Alannah Myles’ Black Velvet. This song reeks of the American South; voodoo, humidity, swamplands and sexy sweaty bodies. You can close your eyes and picture the willows and cypresses rising from the marshes, forever caught between fecund and fetid. Nowhere else in the world could have spawned rock’n’roll.

The final act of the evening is The Dukes of Note. Ordinarily a 4-piece, they’re without their rhythm guitarist tonight. It’s an energetic performance, in keeping with the music. Each song seems to be a setup for powerful driving percussion, with drums, lead guitar and bass working in unison. It’s not rocket science…it’s all rocket, lots of it too. Only a corpse could resist moving to the beat and energy. Towards the end of their set the Dukes move into more complex territory, slightly less balls-to-the-wall, but a good variation on the formula.

So, my friends have a band called Oh, Cruel Fate. I should probably mention something about their set, which was the penultimate of the evening. The first and last time I saw them, Mandisi – the drummer – was unavailable due to illness, and to complicate matters the sound-rig at that venue was preposterously bad. This time round they’re not playing in an official venue, so no dedicated sound-rig. But the drummer is present and the sound, via separate amps for each instrument, is decent.

Louw on lead guitar intros the first song with a plectrum scraping slowly down the top string; there’s a statement of intent in that patient grinding never-ending note: buckle up kids, we’re going places. Their sound defies labelling; although it draws on many genres for inspiration, it isn’t a hybrid creature. It’s the delivery that excites me; a less experienced or less accomplished set of musicians would not be able to carry it off.

This ensemble has no dead wood. You could build a decent band around any of these individuals; together they could be – should be! – unstoppable. In fact, the true mastery is how they manage not to overwhelm each other.

I’m no musician but I can tell an arpeggio from an arsehole and I rate Louw’s lead guitar play is everything you could want from that instrument: visceral, naked, speaking an alien language of raw emotions that your subconscious perfectly understands. Dani’s vocals are compelling, at times playful, at others assertive. It’s a storyteller’s voice, which is precisely what the lyrics demand. On bass, Alex is the source of much of the melody; what a welcome relief to find a bassist that hasn’t been pigeonholed into a limited percussion role. And then there’s Mandisi on drums, who is both an aficionado of heavy metal and very well-versed in the technicalities of drumming (yeah, despite the jokes about drummers, there’s actually quite a complex mental and physical skill-set involved). Having chewed this over for two weeks, I’m going to use a somewhat strange word to describe his drumming: delicate. Delicate, as a surgeon works with a scalpel or a pilot at the controls of a fighter jet. The songs vary, showcasing each musician’s talents, but invariably it’s the precision drumming that ties it all together.

It’s all the more enjoyable because the delivery is so effortless. Despite their technical wizardry, I’m left with the feeling that they have much more in reserve. There are moments when they open up the afterburners a little, just teasing with a small glimpse of how much they have on tap.

I guess you could say I’m a fan.

By the end of the evening Three Feathers Diner has sold an inordinate amount of burgers and beer. The folks managing the joint look equal parts exhausted and elated.

So that’s the rocket science and fireworks part of our evening done. Now for the loose cannon – not that we set out to find him.

It’s midnight when we ditch Woodstock for the inner city. Our usual haunt is fairly packed but we find a table and talk about music and whatever else springs to mind. One of our group is, to put it gently, making moves on someone we bumped into at the previous venue. They circle each other, playing both moth and flame. There’s something sweet about witnessing two worlds getting caught in each other’s gravity and orbiting ever closer….would it be tacky to say it will inevitably end in a big bang? Probably; let’s not, OK? While those two spin around each other, they literally float all over the place, rarely at our table, and barely present even when they are.

The rest of us banter about obscure bands. Frank asks Mandisi if he played basketball during his school years in the States (subtext: you’re black, it’s America, so you must have). Yes, he replies. It’s unclear whether either of them is deadpanning or serious. You have to assume that both of them are taking the piss, but the moment stretches out indefinitely. Mandisi leans in and taps Frank on the forehead with a finger, as if to say: “Hello! Anybody in there?” Frank’s mouth twitches into a smile and everyone laughs at his expense. This little moment I share because the loose cannon is about to enter (stage right, trailing the stench of social rejection) and shower us with a deluge of obnoxious, racist, homophobic (because why stop at one form of bigotry?) bullshit.

Howsoever you may define yourself – race, language, culture, gender, sexual orientation – is your business; it may be important to you, or not, but it has no bearing on whether I am your friend. Not being a bigot is as simple as that: you don’t advertise it, you simply live it.

Sometimes we will joke about this stuff with each other, poking fun at the stereotypes that we don’t believe in. Of course when an actual stereotype lands in your midst like a steaming pile of manure, it’s not funny.

Generally we follow the age-old tradition of welcoming strangers who invite themselves to our table, because they might be interesting and either way we can gently take the piss out of them.

On those grounds we let – shall we call him “Barry”? – join our table, when he wanders over and asks if he can take a seat. Up until this point it doesn’t matter to any of us that we’re a group of men, from different language, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. But Barry, has issues and every second comment is either a reference to race or vehement declarations that he is heterosexual.. Fair enough, you say, that’s just 50% of his comments and they’re never phrased as outright bigoted statements. Unfortunately literally every other comment is built around a crude local saying involving your mother’s private parts.

Barry is a pathetic little creature. I will spare you a verbatim retelling of his drivel and cut to the chase. Here he is: 30-ish, white, Afrikaans, born and raised in the Eastern Cape and utterly lacking in social skills. His raging homophobia quite possibly stems from a certain sexual attraction that he feels towards men and does not know how to deal with. As for his ethnic and language superiority, he hails from a province in which that language group was not only a minority for all of its history, but not even the biggest minority, which is why- unsurprisingly- Barry doesn’t even have an Afrikaans name.

So Barry, currently a resident of Brackenfell (add this to my list of reasons to distrust suburbia), comes to the “big bad inner city” in search of something to quell his inner demons. Presumably he expected to find a multi-cultural tsunami of queers spilling through the doors and onto his lap. In retrospect, it’s a statistical oddity of almost superstitious proportions that none of our gay and lesbian friends were around. The mockery would have been brutal.

At one point he sincerely declares that East London is the prettiest city in the entire country. With respect to the eastern counties of London, England, as well as the fair city of that name in South Africa, allow me to quote our first citizen: “I could not believe.”

Dear reader, pity Barry, because when he looks outward he is surrounded by a world he does not understand, and when he looks inward he is boiling with urges he cannot face.

After what feels like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes, Alex gets up abruptly. For a moment I’m not sure whether he is going to reach across the table for Barry’s throat, but he turns around and stalks off. The ghost of Chief Pontiac seems to hover over us, three-feathered headdress and all, as if to say: I’ll share my space with you but don’t you dare piss on my dignity.

Barry now adds a third whiny note to his previous two-note melody of bigotry and swearing: “I hope I’m not offending you?” Let’s pause here for a second to let that sink in.

There’s enough irony in that passive-aggressive question to strangle him with. Of course, the question, though often repeated, is rhetorical and Barry doesn’t wait for an answer before spouting the next offensive comment. Eventually Frank, lunges at the question before it is fully out of Barry’s mouth: “Yes!”, he shouts triumphantly.

Barry looks sad. I think he might cry. After a minute of quiet consolation (I resort to soft comforting words in his home language) he leaves and insists of shaking everyone’s hands (in carefully chosen descending order of language, cultural and ethnic acceptability).

An hour later he wants to join our table again. This time we’re blunt in our refusal. Again he looks like he might burst into tears. More handshaking, except this time Mandisi (last in line, again) politely refuses. More Barry-is-confused-and-is-going-to-cry-or-throw-a-temper-tantrum melodrama plays across his face.

Half-an-hour later Barry returns to proclaim his drunken apologies, in between repeating every insulting thing he is busy apologising for. Is this what a recurring VD rash feels like? No, dear reader, if you know the answer to that question I’d rather you didn’t share.

I wish there was some moral to this story. Perhaps it’s these two relatively obvious observations: firstly, bigots are idiots. Secondly, that showing restraint and not physically dispatching Barry out the front door, probably saved us the aggravation of sharing a police holding cell with him and his no-doubt equally charming friends.

It’s 4am when we leave Shack, half-expecting Barry and The Troglodytes (add that to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names) to be waiting for us on the sidewalk with sexual propositions or violence (or most likely, both). Fortunately they seem to have scuttled back to Brackenfell.

And thus we bid each other goodnight and go our separate ways.

But wait! There is a happy ending to this tale, friends. Two of our company leave together – for them the night is far from over. Planets collide, moth meets flame et cetera et cetera. And here’s the punchline that would horrify Barry, especially because it’s hardly extraordinary to us: these two lovers are from different ethnic, language and cultural backgrounds.

FRIDAY 13TH – FEBRUARY 2015

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.

DOWN THE HOLE – FEBRUARY 2015

I put the city and the setting sun in the rearview mirror. Frank leans back in the shotgun seat as if we’re about to ride into battle. I point Alice’s nose north and watch the reflections of the streetlights rush across her windscreen.

Our motivation is live music, our destination is the “Rabbit Hole”… Alice approves of the name. Personally, I’m not sure whether calling your venue a hole – any kind of hole – is necessarily wise.

Only 20-odd kilometers from Cape Town city centre, but Durbanville – I’m dubbing it The Ville – is another country.

There is presumably a special society of copywriters that practise their craft out here. I cannot decide whether they are masters of sublime irony or utterly oblivious to it. Exhibit one: a recent gig poster that uses “delectable” and “metal” in the same banner headline.

The first band is scheduled to start at 9pm, but when we arrive at 8pm the stage is a shadowy edifice where a lone headlamp silhouettes a techie frantically fiddling with cables. Not a power outage due to loadshedding, but judging by his body language he is dropping a figurative load of his own. Speaking of dropped loads, the smell of that crappy euphemism “technical difficulties” is so pervasive that nobody even bothers saying it out loud.

Eventually the first band start their set at 11pm. The sound system that took so long to rig up is easily the worst I’ve ever inflicted on my ears…let’s be clear; these ears have been to some of the lowest dives this side of the Thames. The stage lights are pretty though. Unfortunately they reveal – in lurid flashes of neon pink and blue – the teenage faces of the first band. The phrase ‘garageband’ springs immediately to mind. Yes, yes, we all have to start somewhere, but the idea is to stay there until (if) you get to a certain level of proficiency. To their credit they don’t freeze up, although I run a bet with myself whether the desultory crowd will riot and lynch the kids on stage, or whether the lead vocalist’s mother will appear before that to drag him off by the ear for being up after bedtime. We stand in the empty space before the stage and valiantly try to make encouraging gestures, while the rest of the Rabbit Hole continue their drinking with a palpable passive-aggressive atmosphere. Three songs into their set we decide it’s best not to stand between the stage and impending doom (my internal bookie declares odds heavily favouring a lynching). We seek refuge in the smoking section – where there is less smoke and smokers, because clearly The Ville is the epicentre of irony.

The walls of the backroom in the smoking section are covered with magic marker signatures and logos of musicians that have performed at the venue. Many names are as unfamiliar as they are intriguing. A plethora of penis sketches are scattered in-between: public toilet chic. The kids finish their set, but immediately launch into an encore, presumably mistaking sarcastic applause for encouragement. Or perhaps just proving their own proficiency in the local (martial) art of irony. They unleash another three songs on the audience. Irony at 140 decibels should be classified as an inhumane war tactic under the Geneva Convention. On the wall behind Alessandro my eyes keep wandering back to the sketch of a huge penis ridden by a smiling elf and signed by the one and only Ninja. No sign of Yolandi’s signature, so it’s uncertain whether “Die Antwoord” actually performed here. Sweet blissful silence from the stage breaks my trance-like contemplation of Ninja’s elf-mounted manhood. (‘Ninja Dong’ is this installment’s first addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names)

Oh, Cruel Fate is a 4-piece, but since we have slipped into an alternate reality made of static feedback and irony, fate would have it that the band’s drummer fell ill at the last minute. With no time to find a replacement, the act would be performing as a 3-piece, with Alessandro seemingly unperturbed at carrying percussion with his bass alone. On lead guitar, Louw cuts a laconic figure. Vocal duties are performed by Dani. Off-stage she’s about 50 gallons of personality in a 5-gallon container. On-stage she pours it all into the lyrics and aims it at the audience. All the band members are seated. Dani is perched gracefully in an armchair, for all the world like an empress holding court.

Two bars into the first song I know the preceding events were a small price to pay. This isn’t the Rabbit Hole anymore…we’re in wonderland now.

A faulty mike connection does not break Dani’s stride. Mid-song she deftly adjusts her grip on the mike and sends a look the sound guy’s way that would halt a charging tiger in its tracks. The smile accompanying the look promises violence gruesome enough to make Tarantino blanche. It’s a moment unnoticed by the audience,, who are tapping feet and swaying to the magic being woven.

It takes more than talent to do this with one band member missing and hamstrung by a sound rig one faltering step above two tin cans and a piece of string. This is what skill and experience sounds and looks like.

It’s a genre-defying repertoire, weaving an intricate tapestry that straddles rock, blues, folk and cabaret-punk. It’s not a blend, or a hybrid, but a whole far greater than the perceived components. If you feel the need to say ‘steampunk’, I’d suggest that you remove those ridiculous spraypainted welding goggles in order to notice how far your head – dusty top hat and all – is up your own ass.

Their set concludes at midnight. In this fairytale midnight also means noise-restriction regulations prohibit further live music. Not kidding.

The third act is visibly upset as they carry their gear off. Their guitarist is a volcano in a blue minidress; stalking to the front door, the crowd parting before her like a school of fish before a shark. I don’t notice whether a single glass slipper stays behind or a pumpkin coach departs the scene in haste.

Meanwhile, for the tenth time, my eyes catch sight of the girl wearing the curtain. Surburbia man; it’s a disease and Von Trapp clothing is a telltale symptom. (Curtain Dress is this installment’s second addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names)

We make good our escape.. As Alice reels the city in with her wheels, I still hear Oh, Cruel Fate echoing in my mind: “Nah nah nah, don’t go down, down to the river.”

MYSTERIOUS STRANGERS – JANUARY 2015

The power goes down with the sun and we shoot pool by the digital-blue haze of a smartphone. Later, with the return of the electricity, music oozes out of the speakers like cheap vodka: exotic, eager and slightly oily. Frank observes that he feels like a character in a film. Yeah, I think, something directed by Wes Anderson and written by Wes Craven. Right on cue, the playlist veers into Balkan territory as a long-haired bearded stranger in a trench coat wanders up to our table…the sunglasses on his face and the smoldering cigarette between his lips appear to be glued in place. He communicates with non-verbal gestures at once devoid of emotional content and yet clearly comprehensible. Overtly his needs are simple – alcohol, tobacco and darkness, but is he sad, or angry or yearning for something more? As if to compensate, his companion is an Irishman as garrulous as he is plastered. The next two hours are marked not by passing seconds and minutes, but a succession of puns and inside jokes that ricochet off each other like the balls on the pool table. I keep expecting the mysterious one to pass me a brick of hashish with instructions to smuggle it across the border. What else? There’s a pretty woman – isn’t there always? Well, there are many pretty women, it is Cape Town after all, but this one’s at our table and laughing at our jokes. Knows how to shoot pool too, instant new friend. Meanwhile an online friend from the other side of the world wanders in and gives me a hug; ain’t no hashtag, tweet or ‘like’ that compares to that. There are European girls on the couches watching us play, their cute accents standing out from the general background noise. Wherever they hide the sound system in the catacombs of The Shack, someone finally breaches the barricaded door and evicts the tripping playlist operator, because we are abruptly treated to more of the usual rock and metal. The foreigners on the couches go from cute to annoying in the space of 5 seconds when they loudly butcher “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns’n’Roses…don’t fuck with Axl, man. On the pool table some extraordinary shots are played; mostly unplanned and usually extraordinarily bad. The Irishman wants to play for money; I say we play for fun. He looks at me like I’m some sort of anarchist. At some point I buy a stuffed tiger soft toy for a child on another continent whom I’ve never met, thinking: “Hey kid, you may never meet me, but I’m friends with your mom and I think she’s kinda cool, and I hope before you get much older you’ll realise that when life presents you with a surreal summer night in a beautiful city, you may as well respond with a random act of kindness.”  (Ain’t No Hashtag is this installment’s addition to Ye Stupendous Compendium of Free* Potential Band Names)