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.

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)