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.

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)