It must have been deep into 1991 when an ou called James Phillips made my head explode.
I actually didn’t know it was James ’cause on his elpee he called himself Bernoldus Niemand. But even I reckoned maybe it wasn’t his real name, ’cause no-one is Niemand, tjek?
East Rand Blues, 1991. Ja, I was a late bloomer. ‘Cause the album had been out since 1985 already. But you know not much besides Buffels, Nyalas and the SAUK penetrated the smog surrounding Vereeniging back then.
I was house-sitting a friend’s dad’s house in Joeys when good old curiosity made me to take ‘Noldus’s vinyl out of its deep purple sleeve and drop it on the turntable. Instant epiphany. I’d never heard anything like this. A white ou from the East Rand telling it just like it is (or was) in an accent that made no excuses for being flat as a plank and thick as a collection of beerboeps at a Benoni braai. It actually took about a year to figure out the lyrics on Reggae Vibes is Cool was mostly in Afrikaans, not some Jamaican patois, and the nerve of that lonely saxophone with a ou tjuning ‘ek sit hier in die dames kroeg van die Riebeeck Hotel … ek kom vanaand van Nigel af ek het gehoor hiers a jol…’ That was no lies man.
White man’s blues. Why not? I could relate. I knew that bar. It was real. Real being moered for nothing except being the only soutie on a bus full of rock spiders, and having to go to the mag and fight against the same ous you’d smoked dagga with in the backyard of a shebeen in Sebokeng.
I think Greig Coetzee, the ou what wrote The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy that I saw last night, must’ve also listened to Bernoldus quite a lot. ‘Cause after I see one of his plays I feel like I have to listen to one of ‘Noldus’s songs. Like maybe My Broken Heart. It’s the same sort of language, the same sort of feeling. Kind of like it feels hanging out in the parking lot outside the Wimpy at the Boksburg plaza shopping centre on a Friday night, or maybe like how it feels walking down Main Street in Rosettenville on a Saturday afternoon. Sort of lonely, and desperate. Like being young and horny and bursting with possibility and supposed to be having a good time. But you’re not. Because it really is just the Wimpy and everything is forbidden. It’s just a no wherever you go.
It’s ‘specially lonesome if you have aesthetic sensibilities, like Milton Leonardo van der Spuy, to not feel desolate when the height of culture is boerewors and rukby and all ouens talk about is their Cortinas and boneys and you’re thinking about the Mona Lisa and why da Vinci chose to put rocks and a road in the background. When dad’s a drunk and little sis the only livewire in your world is a free spirit and ma believes you’re a great artist but your talents lie elsewhere.
But suffering. It’s good for making great art. Only if you can make it romantic though. Everyday suffering not the same of as having consumption or cutting your ear off and Milton has a hard time making the ordinary sort of suffering into great art, like Bernoldus did. His talents lie elsewhere.
Francis Mennigke’s talents don’t lie elsewhere. He’s Milton van der Spuy for real, struggling with his aesthetic sensibilities and never questioning his mother’s belief that he’s a great artist. Painter, poet, novelist, doesn’t matter. He’s not the brightest oke, and like a true South African, can’t really face the thing that is really bothering him, the actual classic tragedy that’s threatening to make his head explode. Of course he gets to it eventually, putting it off until it becomes a real mess.
Only thing about Francis is after awhile he forgot about that leg he broke while avoiding his problem by trying to get rid of gravity. A ou what broke his leg isn’t going to forget about it when he jumps off his chair. Not after it reminded him when he already forgot about it once.
Ha! Now there’s a hidden metaphor in the text. It’s just like the Nats tried to avoid their big problem by trying to defy the gravity what is other people’s need for freedom. And it’s just like we still being trying to avoid our big problem what is that people still don’t have freedom.
But maybe Greig wasn’t skeeming that far when he wrote this back in ’97 or so. Doesn’t matter. It’s like they say, the personal is political. Especially for people with aesthetic sensibilities.
Peter Mitchell, the ou who directed Francis on how to be such a good Milton, also has talents that laid down there in the theatre. Except maybe Peter and Francis didn’t need all that stuff to make such a good Milton. Like the walls. The theatre has already got walls mos. But then, Milton is in a flat and flats kinda have walls inside of walls so I kinda get where they coming from.
Maybe it doesn’t really matter if Milton didn’t have so many walls around him, I really liked him. He made me laugh and he made me feel sorry for him and he made me want to get him to come out from out of those walls and see some shows at the Cape Town Fringe so he could tjek that there are other people with aesthetic sensibilities too. And also to tjune him about irony. Like how him not being able to be a great artist but believing he is makes for a very artistic art story, actually.
And also to maybe give him a record player so he can listen to Bernoldus. ‘Cause I think that would make him cry. ‘Cause Milton needs to cry, so that he can stop making us cry.
Tjek The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy on the Cape Town Fringe tomorrow (Fri 6 Oct) and Saturday. Book here.