Last Saturday afternoon I was coaxed out of the bar that to some extent has become my prison. Not like in Pollsmoor, more like Pablo Escobar’s luxury prison that he built himself, staffed with his goons, and where he lived a sheltered life of luxurious captivity. In other words, a self-inflicted sentence of cultural seclusion, paid for by myself, and enforced by no other than myself. The temptation came in the form of one Dax Butler, a compadre and co-adventurist of long standing, who was launching his second album, Trouble In Mind, in Glen’s garden. I have to write about this, because the album contains an earworm, and I need to get the goddamn tune out of my mind. What better exorcism then, than to put pen to paper.
Here it comes again –
Looks like we messed it up again
I’m gonna get me, I’m gonna get me
I’m gonna get me some
I met Dax so long ago that I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I am sure it would have been music related. He was playing with a buch of outlaws called The Other Band who hung out in the Deep South, in the days before Noordhoek and Kommetjie became a haven for moneyed hippies. In those days, the only people that lived out there were in the Navy, surfers, or individuals intent on keeping a low profile for various, usually nefarious, reasons. The band’s favourite haunt was a bar known as Off The Road that sometimes masqueraded as a venue
The Other Band stood out from the fare in those early days of the Eighties, because they could actually play their instruments. Even though punk music had been around for about five years or so, this was the beginning of the punk era in South Africa, and it changed the local music scene completely. Inspired by the likes of Sid Vicious, youngsters who had no idea what an arpeggio was, were inspired to pick up an instrument and run with it. Exciting times indeed, if a little raucous . As I recall, the guys lived in a commune somewhere in Kommetjie and played music all day, if they weren’t too stoned or tripping on LSD. Correction, they played music all day WHILE being stoned and tripping on LSD.
Originally from up north, the guys drifted back up to Joburg after a few years, along with many other creatives, reason being that die Visdorpie was simply too small for them. They bought Oaktree Studios, renamed it Ambient Studios, and started a new project called Nude Red. But that was long after we became good friends and did a lot of good bad shit together.
I remember being asked by Dax to drive the band up to Durban in my Kombi one year for a New Year’s festival in the rugby stadium, all expenses paid. I was used to overnight drives using Obex, a Schedule III diet pill that you could only get from fat friends or crooked doctors, to keep me sharp. So off we go, the Kombi packed with Dax, Mick, Larry and Mojo, a lot of gear, and, naturally, copious amounts of drugs.
Around midnight, somewhere between Colesberg and Bloemfontein I get handed a little sliver of a cap of acid, and by the time we reach Bloem, everyone is on a pluck, including of course the driver, me, who has slowed down so drastically that it takes three hours before we hit the outskirts of Winburg, where we run into a combined cop/military roadblock, just as a huge spliff is passed my way. In spite of being halfway to another planet, I still have my wits about me. ROADBLOCK! I shout, handing the spliff back over my shoulder to Larry, who wants to chuck it out the window, with Dax intervening, saying “nooit bru, they’ll check the sparks! Chow it! ” which Larry promptly does. Windows are opened, and Mojo, the only one that used deodorant, sprays the inside with a burst of Ego.
“OK, everyone chill” Dax says as we pull up to the cop waving us down. I stop the Kombi, and jump out to meet the cop swaggering towards us, in an attempt to keep him away from getting close to a window and caching a whiff of the dope odor still lingering. The roadblock is manned primarily by black cops, a few white officers and then the white soldiers, who keep their distance from everything, R1’s at the ready, in case a car-load of MK operatives suddenly appeared– it’s the Eighties, remember.
Meanwhile, Dax has also also jumped out, and is taking a leak a few meters away, while the rest of the band lounge about inside with the sliding door open.
“What is your destination?” The cop asks me
“Durban, Captain,” I saiy, knowing the dude is a sergeant but that all sergeants like being called Captain, especially black sergeants. “We’re doing a music festival on New Years Eve.”
The cop has his eye on Larry, the bass-player, a suspicious-looking character at the best of times, but tonight his eyes are redder and shiftier than usual, probably because he chowed more acid than the rest of us.
“So you’re musicians?” He says, still eyeing Larry. “Have you got any drugs or weapons in the car?” Larry, sweating and looking like he’s going to have a panic attack, tries to say something, but only manages a sub-audible gurgle. “Weapons?” I say, “No sir, we don’t carry weapons. Or drugs.” – “No drugs, sir,” Dax confirms, and the others nod innocently, no sir, no weapons or drugs. The cop glances around in the kombi, then says, “what kind of music do you play? “
“Cool music, Captain.” I say, latching onto the opportunity to distract him. “Wait, let me show you. Hey Dax, want to play the Captain a tune?” – “Sure thing bra, of course.” Dax drawls, opening his saxophone case while Mick plucks out his acoustic guitar and Mojo finds a tambourine and in a few seconds they do a rendition of Too Much Resistance that draws all the other cops to the car. The vibe has changed from slightly threatening formal to a friendly one, us having relieved the boredom of their routine. They ask for another one, and the boys oblige. The roadblock has turned into a little party, albeit a segregated one, with all the black cops around the Kombi, some of them even doing some dance steps, and the Whiteys keeping their distance, but still listening.
“Another one!” the Sergeant/Captain says, but I shake my head, “Eish, we’ve got along way to go…we better get back on the road.”
“Drive safe, ne! Hamba Gahle!” they shout as we pile back into the Kombi, by now as straight as mayors of a small Karoo towns, thanks to the adrenaline fuelled half-hour we spent at the roadblock, and leaving behind the happiest bunch of cops we’ve seen all year.
“Fuck, bra, that was weird” Dax said, suddenly weak-kneed from the thought of what could have happened, “I need a joint…”
Turned out the festival was a complete fuck-up, but as always, the journey was special.
Dax was a sax player and a guitarist those days, but also part-wrote some of the songs and contributed to the arrangements. His song-writing talents were suppressed though, and he only realized that he could actually sing many years later, during a jam at my fiftieth birthday bash, when he grabbed a mic and made up some lyrics on the spot. That, he told me, was a turning point, and he made a decision to start a solo project, writing the lyrics and music for some of his best material to see the light.
The main ingredient for a good lyric, or any kind of writing, I guess, is the way you view the world as a result of the sum of your life experience. Dax is a rock n’roller in the true sense of the word, his excesses truly leading to the palace of wisdom. And his excesses are legion. There were no hard drugs around in the Eighties, apart from prescription drugs, but when amphetamines and then cocaine and heroin hit the country, everyone tried it. Dax did so with a sense of reckless abandonment. His fall from grace as the owner of a sound studio to being a hopeless addict was gradual, but it picked up momentum as he got older. Heroin is a motherfucker of a drug, it’s perfect evilness balanced out by the bliss of the nod. And Dax got hooked, big time. One of the common denominators of all good junkies is their sense of denial, their utter confidence in the fact that they can control their habit. The reality, of course, is that the habit very soon controls you. And so Dax’s downward spiral could only end in grief, followed by tenure in a hole in the ground.
To his great credit, Dax stopped short of that final step, went into rehab, and straightened himself out. From being a down and out junkie, he became a highly respected rehab councilor. And I can tell you for sure, if my son had a drug problem, I would put in a call to Dax.
So, here I am watching the reinvented Dax Butler, rejuvenated and dressed in black like a veritable Leonard Cohen. The audience – a confederacy of wrinklies with a sprinkling of eye-candy – is gripped with an enthusiasm that belies its average age. The stage is too small for the group that Dax has gathered together for this performance. Drums, Keyboards, Guitar, Bass, Violin and a one-man horn section are spread around, with backing singers Maya and Tonia rhythmically swaying amidst the ensemble, and providing the only smiles I can see. Dax is going to have to have a word with the guys. I’m sure they are enjoying themselves, but maybe they should let it show a bit…
The album being part of the admission fee, I listen to it when I get home. When it finally winds down and I sit in the silence that follows, I find that I actually have a tear in my eye. Not just because the album is a beautiful combination of songs that ranges from Irish to Balkan tunes to whimsical bluesy numbers, even including a country dub number; was recorded with clearly apparent love by Willem Moller (legendary Voelvry guitarist); or that it contains the perfect balance between flippant fun and some serious introspection, but because my friend Dax has surpassed himself and, at the tender age of sixty-something, has surely produced the best work in his life so far.
Little bit of love goes a long way
In this valley of tears
Don’t know about that
Been a long time
Feels like a thousand years
Blah de Blah