Zinc Roof Reveries: Flat tyres, bad whiskey and the ladies of the canyons

Zinc Roof Reveries: Flat tyres, bad whiskey and the ladies of the canyons
The Fish River Canyon at sunrise. The canyon is in the /Ai /Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park in the Succulent Karoo that reaches into southern Namibia. (Photo: chrisstenger on Pixabay)

When the wind was in from Africa and the night was a starry dome, was she feeling the breath of the faraway Karoo, sensing something in the air that was strangely familiar. A lady of the canyon, imagined on the veld in a world of hope turned to sorrow. Somewhere in the Karoo, the cassette player in the car is playing Joni Mitchell on a loop.

In your iron bed beneath your zinc roof on these groaning plains, you dream flat tyres and crumpled Pontiacs, random hitchhikers and restless creatures of prey. When the korhaan cries lonesome in the hot summer night, you flinch and turn over. In your erratic slumber you’re in Port Nolloth again, Port Nolloth with its oblique Canadian association in its anomalous Scotia Inn; ducking as the seagull swoops low over your head to protect her young in the lee of that rock over there. You feel the air of its movement in your hair. It must be that trip you made in 1992 to try to escape the numbness of loss, up the West Coast to Lamberts Bay and Springbok, past Port Nolloth and to the Gestapo entry point where you’re barred from crossing the bridge because you didn’t know you still needed a permit. Yes, the man in a uniform-too-militaristic tells you, Oranjemund is an open town now, sir, but not that open. And driving away unrequited, a bridge uncrossed for another 23 years ahead of you; separated like Joni and her Coyote in the song, the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t coyote, and here he is again. You love that ironic song.

When Joni sings Coyote, you’re in that roadside bar with her and Sam Shepard her temporary matching-writer and random strangers there to be observed by passers-through with searching minds and willing guitars and pens, but in your reverie it’s in a motel outside Beaufort West or Colesberg, in veld not prairie, and her writer’s mind is snapping scenes and denizens like a camera unfettered. A Lothario-of-prey, a leery biker with a Harley parked outside, buying an unbidden drink for a hitcher she’d seen on the road earlier, jeans tight, boots high and thumb stuck out. His prey has pulled up a stool at the bar and ordered a plate of poutine, dipping the French fries in the gravy and not too politely. He’s keeping an eye on her for later. She’s not making eye contact except with the barman.

She’s a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway, but he is too, and in your dream you’re two tables away with your hand glued to a pint of stout, black as a Karoo night, and watching them like she is. You’re a nomad with no home and less hope, you’re driftwood in a dry riverbed. The bar is your theatre, the passing human scene playing out on your private movie screen; the one you take with you from town to town, in the boot like it’s in your pocket; a talisman of dubious effect. You’ve ordered a boerie roll and chips. You don’t know what that is she’s eating; who eats cheese curds with chips and gravy anyway. She eyes your plate suspiciously.

If by day you’re anchored to one Karoo town, in your dreams you drive and you drift, you shift gear and collide with other wanderers of these plains; the dreamers and the lost, the grieving and the bereft, far from home and in need of a crossroads where you can trade what’s left of your soul for a few more nights on the road. Or maybe a beer and a smile. A St Christopher swings from the rearview mirror like a hanging man kicking. In your version of Joni’s song, coyotes, random coyotes, are sitting in the bars of Royal Hotels somewhere in the Tankwa or Hantam, drinking for diversion. And in she rolls in her lacy sleeves, and she sits down and snaps her fingers at the barman and what you got to eat, and she says look at these jokers, but he’s got lots of cash. Gin’s what I’m drinking, she says; I was raised on robbery. She’s not saying she’s an innocent, this hitcher. I’ll have one of those, she points to your boerie roll. Live dangerously.

In your reverie, the ’57 Biscayne he bought is in a ditch, a rusted wreck down the Swartberg Pass, strangely glinting when the sun hits it at a four o’clock angle. There must be some glass left in the windscreen, you think as you drive on, clutching the mountainside and trying not to look down at the snaking road you’ve just driven, heart in hand, wondering if there are bones in that wreck. He drunk up all the rest, that son of a bitch, Joni is singing. His blood’s bad whiskey. And your wandering mind has steered your tyres to the brink and you’re tumbling, floating, metal-shredding, but in the nick of time the clammy hand of Morpheus plucks you out of your dream into upright, sweating breathlessness.

Is your blood bad whiskey, your mind thinks it despite yourself, eyeing the near empty bottle of Jack on the table next to your chair and the glass you forgot to put on the sink before climbing into bed. Did you ultimately give in to the drink; did the bottle defy your firmly set rules; were you inevitably, inexorably going to go the way of the father, like the car plummeting, shiny steel soon to have Karoo rain turn it to ironic rust. A lifetime of the determination to avoid the ditch your dad slumped into. A Tom Petty freefall, or is it Paul Simon tumbling, falling into Graceland where lies another wrecked soul in need of redemption, but where none is offered.

Maybe every car wreck down every Karoo pass is a drunk who lost his way, a barfly in a Joni Mitchell song; a man dreaming flat tyres and yearning for the bokkie he met in a Royal Hotel bar that night three weeks ago, his lustful mind taking him down, down, down into the oblivion the bottle cannot hide him from. And she’s whispering in his ear as he tumbles; when first you felt my fire, you dreamed flat tyres. Maybe he went into her kitchen that one time, that night of being raised on robbery. I’m a pretty good cook, she’d said, sitting on my groceries. Come up to my kitchen, I’ll show you my best recipe. He’d thought she meant etchings, but she’d meant what she’d said, because not every leery barfly knows that a woman doesn’t always mean what a man wants her to mean when he’s flirting with her in a bar and she’s just passing the time because she needed a ride. In a car. And down every pass, another and another, men who dreamed flat tyres and short skirts, and fetch us another bottle, barman. They don’t remember what she cooked them for supper that night.

You Dream Flat Tyres:

When in that song the hitcher and her coyote driver saw a farmhouse burning down in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, you imagine they were somewhere between Richmond and Three Sisters. Was it a ghost farmhouse burning, a memory of a war and concentration camps, of twirly-moustached generals and pleading matriarchs, yard dogs slaughtered and children clutching aprons. And we rode right past that tragedy till we turned down to some roadhouse lights, where a local band was playing, locals were kicking and shaking on the floor; and the next thing I know that Coyote’s at my door, he pins me in a corner and he won’t take no… He seems to want me anyway; why’d you have to get so drunk and lead me on that way. But he’s got a woman at home and another down the hall. And he just picked up a hitcher. Another hitcher.

Both Sides Now, the 1969 studio original, remastered in 2021:

And the clouds, the clouds up there. The Karoo Kumulus, the towers and showers. Joni’s rows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air, feather canyons everywhere… nobody ever described it better. And she was young, so young, when she wrote that song of the wise and wizened. A blonde hippie with a guitar and a wide-open mind. And her voice, you listen to her sweet tones in the original Both Sides Now recording and then to the recent orchestral version, and the years between are evoked in every cadence. You find yourself feeling creative kinship with Ricky Gervais, the trenchant way he used that version in the closing sequence of After Life. Joni crooning her wisdom as life ebbs. Beautiful, trenchant, magnificent.

Both Sides Now, the orchestral version, from 2000, featured in the closing scene of After Life:

Karoos, Karoos, Karoos everywhere, Hantam, Moordenaars, Nama, Tankwa. How would Joni Mitchell the artist paint this Karoo, these Karoos? She told an interviewer in 2013, between puffs of the cigarette almost stuck between her fingers: “I’m a painter first, and I kind of apply painting principles to music.” Another day, another Karoo, and is that her, a younger her, that vision in blue jeans and long blonde hair with a guitar slung over her back and her thumb out somewhere beyond Sutherland or is it in the salt pans further north, having escaped the hissing of summer lawns and the barbecues in the valley; escaped another coyote. If she’s headed for Calvinia she needs to avoid that road, the one past Middlelpos, the Karoo’s smallest small town; potholes and flat tyres are assured on that route.

Driving long Karoo roads and recalling life’s illusions in every cloud. And the Canadian lady of the canyon and her other ladies, there they are at her side. Trina sewing lacy filigree on leaf and vine, Annie who bakes brownies, cakes and breads; and Estrella dear companion pouring music down the canyon. With Joni, thumbs out in the Karoo; take us to Calvinia and to some bar where we can tame some coyotes. No, take us beyond /Ai /Ais and set us free in the canyon. Eight eyes peering out of car windows at strangeness; a massive fairground in the veld somewhere between Vioolsdrif and Sendelingsdrif, and the ladies sing in the back of a car in another canyon, far from home; and the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down; we’re captive on the carousel of time; we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.

Ladies of the Canyon (1970):

Somewhere in the Tankwa Karoo of AfrikaBurn, fire curls towards moons and Junes and ferris wheels and a dizzy-dancing smous whips his donkey to pull his cart back to fresh Karoo air; fairy tales and circus promises don’t come real in humble lives. Joni’s illusion, or is it disillusion, rings in the air. It’s just another show, you leave ’em laughing when you go.

And always the song that most typifies the Spirit of the Sixties lost; the foolish hope and naive peace squandered. The journey the young Joni Mitchell imagined to Woodstock and Yasgur’s farm (she missed it in the end), half a million strong, young people of vision and pluck, inspired by Dylan’s warning: the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin’. And the writers and critics who would prophesy with their pen and keep their eyes wide, the chance won’t come again; their voices quelled now. Stilled by what really transpires as life happens to you while you’re busy making other plans; the Lennon murdered, the mad voices burgeoning, the sages ignored, the hopes shredded and carried away by the cool, sweet wind; the lyrics and the music still ringing in the air but the hopes and dreams long stifled into dust, Karoo dust and prairie dust, in ringing canyons far and hollow canyons near.

In consolation, the Karoo nightscape keeps a hold of the solace and the slender hope; it is good to hide here. The hearth invites you to light the taper and put on the three-legged pot that soothes the human brow, to get the clan around and fill the tankards. What else is there when the words of the wise minstrels are ignored. Best, maybe, to hear them again, from both sides now, from when they were young, and now that they’re old, like in this revealing interview from 2013 when the artist was 70…


Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit the TGIFood platform, a repository of all of our food writing.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pierre Strydom says:

    So beautifully written. I’m packing my bags, loading my music and hitting the dust. Thanks Tony.

    • Jon Quirk says:

      Agreed, travelling with no destination known, a complete unknown, just like a rolling stone … but with Joni along, quietly and gently singing her heart out, putting on some silver and telling me that I’m a mean old daddy, but she likes me ……. where shall we place the Mermaid Cafe and share that bottle of wine, slapping our empty glasses down?

  • Theresa Avenant says:

    Hey Tony. Beautiful prose. Joni is wonderful and so is the Karoo, especially where it hits Namibia. Jack Karouac se moer! 🙂

  • Carel Jooste says:

    We are star dust
    We are golden
    and we’ve got to get ourselves
    back to the garden

    She never got there but she took all of us right there.

    • Jon Quirk says:

      and so good of Tony to inform us so gorgeously that the garden runs all the way through the Karoo ….

      I do so hope however that these backroads remain just that, the roads less taken….

  • jcdville stormers says:

    What a beautiful writ,you get transported to being a passenger in this traveling reverie,brings back memories!!!

  • Alan Hirsch says:

    Beautiful, Tony. I was so annoyed when Bob Dylan won the Nobel–the poem Joni wrote at 16 and recites in the interview shows the depth of her insight, and the huge promise of her arts. She is both deeper and broader in perspective than Dylan or Cohen, who Joni once described as the poet of the boudoir (certainly a great one, at that).

  • Richard Cowling says:

    Thank you Tony for weaving so beautifully Joni’s poetry and music into the landscapes of the karoos. Her music has swilled through my mind on multiple journeys across those inspiring sceneries. Your account brought me great joy. Thank you.

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