Maverick Life

MUSIC REFLECTION

Remembering ‘James The Boptist’ — A timeless tune by James Phillips 

Remembering ‘James The Boptist’ — A timeless tune by James Phillips 
James Phillips. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Some gentler output by the late great East Rand rock-wizard during a different but equally tumultuous time.

Whether it’s a curse or a blessing, life unfolds around some of us with a soundtrack. As it did for me during the recent refocus on violence in South Africa. The particular aural backdrop first struck up with the mowing down of rapper Kieran “AKA” Forbes earlier this month in Durban and reached a crescendo with the subsequent announcement of the crime stats last week.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Murder and sexual offences spike sharply as police minister reveals extent of SA criminality

My backtrack to Forbes’ death and the 7,555 recorded murders during the last quarter (around 80 per day, nearly half perpetrated with guns), was Shot Down by James Phillips.

His languid protest ballad, which also served as inspiration for the title of director Andrew Worsdale’s poignant 1987 filmic glimpse into cultural dissidence and the moral dilemmas imposed by Apartheid, holds a prominent position in our portfolio of anti-Apartheid anthems.

“…Nowhere else in the world,

can you see so many monsters and mutations that creep out so efficiently, 

and leave you wondering what happened to all those sacred things,

that got shot down in the street.”

James would have turned 64 last month had he still lived. And although Shot Down references crimes perpetrated by the Apartheid security forces, I could not help wondering if he would have performed the song with equal doses of anguish and despair today. Changed the focus but not the weight. It remains in its essence, a lament against violence. 

But as the tune bounced about my head, I also managed to conjure up less unsettling, even serene, imagery of the urban legend that became famous for not being famous. 

I met James Phillips in 1981 when we were both students at Rhodes University and he was going through a radical Christian phase. He cut a distinct figure loping around campus in a long black trench coat, a guitar in one hand and a bible in the other. His father, a gentle and jovial man I was to meet years later, was a Baptist preacher and James seemed to be grappling just a little more than the rest of us to fit his known moral context into the framework of Apartheid.

A holier-than-thou dope-smoker from Pretoria who had thankfully been dumped into the midst of hard drinking country, I was wading through a pretty rough existential patch myself and many months’ worth of days the two of us spent sitting in the levy near the art department trying to dissect the secrets of the universe. “Of all the arts,” James confided, as a matter of course, “music is the only one that has a direct hotline to God.” 

James Phillips smoking. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James Phillips smoking. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James Phillips, pictured in the center of the group. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James Phillips, pictured in the center of the group. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Cherry faced lurchers. Image: James Rich

Cherry faced lurchers. Image: James Rich

James Phillips, pop star. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James Phillips, pop star. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Bent with anguish over his dubious role in the cosmos, any semblance of self-doubt immediately dissipated when he hauled out his knackered Spanish guitar. Like an enchanted wand, it seemed to immerse him instantaneously in a cocoon of comfort and serenity. 

“It’s easy,” he explained, jotting down the minor pentatonic patterns on a grubby piece of paper with a severely whittled-down pencil for my benefit, “all five of these structures along the neck fit perfectly into each other like a glove. The one finishes where the next one starts.” I kept the frayed note in my guitar case until it finally disintegrated long after I’d learned the scales. It was the first time anyone explained the entire key to rock music fret freedom to me in a single sentence.

We didn’t get very far finding answers to anything much down in the levy. But James did gradually realise that no matter how far-fetched and entertaining the mythologies, prophesies and tenets contained in the so-called holy book were indeed full of holes when it came to translating it to the realities of modern life. Both James and later to be fellow band member in Johannesburg, Lee Edwards, were studying music and submergence into the secular, debauched realm of student counterculture was inevitable. James eventually substituted the bible with a Black Label beer bottle but continued wielding his weathered nylon string guitar as sword and shield with an unflinching devotion.

The foray into Christianity was not all in vain. Between the befuddling epistemological questions and mystical mists swirling about his hind-head at the time, the seeds were being sown for a magnificent set of melodies James would eventually package under the banner of “James the Boptist”. 

In the interim, the formerly robust exchange between the Four Winds Folk Club in Port Elizabeth and the strong blues-and-folk contingent at Rhodes had all but died out in the early eighties and the campus music nights in Grahamstown had been reduced to groupings from the women’s residences singing “Khumbaya”. Driven by a renewed non-religious spirit to alter the musical landscape, James insisted we launch a counter-offensive.

Thus was born the Garden Boys (pseudo-acceptable in a pre-woke world), a hastily slapped-together collective consisting of James and myself, Brian Boshoff on drums and a motherfucker woodwind section comprising jazz students Rick van Heerden and William Ramsay. 

We never rehearsed but rather jammed an array of covers which were unleashed onto a packed Caif (student cafeteria) one Sunday night — a haphazard disgorging of everything from funk-rock medleys to 20-minute free-fall versions of low-camp rock classics such as “Sweet Home Alabama”. The contrivance was thunderously applauded by an equally clamorous turnout.

But what struck me during the only two pre-event get-togethers was the ease with which James anticipated this hastily flung-together performance to be. Despite the fact that, besides the two members of our highly skilled woodwind section, none of us had ever collaborated, James’ easy command of this potential auditory disaster was uncomfortably admirable. 

Every time I tried to run away, insisted there were better options for the task, he would pull me back in (as the Steve Van Zandt character in The Sopranos would later constantly emphasise) with a quiet: “No, no, no bru. Elkeen ken sy plek and yours is up here at the mic”. The confidence and authority with which he maintained order and harmony amongst the disparate clutch of band members, hovering as we were on the precipice of social suicide, was a synchronistic masterpiece in its own right.

ECC Namibia Concert poster. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

ECC Namibia Concert poster. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Concert in the Dark poster. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Concert in the Dark poster. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Despite the success of the event, The Garden Boys never performed again — it simply seemed like too much effort and impinged on our drinking time. But the monopolistic spell of the twee folkie sing-alongs had been broken and the Rhodes music club came to its own once more with James regularly performing his own compositions. One of them stuck in my mind and I kept hounding James to play it again but in the purple haze of tertiary education excesses, neither of us could pinpoint which tune I was referring to. 

After university, I gravitated to Cape Town and James to Johannesburg where he completed his music degree at Wits, became infatuated with an ex fellow-Rhodie that was in my art class called Pinky, and launched one of South Africa’s sturdiest ever urban rock groups: The Cherry Faced Lurchers. It was an exciting time in Johannesburg’s polyglot cultural mix with a common enemy amongst progressive thinkers in Afrikaner Nationalist rule. 

But simultaneously, it was nerve-frazzling for the politicised white bohemia blending in the shadows on an unprecedented scale with urban black intellectuals, artists and political activists. In Cape Town and Johannesburg several political “speakeasies” surfaced where such meetings could take place but a gloriously rambunctious dive in downtown Johannesburg’s Commissioner street called Jamesons had an advantage over all the others — being in possession as it was of an old and rare Kruger Licence, which allowed races to mix legally on its premises.

Venues such as the Market Theatre precinct, the Black Sun theatre in Berea and Jamesons became hubs for creative protests and the collective clamour against apartheid. Conjointly they constituted a Haight Ashbury-happening right here on our stoep. The rapidly-rising rumblings of dissent would eventually be splashed across representative independent media platforms such as The Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad — with the latter co-sponsoring the Voelvry Tour featuring James as his clandestine alter-ego Bernoldus Niemand and the so-called alternative Afrikaans rock-elite.

James Phillips. SA Music Legends. Image: Ruvan Boschoff

James Phillips. SA Music Legends. Image: Ruvan Boschoff

James Phillips at the piano. Image: Ruvan Boschoff

James Phillips at the piano. Image: Ruvan Boschoff

James Phillips. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James Phillips stamp. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James Phillips stamp. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

In 1987 I happened to be up in Johannesburg for my birthday and hosted the celebration at a friend’s house in Melville. Always the proud pauper (the perennial black label in his hand by then a natural extension of his limb, was actually a series of drinks bought by friends, family, fans and even foes), I didn’t expect a gift from James other than his presence but he did bring one. Dragging me away from another round of tequilas and into the back seat of my car parked in the street, he said: “happy birthday” and played me a song. 

“That’s it. That’s the song,” I said as the resonance subsided. “That’s the song we can’t remember that I’ve been trying to get you to play.” 

“This is from James the Boptist,” said James. “I don’t play it very often.”

That song was “See How the Wind Blows”.

One cannot always be certain what precisely it is in a painting or sculpture or the contours of a building that plucks at your innards. What exact details of a melody, piece of prose or movement in dance that draws you temporarily from complacency into a psychic sweet spot. I can’t quite say what it is about this minuscule musical moment that arrests my attention. Perhaps it is because it displays a more fragile aspect of James’ multi-faceted make-up — divorced from the beer-bearing sidewalk philosopher, the cynical jester, the lovestruck melancholic, willing groupie target or stage-savvy east rand rock icon…

James Phillips. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James Phillips. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Careening dangerously close to a little too touching, I wonder if it would have infiltrated deep enough to secure a permanent spot in my standing-room-only inner music sanctum if it hadn’t been a James Phillips creation. But I believe the more delicate addition to his portfolio forms an important part of James’ resounding contribution to a uniquely South African rock idiom. Completes his valued chapter in the local musical heritage. 

Then I feared the song was lost to me forever when in 1995 on the way back home after an all-nighter at the Grahamstown Festival, James was involved in a motor accident and died of the harm done some months later in a Johannesburg hospital. 

That was until James’ birthday this time last year, when longstanding friend and fellow Lurcher Lee Edwards posted a homage on Facebook. I inquired about the song again and Lloyd Ross of Shifty Music who recorded all James’ songs with and without the Cherry Faced Lurchers (including the quintessential auditory summary of the Jamesons epoch ‘’Live at Jamesons’’) and who had polished and compiled the “James the Boptist” collection in 2014, immediately dug up the tune. 

The separate compositions of the “Boptist” collection were never released as a unified auditory anthology but were rather immersed into other masterful Phillips albums such as “Sunny Skies”. “See How the Wind Blows” was neatly packaged with the appropriately named “Soul Ou” assemblage.

Here it is for your possible listening pleasure. 

It’s a welcome departure, a momentary respite, from the harsh realities of where we have come from and where we find ourselves as reflected in the end-verse of Shot Down:

“New morning

New morning

Old ways they get away

But here in my cradle

I lie incapable

I’m a white boy

Who looked at his life gathered in his hands

And saw it was all due to the sweat of some other man

That one who got shot down

In the street babe

Shot down in the street”

Other James Phillips adherents might also be pleased to know that Shifty Records recently released a hefty collection of remixed James Phillips songs on a double gate-fold collectors’ album which James, with a wink at The Beatles and a ribbing of apartheid-style race classification, decided to call “The Other White album” (as opposed to the “Other Coloured” categorisation in the old ID books).

The long-awaited follow-up to “Live at Jamesons” is another rambunctious jumble of socio-political frustration, anxiety, mania and mirth infused with the deep thrills only a truly blessed rock ’n roll riff can provide when executed by a dedicated East Rand rocker. Obtaining this collector’s copy is essential. It’s a pure bright light in a long dark tunnel. DM/ ML

James the Boptist. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

James the Boptist. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Lekker story, Chris. I miss James, often think about him, and how he would have interpreted these times. With the same accurate straight-shooting intensity as he did those days, I’d guess. We need another James, bitterly.

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