Maverick Life

MUSIC OP-ED

Born from raw emotion — how James Phillips conceived the song ‘Shot Down’

Born from raw emotion — how James Phillips conceived the song ‘Shot Down’
James Phillips. Image: Supplied / https://jamesphillips.co.za/

In response to Chris du Plessis’ piece on the late James Phillips last week, a former friend and colleague of the musician, Brian Rath, relates how he was present at the exact moment that the song ‘Shot Down’ was conceived.

There was a music shop, somewhere across the road from Jameson’s Bar in Commissioner Street, Joburg, on the opposite corner. It was a Friday afternoon in the early 1980s and James Phillips and I went there to buy some guitar strings. 

After the purchase on the way back to my car, I lost him. James was a fast walker in his weathered blue flip-flops. He had a very long stride and it wasn’t easy to keep up. He was suddenly not in front of me, and I stopped to look back.

James was standing at the corner of Rissik and Main reading a newspaper at a pavement vendor’s display and I walked back to join him. The paper was the New Nation, and his eyes were locked on the front-page story. The piece was accompanied by a huge photograph spanning the full width of the tabloid depicting a child in short grey school pants, playing in a township street.

I glanced up at James and I was taken aback when I saw tears streaming down his cheeks. I knew had a depth of feeling but I had never seen a display of emotion like this from him before. I didn’t know what to do but put my arm around his shoulders and steer him into a nearby coffee shop. I still remember the green tablecloths and the sterility of the lino-tiled interior as I guided him, openly sobbing, to a table near the window.

I held his arm as he said: “Why did they have to do it?  Everyone saw him playing in the street.”

I hadn’t seen the story and had no answer. He continued weeping for the next while. We didn’t order anything and eventually left the shop and never spoke of it again.

Outside the shop, we passed another newspaper vendor and I perused the page properly. The lead paragraph told of a child who had been caught in the crossfire of SA Defence Force bullets and had died in the streets of Tembisa. The bold headline simply said, “Shot Down!”. The picture was obviously a mock-up of what had actually transpired.

I had a rare glimpse into the pain, compassion, and emotion that I suspect James felt on a daily basis. By then, he had put his strong religious convictions on the shelf. At our first meeting in 1979, James could almost have been a preacher, like his dad. But later, I think he revamped his spirituality and reverence for God into a socially acceptable form. Music had become the means of expression for James’s sense of beauty and love.

Although we never spoke of that day again, James’s song Shot Down expresses all he had felt. From our experience that day, an unspoken but special bond was born between us. Yet the experience had not yet found its proper conclusion. Completion only came a decade later.

December 1993

A hot, dry summer’s night at the height of “the season” in Cape Town. Shiny, suntanned bodies drifted around the Canterbury Club (bordering District Six). It was already very late. The DJ was playing slow, one-drop reggae, bringing the night to a close. The dance floor was emptying and I was about to leave. Heading towards the exit, I heard the haunting opening notes of Shot Down through the speaker in front of me.

Be it the alcohol or the acid, unbounded emotion welled up inside me. The decade-old memory brought tears to my eyes as I saw the DJ rocking slowly, reverently bowing his head and flashing peace signs with arms held high before he looked up and smiled towards the back of the room.

I glanced over my shoulder to see James at the edge of the dance floor in a ragged red T-shirt and jeans, a Black Label beer clutched to his chest. Like mine, his eyes were glistening with tears as he crossed the dance floor and stood behind me. Wordlessly we listened and again, as hauntingly beautiful as the moment might have been, not a word was ever said about it. We hastened off to get seriously drunk at one of the 24-hour bars on Main Road, Sea Point.

***

James Phillips was fresh out of the army when we first met. He had possibly the scariest haircut ever and he kept quoting passages from the Bible. I was introduced to him by Carl Helgard Raubenheimer and was invited to join the two guitarists in their new band, Illegal Gathering, as their drummer. Joining us on bass was Brett Murray, the artist whose nude depiction of Jacob Zuma many years later would provoke the ire of the former president and his supporters, and make international headlines. We rehearsed in a small studio in a side street near the City Hall in Cape Town and recorded some tracks.

We played a live gig at a club called 1886 and perhaps because James made some comment about my tempo-maintaining abilities, I kicked or threw my bass drum off the drum riser. He was demanding of drummers and went through many.

I was taking a lot of Obex at the time as an appetite suppressant, to lose weight and help me study for varsity exams. As Frank Zappa once so rightly said, speed makes you cranky like your parents. Anyway, I lost it on stage, and I lost the band.

I stayed in Cape Town and recorded the first Kalahari Surfers while James went back to Johannesburg. We reconnected when I started working with Shifty Records promoting the label and assisting with the mail-order sales. One of the other Shifty partners, Warrick Sony, and I sold vinyl at the Market Theatre flea market on Saturday mornings and were often joined by James and his legendary friend Van at the stall.

By this time, like so many other progressive, thinking, young urban South Africans, I had become a fan of the Cherry Faced Lurchers and was a regular at their Jameson’s gigs. DM/ML

In case you missed it, also read Remembering ‘James The Boptist’ — A timeless tune by James Phillips

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

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