Maverick Life

REFLECTION

It’s a funny thing with words — when coupled with evocative music they become personalised poetry in motion

It’s a funny thing with words — when coupled with evocative music they become personalised poetry in motion
'Sung Words' EP by Savagekind. Photo: Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead

When Jay Savage began writing poetry in 2020 on the second night of the Covid lockdown, he never imagined that a little over three years later, his poetry would inspire a new musical journey, that would result in an EP, featuring collaborations with ‘extraordinary’ South African musicians.

It’s a funny thing with written words. I have, in my life, had a more than usual fondness for words and have written variously and prodigiously, if not always as proficiently as I may have hoped. 

I have written letters — personal and professional, letters of support, appeal and endorsement, of concern, complaint and dispute, letters of legal argument, demand and threat. I have written essays and articles — academic and agitational. I have produced screeds, manifestos and polemics and one or two really lame film scripts (unproduced). 

I have written critically and at long-winded length on artistic and cultural topics — particularly on film and music — for more than three decades. Hell, I started out writing skin-crawlingly pretentious record reviews for student publications and fanzines before getting the chance to indulge my excesses in the late and long lamented music pages of Scope magazine.  

In 2020, on the second night of the Covid lockdown in Johannesburg, I sat down to write a poem. The notion of writing words for their own sake was something I revered in others (in song, film and literature), revered enough to regard as sacrosanct and to be convinced my own would be beyond my reach and — I was certain — be surely laughable. Lame. Ridiculous. Worthy of ridicule and wholly futile.

But, alone and isolated and spooked by the piercing silence from the city in shocked lockdown, the prospect of watching TV suddenly oddly unaccountably absurd and the bottle that kept me company being emptied at a swifter than steady rate, I sat down to amuse (console, distract) myself with assembling words in a ‘creative’ rather than simply cerebral way. I figured I’d try to amuse myself for half an hour before deleting the resultant drivel …

I was surprised to find that no, not that the words weren’t drivel; rather that the process, the act, the exercise of getting them down was satisfying in a way I could not, and didn’t care to try to explain. 

And so it began. And so it continued. 

Without “trying”, I sat down again and again — and again — to capture that curious sensation of wonder and fulfilment. And again and again — and again — I was able to do so. Over the next two years, I scrawled, scribbled and hammered out poems at the rate of two or three or even four a week.

Of even greater surprise to me was that I grew comfortable putting them out into the world, sharing them with those close to me and feeling in no way precious about the responses. A finished poem felt easy to let go, felt more like the property of the reader: if she liked what she read that was great. If not — aside from (marginal) regret at wasting her precious time — that was fine too.

Eventually, I submitted a handful to a few poetry journals and was gratified that some were accepted for publication. As nice as this was, it was still the urge and urgency to complete a new one that was thrilling and increasingly compulsive.

And so one day my friend Neill Solomon — unbidden — sent me a WhatsApp sound recording. Neill had responded positively and encouragingly to words I had sent him; still, I did not take him seriously when he said they could be turned into songs. “Good songs”, he said …

Neill Solomon. Photo: supplied

And there it was on that first rough recording almost two years ago — a skeletal but cohesive piano melody accompanying his singing of a piece I had called Solace. There followed animated back-and-forth conversations about the song that magically took form in front of my eyes, or rather ears, Neill’s instincts and feel uncannily suited to working the spell.

At some point in the process, Neill happened to mention what we were playing (not working) with our mutual friend, the formidable one-of-a-kind artist/songwriter, Jim Neversink. Before I knew it Jim had taken a great flying run at a poem called 1:23, kicking it into shape and leaving it raw, bruised and beautiful. I was ecstatic.

Jim Neversink outside the Jamaican Eatery, Westdene, Johannesburg. Image: Matthew Fink

Jim Neversink. Image: Matthew Fink

Over the months that followed other talents hopped on the dirigible that was floating to who knew where. And in steady but unhurried time other friends and artists of real calibre — Laurie Levine, Rocksteady.Dub and Jak Tomas put their oars in and came up with their unique takes on the salad of words I had assembled and indelicately tossed together. 

Laurie Levine. Photo: Supplied

Laurie Levine took hold of one titled Star Of The West and made it positively gleam. I am at a loss as to say which craft she summoned to forge this jewel of a song (pun of course intended). Durrell, or Rocksteady.Dub as he is known, possesses an exquisite voice and his impassioned soulful delivery of Unstirred is a thing of glittering energy that makes you tremble before you sing along. And Jak Tomas turned a small poem called Tidy into an epic and moving story in one tremendous solo take, his circular and spectral acoustic guitar part so complete as to resist any added instrumentation.

Jak Tomas. Photo: Supplied

Rocksteady.Dub, Photo: Nic Boulton

These artists inhabit these songs entirely and perfectly. I have watched them all apply themselves so selflessly to the words and, literally, make them sing. For me, this is a reward beyond expectation and estimation. 

Over a quarter of a century of a career in the music business, I have had the immense pleasure and good fortune of working up-close and intimately with a staggering array of extraordinary talents — more veritable and verifiable artistic giants than I could ever have hoped to have even passed on the street. Aside from one (or at most two), I am endlessly thankful for all those relationships and experiences, but this one with Neill and Jim et al has been an utterly new, and singularly joyful, experience for me.

And I’m overjoyed and more than a little proud to say the first release of these recordings will see the light of day on 29 September.  

The boundless skills and audio insights of Matthew Fink have driven further beauty into the music with his production and mixing mastery. The EP is titled Sung Words and will be the first of three — and possibly more — that will be released by Present Global and The Good Times Co in the months to come.

It’s a funny thing with words. 

I’ve written many words about many things but it felt really peculiar writing them about my own here. But having them musically coded, moulded and then performed by people I love and respect has been an experience someone should sit down and write a poem about. DM

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