Syd Kitchen: Scars That Shine

Donvé Lee
Tracey McDonald Publishers, Johannesburg, South Africa 2017 | ISBN 978-0-620-70993-4

Front cover photograph © Miguel Capelo

Syd Kitchen (1951-2011) was a South African singer-songwriter, guitarist and poet. He made a contribution to the Johnny Boy Would Love This tribute album by covering Fine Lines – one of the last musical adventures of his life. His biography Scars That Shine appeared six years later. Author Donvé Lee had promised Syd to write his life's story many years before he passed away. But she only got around doing it after his death. So we have a rather unique document here: a biography that sounds like an autobiography. Thanks to extensive research Donvé pulled it off: "It's not often you come across an autobiography that isn’t written by the subject, but Lee went out on a creative limb and, writing in first person, succeeded in capturing Syd in his own voice".

The almost final chapter is dedicated to the John Martyn tribute project and is reproduced here with permission of the author. The book got excellent reviews and is for sale on Amazon as an e-book. Physical copies can be obtained by contacting the author. It is well worth a read, as there are many similarities between John's career and Syd's.

Johnny Boy Would Love This
He said to me, 'For years I thought I was this fucken nobody no one fucken knew from Umbilo Durban. Then I get this call to play on a John Martyn album. I'm getting recognition for the first time and I'm fucken dying'. I said, 'You know, that's beautiful.'
Nibs van der Spuy

The origins of this timely recognition, like much in my terribly wonderful life, are steeped in serendipity.

In September 2010 Glaswegian Jim McKnight is planning a trip to his brother's safari lodge at Loskop Dam near Johannesburg. British musician John Martyn was a close friend of his, and was to have accompanied him on the trip but sadly never got to explore the country whose music he had come to love, and now Jim is preparing to take both John's as well as his cousin's ashes to scatter on African soil. A few months before he is due to leave he discovers that John had been listening to a maverick South African musician with the curious name of Syd Kitchen. Jim immediately trawls through Facebook and finds me –I'm in Holland at the time– sends me a message telling me that John was a fan of mine and maybe we can meet up in South Africa? I shoot back a reply:
The admiration is most definitely mutual and yes, absolutely, you gotta come visit me in Durbs.

Two months later, after getting horribly lost in the dimly lit back streets of Scumbilo, Jim eventually rocks up at my flat where he spends a few days with me and Germaine. He says he feels an uncannily close connection with me. As though we have known each other for ever. As if John had sent me to him for a reason. He says I remind him of John because we're both direct and warm and both describe our songs as our babies. I say sure of course they're babies, when you start off you might have a basic tune on a keyboard and then you start building round about it, and it's like a child growing up and when it gets to full maturity then it's there and you can say farewell and kick it out the nest into the world where it will sink or swim and forget all about its parents.

The following night we end up at a harbour restaurant downtown where Jim comes out with this thing that will change my life. He asks me if I would like to be on John's tribute album. Which features all his favourite artists, including people like Phil Collins, Morcheeba and Snow Patrol… and ME? I can't believe he just said that. For once in my life I'm speechless. I'm choking back tears. My heart's doing back-flips. This is the kind of affirmation I've been praying for all my life. Then I ask him, so who do you have to convince to get permission?
No one, he says, it's your decision.

Back at the flat we listen to about thirty of John's songs not yet selected by the other artists. Jim asks me to choose. I settle on Fine Lines, which happens to also be Jim's favourite. Give the song an African edge, he says, John would've liked that. We make plans for me to record the track at Jim's house in Scotland. I decide I want a backing singer and suggest we contact Cardiff musician Suzi Chunk, a mutual friend of ours. Jim also approaches two of John's band members, bass player Alan Thomson and keyboard player Foster Paterson. All three readily agree to work for free on Fine Lines, which becomes the only track on the tribute album featuring members of John's band.

Before leaving Durban Jim gets a call from his brother John at the Loskop Dam safari lodge, who tells him he's just been robbed with a gun to his head. He concludes his all too familiar South African story with a sigh and 'Oh well, you know what they say – Africa's not for sissies.'
Jim looks at me, grins, startled at the synchronicity. 'That's Syd Kitchen's song,' he tells his brother.

I phone my music guru friend Richard Haslop.
'You'll never guess what's going to happen,' I tell him. 'I'm playing on the John Martyn tribute album.'
The fucker doesn't believe me.
'What you been smoking, Syd?'
'I'm playing a song called Fine Lines. Do you know it?'
'Of course. You know I'm a John Martyn fan.'

Eventually Richard gets that this is not one of my chemically induced fantasies and admits to being mightily impressed by this astonishing piece of news. And yes, sure, he'll happily copy the track onto a CD so that I can learn it. He shouldn't be so surprised that this is happening, I've been saying for years that cream rises, haven't I? Deep down, below all my kak, I know I am cream. I've always known. And now I'm playing on an album honouring the late great John Martyn alongside global musical icons. So, believe me, Richard, all is as it should be.

But the year ends with me wondering where I'll find the money for the airfare to Scotland. When Sev offers to pay I say Oh don't worry, I'll record the song in Durban, but she turns the tables, bless her. Suddenly she's the parent giving me a piece of her mind. 'No ways,' she says, 'you were destined to meet this guy. You didn't get the chance and now you have an opportunity to work with these people, so just go do it!'
She marches off to buy the ticket. I don't argue.

My money worries are not helped by my fondness for gambling machines. Over the years Sev has helped me out with a grand here and there, only to find that I've blown it all on those bloody Merseyside pub machines. And the next day, she says Dad, are you okay, have you got food and that? Just before I go to Glasgow she takes me up the South Coast gambling. She says we're going to get rid of that itch. So off we go, with five grand each. First of all I lose half of it, then I'm on the last R500, and now the adrenalin is really pumping, I put it in the machine and I come out with R7.000. Okay, she says, now put it into this envelope. I say don't you want the R5.000? She says no, it's yours. She thinks I won't go back there on my bike but fuck me, I do, and two days later it's all gone. She says whaaat? I tell her I went to that flipping Merseyside machine and blew it all. And she's like holy shit come on, and then I tell her the worst of it. I went back and blew all that money that Joshua put in the bank for me. It was around twenty grand.

All of which makes me horribly depressed. And reminds me of another little binge I went on a few years back. I was planning to turn one room in the flat into a recording studio with the money I had from some Bafo Bafo gigs but instead I spent a week holed up with a friend with ten grand's worth of feel-good chemicals bouncing around in my bloodstream. My dream of a home studio went up my nose.
I'll grow up one day. I promise.

Now, before Sev throws my backside on the plane, I have breakfast with Rick Andrew. He says he's very worried about me, I look so ill. He says china I don't know how you're going to make it to Scotland. I say ja bru, I haven't been feeling too lekker. I'm losing weight, I've got this glandular thing happening in my neck, I'm vomiting all the time and I'm constipated and I know this is bad but what the hell I'm not going off to the doc. Except that when I get home Germaine says don't be ridiculous you have to go, so for once in my life I listen to the lady, I have a chest X-ray before I leave and they tell me there is a problem that needs further investigation. Germaine says forget this Glasgow trip, you have to deal with this NOW.
No, I don't. Those bloody tests can wait, babe. I need to get on that plane and fulfil my destiny.

I arrive in Glasgow on January 17th. I can see by Jim's face at the airport he's also shocked by the deterioration of my health, and I'm not too sure I can get through this either, I'm exhausted and I'm so fucking cold –but this IS Scotland in January and I come from DURBAN, don't forget– so they keep the heating on in the house for the full two weeks of my stay. Jim's wife and daughter are wonderful hosts, and I'm trying to be a warm and witty house guest despite the fact that I feel like I'm on my last legs.

I sleep in the bed that John Martyn so often slept in. I confess at the breakfast table one morning that I can feel John's presence everywhere.
I really can, it's fucking awesome.

Jim says we need to get the recording done as soon as possible so he can send me back to my family. So we get into the studio and everything clicks into place. Gaz Pollitt the engineer is making me sound like I've never sounded before, I'm working with John's bass player and keyboard player and vocalist Suzi Chunk, and Fine Lines is kicking some serious butt. I'm fired up with a mixture of adrenalin and amphetamines to keep me going. I manage fifty vocal takes. We eventually settle on number forty-seven. Relieved to have it in the bag, we go off to a pub for a drink and leave the sound engineers to tweak it some more. When we come back with fresh ears to listen to the final version, the magic gets into our bodies and we do the only thing left for us to do – we dance. The night before I leave Glasgow I play at the Scotia Bar where Suzi Chunk joins me for our gorgeous, newly recorded Afro-Saxon rendition of Fine Lines.

Sometime during that week someone shows me a photograph: John Martyn's guitar standing next to my Maingard guitar with its round banjo-like soundbox. Just the two instruments on stage, bathed in silence. John died soon after his sixtieth birthday. Mine is fast approaching.
I look away, shivering.

On the plane going home I'm as weak as a cup of tea that hasn't seen a T-bag and of course I can't sleep so I start chatting to this scruffy looking Scottish dude next to me. He says what you been up to in Glasgow? I tell him, and oh wow, he's a John Martyn fan, so now I'm chuffed and it's smiles all round and even though I battle a bit with his accent we have this lekker conversation which cheers me up no end. He wants to know how my Fine Lines differs from the original. I tell him he'll have to buy the tribute album, Johnny Boy Would Love This. Sure, he says, but tell me anyway, we have all this time to kill.

So I tell him. 'John's version is kind of dreamy and ethereal, like he's layered it with regret and longing, as if he's recalling special moments he shared with friends long ago, moments lost in the mists of time. You know how he breathes the words into being with that trademark slur of his? And then the piano echoes the forlornness in his voice?'

He's nodding, he knows his stuff. He says, so what did you do with it?
'Well, I wanted the rhythm and the groove to be totally African and the mood to be more rooted in the present. In the chorus I come in with a jaunty recorder piece which kind of hooks you right there and gets you dancing. And I'm not reminiscing like John, I'm calling old friends to reunite and have themselves a time…'

My neighbour is silent, a thoughtful oke. Then he says:
'Interesting. John sings it and seems to be yearning for days gone by, but he wrote it in his early twenties with his life stretched out ahead of him. Now you record the song a few weeks before your sixtieth birthday, and you up the tempo, bring people to their feet and make them dance?'
'Hell yes. This might be the last recording I ever make. Much better to leave with people dancing than wallowing in regret.'

My new friend looks at me with a question on his face. But no, better to push it down and try to forget, let the conversation meander off in another direction. He says he's just read a book about JM's life. I know some of this story but I let him tell me anyway because he's on a roll:
'John was fiercely faithful to his artistic vision, he was a wildcard, an artist in the purest sense of the word. Some nights he was stunning, right in the groove, and some nights he was somewhere else altogether. He drew people to him like moths to a flame through the sheer force of his originality. And he would weave all these elaborate stories about himself. Remember Glorious Fool, with that line “half the lies I tell you are not true”?'
'Ooooh, yeah. Wish I'd come up with that one.'
'Bloody brilliant song writer, wasn't he?'
'A genius.'
'And inside he was such a beautiful mess.'
'So where do you think those tortured songs came from?'
'Aye. They say he craved attention, pissed people off, sucked all the oxygen out of the room and blurted out wildly inappropriate comments in public, loved to shock people. Didn't do moderation very well either, constantly hit the self-destruct button. No off switch when it came to drugs and drink. Crazy fucker sacrificed his health and his relationships on the altar of art until the day he died. He was sixty. That's young, isn't it? Just when he was getting serious mainstream recognition – an OBE and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the BBC… So this tribute album will probably sell zillions of copies. You should make some serious money from it?'
'Actually, no. None of the artists on the album will get royalties. All the proceeds go to the John Martyn Trust Fund to help new recording artists. Which is actually pretty cool, don't you think?'

My friend looks impressed.
'The man had a big beautiful heart,' he says.
I nod. I'm too tired to talk anymore. Maybe I'll sleep after all. Before I close my eyes I lean towards him and say softly, 'You know what? He was just another fool in a bubble …'

Paperback copies of the book are hard to find but ebay offers the odd author signed copy..
The author also has copies available so perhaps you can make an arrangement.
The e-book can be achieved here.