The first band that wanted me as a member was called The Flying Ants. It was the result of a friendship between me and guitarist Roy MacGregor. Roy came to stay at my house in Stellenbosch in the spring of 2000, at a time of personal upheaval for both of us. He had a seemingly inexhaustible ability to dream up chord sequences I had never heard of. More importantly, he had written a multitude of songs. Learning to sing these became my focus at a time when I needed it badly.
There was one song that particularly fascinated me, a round that began: “The end and the beginning / Are the same – depends where you stand.” The song came back to these words again and again - in theory it could go on forever, or as long as you could improvise new words to the melody.
At the time this song had a mantra-like significance for me. I felt as if I was falling out of my previous life as an academic in training, into a new life in which I would have to find my own way, my own words. The song seemed to promise that new beginnings were possible without sacrificing continuity.
Soon Roy and I had rehearsed about thirty songs, some quite polished, others sequences of chords to which we would hastily improvise throwaway lyrics that changed at a moment’s notice. That was an important aspect of the music – that it should never sound the same twice.
That summer we took these songs down to the V&A Waterfront and busked every day. Neither of us had other jobs at the time – we had staked everything on this venture.
I don’t look back to my time as a busker with nostalgia: for one thing, the competition from other musicians, not to mention passing trucks, made creative work almost impossible. For another, it’s hard to learn about interacting with an audience that changes from one moment to the next. Still, I will always go back to those days for the mad enthusiasm I felt then, the mad courage that I would break through to a new start even if it killed me.
I remember going to a talk once by a famous local artist. She was astonishing – wise and funny at the same time. I remember she suggested that being an artist was in accordance with the textbook definition of madness: you keep repeating the same action again and again, each time hoping for a different outcome.
I can only add that we keep this madness going by convincing ourselves that we are always at the beginning; that we can always start over if we wanted to. No wonder I loved that song so much.