The Dark Song Blog


Barbara and I are moving house in April, changing our Marina home for another in Constantia. I used to think of this move as an inconvenient interruption of our songwriting work, but it has started to dawn on me that the move itself is having an impact on the new songs we are writing. The fact is that our songs are far more rooted in a particular place and landscape than they appear to be on the surface.

Many people have commented that the material on Dark Mercy and Wrestling the Angel seems to them to be rooted in an American landscape. Certainly Tattoo Jesus is set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, A Blue Pig from Mexico is meant to have at least a hint of mariachi about it, and the Bandoneon on the two tangos hints at something exotic, even if possibly from the same hemisphere as our own.

But for the most part the songs on those albums were written with a South (or at least Southern) African landscape in mind: the evening light turning blue in Dark Mercy comes from the view onto the water here, and the goats and thorn trees after which another song is named were inspired by Barbara’s memories of Namibian desert places.

We have recorded both our albums in this house, and on at least one song from Dark Mercy the house itself became a musical instrument. We were recording The Other Side of the Wind, another song inspired by the west coast of South Africa, when a strong wind came up. Aron Turest-Swartz our imperturbable producer, had the presence of mind to turn up the volume of the recording equipment, and now the sound of it blows eerily through the speakers every time we listen to the song, reminding us of where it was written and committed to disc.

I would say that this kind of connection to a place is one of the strongest motivations for our songs, particularly their lyrics. I would like to be proven wrong, but I think Barbara and I both feel that there is a dearth of truly South African songs. There is no shortage of songs by local musicians, but somehow they either seem to imitate familiar fare from overseas or draw on a fusion of local cultures in a way that seldom coheres. By trying to suggest the widest possible cultural diversity, they end up falling through the musical cracks. Now and then there is a song (Gert Vlok Nel’s Hillside Lullaby, for instance, or Johannes Kerkorrel’s Hillbrow, or Syd Kitchen’s Africa’s Not for Sissies) that explores a local reality and expresses it in a way that is singular and feels rooted in this place in all its ambiguity, but such experiences are rare.

We liked the latter with its PVC pipe (hosepipe flute) accompaniment so much when we heard Kitchen perform it that we had Jonny Blundell, usually our guitarist, improvise a pipe solo on A Man Who Longs to Dance, another song from Dark Mercy with an African feel. The song is about a blind man who is entranced by a blues singer late at night. The song he listens to is both sad and sweet, and it makes the world with its “million blazing lights” disappear. In my mind as we were recording it I was thinking about the singers of different styles I had encountered at the Waterfront, and leaning into the wind when I in turn struggled to make myself heard above it.

No doubt for a song to stand out it has to be strong enough to mean different things to people independent of time and place. Still, I hope that glimpses of sound and musical texture from our songs will continue to speak about where we have been.

The Dark Song Blog


Last night I listened to Kate Bush’s Babooshka again. It was a much-played song in the early eighties – I remember a girl I liked dancing to it when I was about nine or ten. But I first heard it, really heard it, one day at a poetry workshop at UCT when I was fifteen or sixteen.

It’s a song about a woman who wants to test her husband’s loyalty. She adopts a pseudonym, sends him scented letters and finally arranges a secret meeting with him to find out “if he would fall for her incognito.” In the first chorus she signs the letter: “All yours, Babooshka …” Bush’s voice soars as the wife transforms herself into a creature of power and mystery – the Babooshka of the title. The husband almost recognizes her, but in the end sees her as someone “ … just like his wife before she freezed on him, / Just like his wife when she was beautiful.”

At the workshop we were taken through the song (along with poems by Plath and others) and invited to “read” it as a subversion of gender stereotypes. It was riveting. The transformation of the domestic “little lady” perceived by the husband into the mysterious Babooshka felt like a triumph of the imagination. It seemed as if popular culture had given us the tools to interpret, challenge and transform the world in which we lived.

Listening to the song again today, it sounds far more ambiguous. The transformation of the “little lady” into Babooshka is real, but there is a terrible irony here: in the end the song’s heroine is able to satisfy her husband only by pretending that she is someone else. Her logic is sound, but its consequences are disastrous: in the end it is the imaginary Babooshka, not her, who is chosen, and the lyric suggests that the husband will not be able to reconcile the two for long. The song slows down at the end, signifying perhaps that not even the invigorating energy of Babooshka can last forever, but we can’t be sure.

Of course Babooshka is a better song for this uncertainty: we will never know what passes between wife and husband when the secret meeting is over, though a happy ending seems highly unlikely. Most of all, perhaps, its power lies in the way it slips from the clipped phrases of its verses into its tumultuous choruses. In those moments we feel something old and visceral – a suspicion that, even at the moment when we surrender to each other, we don’t know who we are, and neither does anyone else.

The Dark Song Blog


Writing about music is difficult, at least if you are willing to probe beneath the surface of facts and opinions about the lives of musicians and performers. For one thing, our frames of reference are so different that we might as well not be listening to the same song, as I found out one day when a cleaner at the Cape Town Waterfront walked up to me and said by way of a compliment: “Music man, your voice is coming strong: you sound just like Philip Collins.”

Another time a respected colleague who tutored English with me at the University of Stellenbosch sent me home with a highly recommended tape of the Dave Matthews Band (I forget which album) assuring me that it would change my life. It didn’t.

It’s hard to give a name to the quality I look for in a song, which I find in the songs I’ve written about here and which Collins and Matthews will never have for me. If pinned to a wall I would probably have to settle for presence, a feeling that the singer is absolutely at the forefront of the material.

Yesterday, for instance, I felt this quality very strongly in a song from the Stooges’ 1970 Fun House album. Dirt looks unobtrusive on a lyric sheet, but it is transformed by Iggy Pop’s voice into something primitive and powerful, strangely menacing and utterly convincing: “Ooh, I been dirt / And I don’t care / Ooh, I been dirt / And I don’t care / Cause I’m burning inside / I’m just a yearning inside / And I’m the fire o’ life …”

When Iggy sings the word “dirt” (it becomes “hurt” later on in the song) he puts into it a whole world of self-loathing, then waits for it to sink in before his voice comes defiantly back.

I hear that defiance most clearly in the word “inside”, repeated over and over like an incantation, suggesting a vast distance between the singer and everything else. Later he reinforces this sense when he sings: And do you feel it? / Said do you feel it when you touch me? / Said do you feel it when you touch me? / There’s a fire / Well, it’s a fire …”

Iggy is such a master of timing and phrasing that we do feel it, and it is a troubling experience. There is an invitation in these lines, but the fire Iggy summons is not comforting. Words like “fire” and “touch” are charged to such an extent that they create a sense of danger, as if the singer is radioactive.

The accompaniment provided by the band is suitably raw and ragged: there is a wonderful moment near the end when the beat changes and it sounds as if the song is lurching out of control. But it is Iggy’s voice that stays, refusing to go away or be anything but itself.



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