Between rock & a hard place by Carsten Rasch: a review

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Between rock & a hard place
Carsten Rasch
MFBooks Joburg, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-928420-36-1

This is a vital, tumbling, scrambling, breathless, profane, sweat-stained, music-infused, whisky-soaked, acid-tinged, dagga-scented, sometimes poignant, often side-splitting, speed-freak roller coaster ride through early 1980s South Africa. It is a fresh addition to the growing archive of the country’s white counterculture, a strange, anti-authoritarian sickness that was first caught in mainly English-speaking circles towards the very end of the seventies. Notoriously, the virus would later jump hosts, infecting Afrikaans-speakers in the middle of the decade, with the height of the epidemic – which, simultaneously, burnt it out – being the Voëlvry tour of 1989, “an orgy of Afrikaner anarchy”, as the Cape Times put it. But, let’s begin at the beginning.

A shifting political consciousness – triggered partly by the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising, with other factors including the misplaced optimism that the PW Botha government would be somehow gentler than its predecessor, BJ Vorster’s – collided with the eventual arrival of punk rock in South Africa to form the nascent counterculture. British punk was an alien beast in the local landscape, and was forced to adapt. South African punk music – starting with Durban’s 4th Reich (later Wild Youth), Johannesburg’s National Wake, Radio Rats and Corporal Punishment from Springs, and later many more – combined all sorts of musical elements, including the archetypal thrash-and-bellow of British groups, such as the Ruts or Stiff Little Fingers, and reggae, Afro-beat and much else besides. Listening to it now, it seems strange that some of it would ever be considered punk – but, the haircuts, the drainpipe jeans and the eye-liner certainly were, as was the attitude. Of course, this attitude, this sensibility, was a response to very local issues, not those of working-class Brits. “We’re white kids living comfortably in a white suburban society,” Terry Armstrong, bassist of Joburg band Dog Detachment, told Sunday Times journalist Gus Silber in 1983, “and we wouldn’t know a dole queue if it fell on our heads.”

But, what need is there for a punk sensibility if you are living comfortably? The answer, of course, is that such comfort comes at a price – the need to conform to an oppressive society’s norms.

And, the closer you are to the cold, hard heart of that society, the more you are required to believe in the central tenets that underpin it – the Calvinist notion that Afrikaners are God’s chosen people and that South Africa is the land that He has given them. Everything else – all the apartheid laws, the censorship, the education system, the religious precepts, the military adventures to keep communists at bay, even the FAK – everything flows from this. And, if you’re Carsten Rasch, brought up in a conservative Afrikaans environment in the East Rand mining town of Springs, and then Bellville in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, these are beliefs that you must hold with unwavering conviction. To reject them is to reject the covenant made with Jehovah at Blood River. It is not a mark of rebellion, but attempted revolution. It is more than mere betrayal; it is treason.

We first meet Rasch in a breathless, disoriented and disorienting real-time ride through an LSD trip at a wild party in Sandton (when it was still in the veld), which all goes south when the SAP arrives in force. That 1984 party, Rasch writes, closed a chapter in his life. To get to the start of that chapter, he then takes us through his youthful misadventures, up to the point where he is ready to be “a participant in the battle against the ‘system’”.

His traitor’s heart started developing early, as he first kicked back against his stepfather, a “close-fisted and dour insurance type”, and then against pretty much anything he could find, driven along by a soundtrack of underground rock – the writings of Camus, Orwell and the Sestigers. He left home when he left school, and, by the age of 22, had flunked university in Pretoria, done two years as a Permanent Force member of the navy – to escape national service on the Angolan border – and fallen head over heels for the punk rock of the Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones et al. Moving to Stellenbosch, he took up the bongos, met a cluster of musicians, flunked university again, smoked a lot of dagga and hung out at the Sigma folk club, a rare oasis of live music in the otherwise ossified Afrikaans town. And then, it was time for the next phase.

It’s 1980, and Rasch switches from the past tense he has used so far to describe his early years, to the urgent present tense, which previously dragged us through the acid daze of the busted Sandton bacchanal. From this point on, everything happens in the now. We are swept into the Cape Town club scene of 1886 and Scratch. We smoke bottlenecks and gulp Obex diet pills to stay awake, while grooving to new wave and reggae. We get a little too close to a Bo Kaap gang, the Hol Boys, but somehow survive, and we manage to hold down a job as a trainee camera operator at the SABC, at least for a few months. We get called back to navy camp for a refresher, and vow that it’ll be the last one, deciding to disappear as much as possible, so the next batch of call-up papers won’t find us. All this time, we’re living in a Kombi Fleetline that used to be an ambulance and contains everything we own, from clothes to bongos to records – being “something of a hippie punk, if such a thing exists”.

The historical, or narrative, present can be tricky to pull off well, especially at length, but Cas – as he becomes, since Carsten is too hectic a name for others to tune – succeeds in holding it together for over 250 pages of madness, the reader skating along beside him as he evolves from being a dedicated joller into the guy who organises the jol, a promoter undertaking a series of ever-more-ambitious projects. Some of these succeed, some of them – most impressively, a planned reggae festival in Port St Johns – fail, and some of them do a bit of both, such as the Juluka-headlined jol, which everyone loves but which loses a ton of money. In a parallel career, he moves from bongos, via congas, to a full drum kit, and plays with bands himself. The music scene switches from punk to mbaqanga-tinged “crossover”, with black musicians playing a more central role, and increasingly integrated audiences – which mostly means black bodies entering conventionally white spaces, rather than the reverse. Along the way, Cas passes through a selection of self-immolating Kombis and a succession of pozzies, mostly with his partner, Di, and his main okes, Hoffie and Lew – and maybe Dax – along for the ride, always ready to share a bong or pop a cap, and helping to keep an eye out for the Boere, who take a dim view of all these extralegal gatherings.

Much of the insanity happens from a Cape Town base, with detours to Stellenbosch and an inevitable stint in Yeoville’s Rockey Street, when it was the jol capital of the country, with the Cherry Faced Lurchers’s James Phillips holding court as King of the Jol downtown at the infamous cellar bar, Jameson’s, on Commissioner Street. There is even an attempt to bring the counterculture to the platteland, which goes about as well as can be expected, which is to say, not at all. All of this is fuelled by whisky, cigarettes, Superman acid caps, and truly Herculean quantities of dagga. My goodness, but a lot of dagga gets smoked in this book. While a true getting-wasted aficionado, Cas never really comes across as the sort of lumpen hippie who’s too stoned to function. He works too damned hard, for a start, sometimes so hard that he even has to defer getting wasted. And then the booze, dagga, acid and music that fuse to deliver the jol provide both a way of temporarily escaping the strictures of apartheid society through a tactical use of oblivion, and a way of subverting it. How better to give the middle finger to a repressive Calvinist system than smoothing off the acid trip you’re sharing with your live-in girlfriend by lighting a big, fat zol?

It’s a world where speaking Afrikaans to anyone but your grandparents (or the cops) is uncool. So, this stream of altered consciousness is mostly (except when speaking to family or cops) delivered in the English of the place and the time. It is a world of lefties and whiteys and darkies, of okes and chicks, of jol and zol, of pozzies and tjommies, and where the Boere are the bad guys. There’s a diaristic quality to this writing, as if nothing’s been left out. While a number of the scenes do little to drive the main narrative thread forward (“PW – My part in his downfall”), and a firmer-handed editor may have easily cut 50 pages, like the use of the language of the time, they help the book put you there and then. And Rasch really is good at doing that. Very good, indeed.

He’s almost good enough at doing it to hide the book’s weaker elements.

The most surprising thing I realised, after my first, highly enjoyable gallop through Between rock & a hard place, was – like many actual diaries – how strangely unpeopled it is. Working through it again confirms that Rasch’s kaleidoscopic, amphetamine prose delivers a blizzard of names, of people, of bands, of venues, but the narrative focuses so hard on what happened – the events, the activity – that we don’t really engage with any personalities involved (with the exception of his deeply conservative, yet all-forgiving, oupa and ouma, who, while somewhat peripheral to the main narrative, are presented in a deeply touching pen portrait). Even the persistent characters lack, well, all that much character. Hoffie is fearless and a Lothario, Di is pretty, Dax is a kindred soul and Lew is, um, Lew. Even Cas himself remains a somewhat shadowy presence. I know that he doesn’t like authority, heroin or cover bands. I know he got extremely fit in the navy, and that he’s a natural drummer. I assume he’s quite charismatic or, if not exactly that, extremely persuasive. But, I’m really in the dark about the inner workings of the man himself. I know what he’s done, often in exquisite detail, but not often why, or how he felt about it.

Also, by placing us right in the early 1980s, Rasch leaves it to the reader to contextualise the past in terms of the present. There is no reflexivity in the book, no sense of how its events seem from a 21st century perspective. For example, it’s become clear that the PW Botha regime’s policy was not to suppress dissent, but, in a much more subtle and effective approach, to marginalise it. Why, say, ban a record – potentially giving it the oxygen of greater publicity – when the SABC could simply arrange never to play it? With the SABC having a near monopoly on the radio airwaves, that’s a pretty effective way of minimising its likely audience. And, if a few hundred copies are sold – and maybe a few hundred more distributed by samizdat cassette – what’s the real harm? Especially if most end up in the hands of English-speaking liberals, who probably hate the government anyway.

It’s also worth asking whether pockets of mostly English-speaking society were consciously used as – rather than permitted to be – a sort of steam valve by the authorities. Rian Malan has written of his amazement at returning in the mid-1980s, after several years in the States, to find a Cape Times that was more critical of the Botha government than the Los Angeles Times; and, after meeting a “black – or coloured, to split hairs” woman in Cape Town, finding that the two of them could lead a perfectly normal, entirely public life as a couple. Equally, Ivan Kady of multiracial punk band National Wake has spoken in an interview about how easy it was for the band to stay under the radar, touring the Cape Peninsula, and playing in both Yeoville and Sharpeville with equal ease. It was only when the band achieved a level of success that the iron vice of the system clamped shut, and the musicians found heavy-booted cops stomping through their shared Parktown home. How might Rasch’s understanding of working in this somewhat ill-defined, grey zone differ now from at the time? The Cas of 1984 clearly believes he’s battling the system; does the Carsten Rasch of today see it in the same light? (It needn’t be definitive: Koos Kombuis deftly handles this in A short drive to freedom, by describing his “struggle” in a mock-heroic voice that can be taken at face value or not.)

Nevertheless, he’s written a hugely enjoyable and, dare I say, important book. The jolling of a bunch of “whiteys” may seem like a fairly minor part of the greater struggle against the Nationalist government and its greatest crime, apartheid. However, any government ultimately needs the support of its people to govern, and, over the eighties, that support began to crumble among PW Botha’s core constituency, especially among the young. The events that Rasch so fluently describes were the beginning of the groundswell that would eventually produce the End Conscription Campaign, and that would see musicians banding together as the South African Musicians’ Alliance to provide an important bridge to the burgeoning UDF. Flitting between Jameson’s and Wits, James Phillips would code-switch to produce Vie is Bernoldus Niemand, inspiring André Letoit and then Johannes Kerkorrel, in turn. This spawned the biting satire of Piekniek by Dingaan at the Grahamstown festival – and later at the Baxter in Cape Town (before CAPAB, in a flurry of self-censorship, buried it) – then Die Eerste Alternatiewe Afrikaans Rock Concert and, ultimately, Voëlvry.

For some years, there was little interest in looking back at this period. It was all too easy to see any apartheid-era jolling as fiddling while Rome burned, much as Jacob Dlamini was attacked for suggesting that he may have had a more-or-less happy childhood, despite the oppression, in Native nostalgia. Around the turn of the millennium, the collapse of the rainbow nation imaginarium perhaps triggered some introspection over the period that preceded it, and the reminiscences started to emerge. One day, an oral historian may address South Africa’s eighties’ counterculture comprehensively, as Jonathon Green’s Days in the life did with the London scene of a generation before, or McNeil and McCain’s Please kill me, with New York punk. Meanwhile, records have been re-released and obscurities uploaded to YouTube: documentaries such as Punk in Africa; Jiving and dying – the Radio Rats story; and The fun’s not over – the James Phillips story have joined formally published writings by the likes of Koos Kombuis and a host of bloggers. There’s a whole mini-industry centred on the Voëlvry phenomenon, from an excellent book by Pat Hopkins, to Christiaan Olwagen’s feature film drama, Johnny is nie dood nie.

Carsten Rasch’s Between rock & a hard place is a worthy and immensely readable addition to the canon.

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