A Suitcase Full of Winter
Piet Botha is one of the great rock ‘n rollers of South Africa. This is a story I wrote for Rolling Stone magazine, for April’s issue. It’s not on the site, so I reproduce it here. But if you can get hold of a paper copy, do so. It’s beautifully illustrated. This is the rough draft, unedited by Rolling Stone SA.
A Suitcase full of Winter
Popular wisdom has it that the blues was born in Africa, and exported to America on ocean currents of blood and pain. A long journey later, it’s ended up back in Africa, but on the southern tip and in the hands of what we could loosely, and probably incorrectly, define as the genetic and cultural heirs of the original slave traders. Yep, in South Africa, one version of the blues belongs to the whites.
Like the mythic search for Robert Johnson’s burial place, finding the home of blues rock musician Piet Botha is not easy. Instead of a street address, you get a plot number. It’s way out beyond Pretoria, that city grimly defined by a bad history and a sometimes bitter present. That’s a description, I reflect as I navigate the baking intricacies of the N1, which could fit Botha himself.
Just before I get to Botha’s homestead, I find myself in John Vorster Drive, a road named for the man who succeeded Verwoerd after his assassination, an erstwhile member of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag, and the evil comedian who used to welcome foreign visitors to apartheid South Africa with the words “Welcome to the happiest police state in the world.” Up on the brown koppies that line the road, picked out in whitewashed rocks, are the words “God is Great and Good”. Except in Afrikaans, of course.
When I arrive at the locked gate to Botha’s plot, I have to phone him to come and let me in. He appears, a long-haired and bearded man wearing only a pair of camo baggies and flip flops, his body sunburnt. He ambles down the dusty driveway and waves me through. Standing dolorous guard by the side of the gate is a decommissioned artillery piece, either a relic of the Botha family’s military past, or some new form of Pretorian status symbol that I haven’t heard about.
Piet Botha has been making music for over three decades, and has been the frontman for the band Jack Hammer for 28 of those years. He’s the only constant in Jack Hammer, a band that in its infancy actually featured Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton. Yes, the star of , and supporting actor in his marriage to Angelina Jolie, played drums on the first Jack Hammer album, Jack of All Trades. His contributions were recorded when Botha was living in Los Angeles in 1985, working as a construction worker by day, and recording by night. But that’s just a bit of musical trivia for a pub night. The real story of Jack Hammer is of a variety of talented musos aiding and abetting the musical pilgrimage of Piet Botha, and of contributing to a discography of some 12 studio and live albums, and a few compilations as well.
Never has the word seminal been better applied to a musician. Botha has the sort of voice that David Bowie, singing about Bob Dylan, described as “a voice of sand and glue”. Botha himself is typically self-denigrating about his famous gravelly voice. “I never wanted to be a singer, I just wanted to be a guitar player in a band. I would have loved to be in Tom Petty’s band, just playing the guitar. Still today, I hate the sound of my own voice. But I’ve learned how to put honesty into a song, to tell the story. To use simplicity to do something great.” And this is why we care about Piet Botha. Because he’s simple, in the way great love is simple, and the way terrible pain can speak for itself.
Botha and his daughter make me a breakfast of bacon and eggs, in a kitchen that I would describe as rudimentary if I was interviewing Kurt Darren, but which is homely and normal in this context. I’m offered a beer. It’s 10am! “I can’t have one myself,” Botha says, “but feel free.” I have to ask the traditional question, about rock ’n’ roll, addiction and excess, and the path that leads not to wisdom but to endless cups of rooibos tea.
“I became a heroin addict in 1997, just by chance. One is very brave, someone says ‘Try this,’ and instead of being calm and levelheaded, you want to be the cowboy, always. ‘I can handle this.’ Boom! Ja, that put me in a bad place. Then I got clean, by 2001. It took about a year with the methadone treatment. So it’s been 11 years clean.”
Botha pauses to roll a cigarette, one of many over the course of the interview. When a coughing fits takes him, he cajoles his lungs into obedience, addressing them like recalcitrant puppies: “Come on, yeah. Come on… there we go.” He tells me he has a touch of bronchitis, and his constant hawking and coughing is oddly contrapuntal to his tale of addiction and near ruin.
“That was a terrible mistake I made, thinking you can fool around with heroin. I’ve had a terrible history with substance abuse, unfortunately. Especially with alcohol. When it really gets you is when you wake up in the morning and you need a drink. It really destroys you. I’ve kicked the booze a lot, but every now and then I fall off the bus again, then I binge for a month, then I kick it again and stay sober for a year. I’m trying to stay sober now for good. It’s so wonderful when you’re sober, because you’re positive and you get stuff done. But I’ve been in a good place a lot in the last ten years…. Just now and then… but it hasn’t escalated to epic proportions.”
Botha serves breakfast outside on a rough wooden table, still entirely at ease in just his baggies. We talk about the culture that partly created him, that oppressive, patriarchal, and violently petty society that the rest of the world knows elliptically as apartheid. I quip that the newspaper I work for has just had to censor its front page, the first time that’s happened since the apartheid government did it in 1986. I show him a picture of that old cover on my iPhone. I’m vaguely embarrassed when I suddenly realise that the apartheid minister quoted on the censored newspaper is his father.
It’s probably not important to know Piet Botha is the son of Pik Botha, minister of foreign affairs in the last apartheid government, unless you believe that rock ’n’ roll is an always recurring revolution. But since I’ve gone there now, albeit accidentally, I run with it. Pik, incidentally, was known as a liberal, and was the first apartheid member of parliament to publicly state (as early as 1986) that South Africa could one day be governed by a black president.
So the paternal connection, has that been – “A burden, yes. Over the years I’ve tried to figure it out. It’s like ancient times, when there were kings. His enemies become his children’s enemies, but his friends don’t necessarily become his children’s friends. But history has a habit of illuminating things eventually. It’s been a burden, it still is, because you’re always linked to him. You can never be yourself. And some guys hate you because he’s your father. So be it, you know. All I’ve learnt over the years, is that politics is a frightening place. One day this guy’s your friend, the next day he’s your enemy. But that’s why we got into rock ’n’ roll, into the spirit of the 60s. We wanted to change the system.”
In a sense, Afrikaans artists are the exemplar for rock ’n’ roll, if you think rock ’n’ roll is either about pissing off the establishment or being co-opted into it. You can’t talk about Afrikaans musicians without analysing the relationship between their work and their culture, and that is probably as true for Die Briels as it is for Fokofpolisiekar. Unusually for an icon of Afrikaans music, Botha only made his first Afrikaans album, the marvellous classic ‘n Suitcase vol Winter, in 1997, four English albums into the Jack Hammer career.
“I never thought I’d write a song in Afrikaans, I was always too angry. I’m still angry. But you can’t be angry at a language. I was angry at a system, so I didn’t want to use the language of the system. Which is kind of childish I guess. Then Afrikaans music changed, with guys like Koos du Plessis, who wrote some incredible songs. But when I think of Afrikaans music today, it’s all these Kentucky Fried Bands, this crap getting pushed down people’s throats, it’s just awful. It’s like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in the Halls of Huisgenoot.
Botha’s antipathy to the dominant culture in apartheid South Africa follows a trajectory many South Africans of a certain age and race will find familiar, involving as it does an oppressive education system (“These dumbass teachers trying to make Nazis out of us”, to quote Botha), a sternly Calvinist religion and a soulless and evil military ethos.
Botha’s song Goeienag Generaal (Goodnight, General) is about the pointlessness of the white race’s attempts to preserve its “purity”, and the existential anger at the waste of young lives, and anger that still festers for many white South Africans.
“Yes, it was a war for the New Day/ For the church elders, and for the pregnant girl waiting/
In the rain/ all the children blessed by the dominee/ All the young boys fresh from school/ Welcome, welcome…./ Ah whitey, your eyes on that day/ were blue like the sky/ But when we looked again/ An AK had shot the fuck out of you/ Goodnight, General.”
(“Ja, dit was die oorlog vir die nuwe dag/ Vir die kerkraad, swanger meisie wat wag/ In die reën/ al die kinders wat die dominee seën,/ Al die jong laaities nou net uit die skool/ Welkom, welkom…./ Maar Whitey, jou oë op daar dag/ Was blou net soos die lug/ Toe ons weer so kyk/ Het ‘n AK jou fucked-up geskiet/ Goeienag Generaal”)
I’m almost ready for my breakfast beer now, listening to Botha talk about this part of South Africa’s generally tortured past. “It’s a violent history.
Unfortunately there are still those old generals around, those Nazis. Still talking about the Angolan war, and still trying to justify themselves. That scares me.” It’s an uncomfortable subject, but in the same way that having a passing knowledge of racial politics in 70s America is crucial to understanding Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, you need to remember South Africa’s recent past to contextualise our musical history, and events like the Voelvry movement.
Botha was on the sidelines of Voelvry, that famous manifestation of Afrikaans counter-culture that writer Max du Preez referred to as “the Boere-Woodstock”. Johannes Kerkorrel, James Phillips and Koos Kombuis are the three most closely associated with this musical revolution of the 1980s, a series of concerts and albums that provided a soundtrack for Afrikaners disgruntled with the oppressive regime.
Botha remembers meeting two of the progenitors of Voelvry, “Dagga” Dirk Uys, a legendary figure in rock music, and Johannes Kerkorrel, when they walked into Grand Central in Pretoria, a club run by Botha and others in the late 80s. Bands like Tribe after Tribe and Psycho Reptiles played there and, says Botha, “The cops hated us. They always wanted to close the club down. So they arrested me a few times. They didn’t like these rock ’n’ roll boys, they were forever trying to bust them.” Botha already knew James Phillips, Bernoldus Niemand in his Voelvry guise, from the army, and from playing festivals with Phillips’ band Corporal Punishment.
Botha’s take on Voelvry contradicts populist hagiography. “The Voelvry [participants] were against government censorship taking away their personal freedom, they weren’t buddies with the ANC. People say they helped the struggle, but they never helped no black folk. That was about their own personal freedom of expression. For example, it’s quite obvious from his later works that Koos Kombuis is quite conservative. Voelvry is exactly the same phenomenon that happened with Fokofpolisiekar, exactly the same. They’re anti-establishment, but the establishment loves to read about them every day. James Philips was very outspoken politically. He wrote some great songs, like “Africa is dying”, the one that Vusi Mahlasela covered. And then of course he died so tragically, there in Grahamstown in a car accident, so young.”
We spend a few quiet minutes thinking of South African musicians who’ve died young, like Sweatband’s great guitarist John Mair, who also died driving to a gig, in the same year as Voelvry’s Johannes Kerkorrel was found hanging from a tree in Kleinmond. And that ineffable pianist, Moses Mololekwa, found in downtown Joburg, hanging next to the body of his wife. Botha is moved to reminisce about the last time he saw Phillips. “I saw him shortly before he died, at a gig in Yeoville. It was two in the morning, and we were packing gear, and he came past and said, ‘Piet, this is no way to make a living.’ He was a wonderful man. He came from Springs. A lot of good folk come from Springs.”
But we’re straying into a gloomy cul de sac here, and I’m in danger of caricaturing Botha as a political musician. The majority of his songs traverse a far wider landscape, one of beauty, love, wistfulness, passion and death. His last album, 2011‘s Spookpsalms (Ghost Songs), contains sweetly painful love songs and limpid vignettes of landscapes and cemeteries, people and places. It’s in that great tradition of people like Gert Vlok Nel, or a stripped down Valiant Swart, where vast landscapes and endless distances give perspective to intensely personal revelations. The album’s lineup includes another musical great, Ollie Viljoen, who Botha describes as a maestro. “When I play with him I’m the happiest guy in the world.”
This reminds me of the constant refrain I hear from other musicians when Botha comes up in conversation: that he is the kindest, most supportive elder statesman in music, and will give his last cent to help out a fellow musician who is struggling. Botha’s career has certainly never been about competing, or about making massive amounts of money. Famously independent, he’s never signed a deal with a major record label. In 2002’s “River of Love”, Botha sings about his acceptance of the choices he’s made. “One thing I have to say/ I’m not sorry/ This road that I’ve been on/ Trust me I got nothing/ but a burned-out soul/ And this old guitar.”
“Ja, It’s been a battle for 35 years, but… I never think about that money thing. Because that destroys the art, the minute you start thinking, ‘I’ve got to write a certain kind of song.’
That’s like telling a painter he can only use oils or watercolour. Or that he can only paint buildings. You get a certain kind of musician who doesn’t think about the money. The energy when three, four, five guys play together, that is the most wonderful thing, not the money. I still find that today. You get great musicians who’d normally charge exorbitant fees, who’ll do it for free because of that thing. Music is not supposed to be a competition, it’s about creating something that’s beautiful. And when it becomes a competition, that’s when it becomes obscene.”
Botha’s early antecedents include the likes of Abstract Truth, Freedom’s Children, Otis Waygood, Tusk and Silver Creek Mountain Band, to name just a few of the great bands that sometimes graced, and sometimes grated with, the music scene in 60s and 70s South Africa. It’s hard to situate Botha in today’s rock scene, with its skinny jeans sponsorships and viral marketing vibe. I ask him what he thinks of it, and if he feels alienated or aligned.
“There’s a lot of local stuff I love. Laurie Levine, Josie Field, Black Cat Bones. They’re so talented, but hey, they don’t get the breaks. There is brilliant new music now, but you never hear it on radio. Radio stations are an evil empire, with their formats and playlists. Radio has become the enemy of music, and the internet the saviour of music. The Afrikaans stars scare me the most, because their music is so shallow. They’re like greedy pigs in a sty.”
It’s getting time for me to take my leave, and I’m left with just one question for Botha. How does he feel about his status as a legend of South African rock ‘n roll? Being Botha, he adopts neither of the two easy default answers. He doesn’t deny it, or accept it. Instead, he interrogates it.
“Guys started with this legend thing years ago, I don’t know… What do you think? I don’t think I’m really that important, you know. I’ve just managed to make all this music over the years, and survived, and stayed independent of the system. Because the system is a very cruel place. I’ve tried to build up a body of work, that’s all you can do.”
I’m touched by something I learned earlier, when Botha tells me he never listens to his albums after they’re released. “I hate listening to myself, when my kids play it, I tell them to put it off.” It’s revelatory: after the serious personal mistakes that Botha has made, those apparently inevitable bad choices that go with rock ’n’ roll, his three daughters still play his music. I’m irresistibly reminded of the lyrics of “Bury me when”, off 2005’s The Pilgrim, which are the finest statement of the philosophy of the blues. “Bury me when the stars/ Shine bright over Zanzibar/ The moon can be the preacher/ And the tide can do the rest/ You don’t have to be perfect/ Just do your best”.
A selection of albums by Jack Hammer and Piet Botha. For a full discography, go to Piet Botha’s website.