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​‘Scars’ brings Syd Kitchen’s voice to life

SYD KITCHEN: SCARS THAT SHINE by Donvé Lee (Tracey McDonald Publishers)

Author Donvé Lee struggled for years to find a publisher for Syd Kitchen’s biography, Scars that Shine, because his was a story the “mainstream” art world did its level best to ignore throughout the 45 creative years of his life.

“Making it” thus became an obsession for the singer-songwriter, though in many senses he did. For instance, there’s Syd Kitchen Street at Splashy Fen, where he played an unbroken stint of 20 gigs from 1990 to 2010 — even if that’s the street where the toilets are located at the festival.

In his later years, he graced several respectable stages in Europe and the United States, and even put his CD directly into the hands of Neil Young.

This chicken-and-egg question frequently came to my mind while reading Lee’s book: Did the fact that none of Kitchen’s albums ever made it beyond “zinc”, as he called it, cause him to take even more drugs, or was the fact that he took so many drugs that caused major labels to reject him? No big label ever took the risk of investing in him.

To call the flamboyant rebel a square peg in a round hole is a mammoth understatement, but to have ignored his undeniable talent is a terrible indictment of South Africa’s music industry — and the public.

As a staunch Syd supporter, Durban filmmaker Michael Cross, puts it: “It shouldn’t have been so hard for him. For someone who had the credentials and the body of work he had, it should have been easier to have his music heard and to make a living. The terrible thing is, if you do recognise your own genius, the frustration in having other people not recognise it is probably what kills you.”

The other question that kept springing to mind as I read Scars was: “Did Syd write this? If so, when and how?” The book comes across as an autobiography.

Lee writes in the first person, basing the “voice” of Syd on 120 interviews, live recordings, three documentaries, letters and Syd’s lyrics, which are sprinkled throughout the book. Included too are direct quotes from his friends, fellow musicians and guitar students (lots), lovers (several), children (two) and an MA music student “who had interviewed Syd extensively”. According to the Kitchen family, Lee nailed it.

Another trick she often employs as his “voice” is to write in the present tense, providing the reader with the sense that tumultuous gigs are happening, that under-aged future wives are batting their eyelids at Syd, etcetera — and it really works.

It’s an intriguing read, and the bonus these days is that, if you missed his gigs, you can YouTube Syd and the many artists he collaborated with to get a sense of what he and they and the era were about.

Or — dare I even say it — you could go out and buy one of his nine albums (these days you can download them from iTunes).

My forefather he sits inside my soul

I feel his pain and his anger

I hear him crying, see him tied to a pole

He can’t go nowhere but he’s trying

And all my life I’ve lived with his madness

And all my life I’ve known he was wrong

Now here I am, you are, each of Africa

We are brothers we both belong.

Settler, from the album Africa’s not for Sissies (2001)

Syd Kitchen (1951-2011)

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Derek Davey
Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches.

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