the unsung song

i put out an advertisement to start an improv band in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. this was a couple of years ago. and an old lady phoned me, chattering away about her piano playing. and John. John’s songs. “We need somebody like you, you see. Somebody with the musical knowledge. John has the lyrics, but he cannot read a note of music. I helped him, but i am an amateur. Would you have a look at it?”

“Sure, auntie.” Sure, anything. I just bought a car, a computer and started renting. I am financially super-challenged. Anything.

So this old lady and John arrives. He was an amiable block of a man. A huge child. He wore thick and old fashioned glasses. And a moustache, because, see, he was a state bureaucrat all his life. He is now nearing sixty and he needs to get somewhere with his life’s work: his songs.

John never married. He had one sweetheart. And his love for her never materialized. It remained in the realm of stars and songs. Because, you see, behind the moustache, the thick eye glasses and the block of flesh, lived a true and groping artist. Nothing really mattered, but his songs.

They left me with scribbles of lyrics and notes accumilated over two decades.

I courted a nightmare, i thought. The notes did not make any sense. The lyrics struck me as coming from an isolated and over-ambitious mind. But there was one ray of light: a true heart could be sensed. Somewhere amongst the ramblings about imaginary american girls and old-movie style plots, somewhere among the notes that tried to capture a musical style trapped between fifties nostalgia and latter day pop, something shone through.

It took me more than a year to finish recorded arrangements of ten songs (out of the thirty they gave me).

They visited again. John was ecstatic. How i captured exactly what he intended, how the market would grab it, what a master i was. Thanks.. nice being called a master, but the market? Which market?

“The American market, of course!” he enthused. “No point to go for South Africa. Too small. See, the Americans would go for this. I always wrote for the american market. Thye’re always looking for new songs, all these big stars. And what do you hear on the radio today? Nothing as good as this. I have a good contact with a marketing company in Durban. And they have offices in the States. One can just try. One should believe in oneself!”

The guy is a bit demented, i thought. Lost love and isolation does not seem to be a good combination when mixed with ambition. The old lady phoned again. “You cannot know what you did for John. This means everything to him. He said he is going to open a trust account and share all the income evenly between you and me and himself. We’ll be rich!” Being so challenged, i almost wanted to believe her.

I liked what i did with the songs. But beyond the car service it paid for, i did not see any future for it.

Until now.

Just the other day she phoned again while i was driving through South Dakota.

“It is tragic,” she said. “John died.”

I cried in torrents. John became me, a wrapped-up artist who unfolded with angst and pain in this world. And i saw true tragedy: how all that striving and dreaming, all that which held a life together, is quietly extinguished, like a candle in a dark room somewhere in the rawness of the Eastern Cape.

I decided. I am going to rerecord John’s songs. And his story would go along with it. And if the old lady gives her consent, it will be available at my shows. And the true heart of John will prevail.


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