You may not know of him, but everyone from Durban, like me, does. Thankfully, a just-published biography by Donvé Lee introduces readers to the poetic misfit who mentored many musicians.
When I heard that a biography of Syd Kitchen was being published, I immediately marked it as a must-read. I’d seen him perform at Splashy Fen, where he played every year from its start before he died, and had seen him around. With his long hair, floppy hat and bare feet, he looked the quintessential hippie muso − no doubt with plenty stories to tell.
Here’s the book’s blurb:
“Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which −‘Fool in a Bubble’ − premiered in New York in 2010.”
The book’s title is a reference to Syd’s poetry collection of the same name, published in 1974. I have a signed copy – I pounced on it when I spotted it at the Milnerton Flea Market several years ago. See below … I wonder who the mysterious Michelle was?
In the foreword, the late veteran journo Owen Coetzer, who helped run the Durban Folk Club back then, wrote:
“Syd Kitchen is the poet. The seeker. His touch is masterful. His omni-luminescent eyes see it all. His words tell the rest. But more important, he is a musician in the tradition of the ancients – the storyteller who journeyed from land to land singing of the past, the present and the future. The minstrel who laboured for love, and who found peace and satisfaction in the giving of himself and his art.”
When Syd passed away early in 2011, many obituaries followed. In one of them, Owen’s daughter Diane, a music journalist, shares her childhood memories of Syd, and laments the fact that he never received proper recognition, both when alive and at his death.
“To a child, he was a fascinating creature: His hair was long, he sometimes struggled to talk through a stutter, he wore outlandish clothes and, even for children used to being around musicians, Syd seemed to us to carry with him something magical …”
“[His] remarkable 40-year music career, filled with live gigs, songwriting, and albums […] simply never benefited from the mainstream business – not just the labels that never signed him, but retail outlets that never stocked his records and radio that never played his songs […] And, looking at the artists who’ve emerged from under his wing in KwaZulu-Natal especially, it’s easy to see where Syd’s musical legacy will reside, outside of his recordings and songs.”
This is where the book comes in. At the launch at the Book Lounge, we were treated to a performance of Syd’s song Walking, by two muso friends of his. Then Donvé was interviewed by Stephen Segerman, one of the men who ensured ‘Sugar Man’, the musician Rodriguez, finally got his story told.
Donvé spoke of the research she did to compile the book – interviewing over 120 people, pouring over Syd’s lyrics and letters to an old girlfriend etc. – and how she tried to make Syd’s voice prominent. In the “magical process of giving over to his voice,” she admitted the boundaries at times blurred: Syd was under her skin, in her head.
This seems appropriate, given that Syd once asked her to write a book on him. In response to an audience member’s question about the ethics of creating Syd’s ‘voice’, Donvé said the book is “artistically true, not literally so. I put words into his mouth, but they’re what he could’ve or would’ve said … I think he would approve.” At this point, Syd’s daughter, Sev (I think), nodded from her front-row seat.
The biographer had the full support of Syd’s family, and she didn’t shy away from depicting the good, the bad, the ugly. “I had to make it honest,” she explained. And “in the darkness, beauty has its depth”.
Syd’s lack of acclaim and recognition was mentioned, as was a high point in his musical career: Travelling to Scotland to be one of the featured artists (along with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Beck, Morcheeba, Snow Patrol and Paolo Nutini) on a tribute album to the late John Martyn, who was a Syd Kitchen fan.
It’s hoped that the book will revive interest in Syd’s music, and apparently the Kitchen family will soon be in talks with Robin Auld to see what can be done about, perhaps, getting his music reissued.
For now, you can get the book at all major SA bookstores and online. Or follow the links below to learn a little more about the man and his music.
Here’s a clip of Syd with Die Antwoord.
Here’s the trailer for the documentary on him, called Fool in a Bubble.
I’ll leave you with a short but sweet poem, from page 15 of Scars That Shine (1974).
SPOKE THE WIND
By Syd Kitchen
You have your eyes
as green as the sea,
you have Life
you have Love
you have Word
speared by me.
What more could your soul
set its sights on to be,
but a creature so fair,
yet so free?