1978 – I would’ve been 13 when Van Halen released their debut album, but I doubt I heard the album that year. In conservative South Africa, Van Halen would’ve been considered long-haired and dangerous, and their guitar heavy sound would’ve been branded ‘underground music’. In this rigid religious environment, that label carried a bunch of sinister connotations. If you played ‘underground music’ you were probably some kind of devil worshipping drug addict. So it didn’t help that the first (and arguably the best) track on the Van Halen album was, ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’.
I’m no music historian, but if there was ever a better debut album, I haven’t heard it. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar wizardry justified comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, and David Lee Roth was the perfect, outrageous front man for the band’s hard rocking style.
That year, mainstream music and film charts were dominated by the much softer sounds of The Bee Gees and John Travolta. Released at the end of the previous year, Saturday Night Fever turned out to be a huge swan song to the disco era. The soundtrack to the movie became a best-selling sensation and launched The Bee Gees into superstardom. I remember going to a few house birthday parties that year and dancing my young ass off to ‘More Than a Woman’ and ‘Night Fever’. Their falsetto vocals probably confused most people, but eventually we stopped asking “why the fuck is he singing like that?”, and just enjoyed the songs. Even with platform shoes and a dorky white suit, John Travolta as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, was the second coolest dude on the planet.
The coolest dude, was John Travolta as Danny Zuko in Grease. The T-Birds leather jacket and the greaser hairstyle achieved the impossible and turned him into a slicker version of The Fonz. Along with a fantastic soundtrack, the movie Grease gave us an improved, sexier version of Olivia Newton-John. Unfortunately, not quite as filthy as Debbie Harry, but thankfully, a lot less wholesome than we were used to. A welcome departure from the torturous, ‘I Honestly Love You’.
As Sandy, she showed impressionable young girls all over the world, that true happiness can be found only when you abandon your morals, start smoking and become a wanton slapper. A beautiful message and a gift to horny teenage boys everywhere…thanks again Olivia. It was the role she was born to play, and I was solid gone in love with Sandy (especially in those high heels and leather pants). Shit, I still am.
So in 1978, most of the music coming down the radio waves was pretty tame in comparison to Van Halen. Boston and Foreigner songs were about as ‘hard rock’ as my delicate 13 year-old ears could handle. Towards the end of the year, Toto would be added to this list with their debut album, and the monster hit, ‘Hold the Line’. Luckily, my music horizons would be broadened in a few short years when I became friends with a guy named John Van Zyl. It would’ve been around 1981/82 when John and I knocked around together, and for a spell, we were really good mates. The reason I associate John with Van Halen is mostly down to his older brother, Michael.
Those hard-core metal guys with tattoos, facial piercings and Iron Maiden T-shirts? Michael made those guys look like Cliff Richard fans. Metal was a religion to him. AC/DC, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult – these were all ‘easy listening’ to Michael and his taste in music was non-negotiable. If you suggested a mainstream, non-metal band or song to him, he’d look at you like you were a paedophile.
If I’m not mistaken, he spent his 2-year army stint in the police force. When Michael wasn’t around, John and I would play his records, get tipsy and use his cop hat and a tennis racquet to imitate Angus Young’s duck-walk. Damn, today I’d pay green money to re-live those carefree sessions. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d take AC/DC over XBOX and PlayStation any day.
So although I never reached Michael’s league, I came to love some hard-rock and metal, especially Van Halen. I’ve had a bit of roughage in my diet ever since.
Along with Van Halen and hard rock, many of my memories of John involve dope. We were at that dangerous age of experimentation, and smoking dope was the next box we had to tick.
One weekend night we got stoned on a round-about in a park before going with some other friends to a drive-in movie. We were riding in the back seat of an old VW Beetle with bad lights and dodgy brakes, too wasted to speak. Cruising along, I glanced out of the side window and noticed that the front fender of the car driving next to us seemed way too close. Baked and mellow, I dismissed it and slipped back into my coma.
As well as being the best laxative I’ve ever had, the sound of the siren and the flashing blue light was a real buzz-kill. The cop’s XR6 pulled in front of us and slowed, forcing us to stop behind it on the gravel verge next to the road. Suddenly very sober, we now had to get rid of the bankie bags of dope we were both carrying. As our driver and front seat passenger opened their doors, momentarily blocking the cop’s view, John and I reached our arms out and jettisoned our dope bags backwards behind the car. The two cops approached the Beetle and berated the driver for the car’s faulty headlights. They then stuck their heads into the car like the probing tripod aliens exploring the basement in War Of The Worlds.
John and I sat silently in the back like two choirboys, looking straight in front of us and holding our breaths, trying to be invisible. Just before we passed out from hypoxia, the cops retracted their heads, told us all to drive directly home (in more expressive language), and returned to their car. They didn’t walk around the Beetle, they didn’t find the bags of dope, and we didn’t drive directly home. After they drove off, we went to the drive-in as planned, although even if my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you what movie we watched. The adrenaline surge had left me completely frazzled.
That night those cops taught us a valuable lesson; always remember where the car was parked when you ditch your drugs. We stopped on the way home, retrieved the dope and made a huge blow to calm our nerves. Then we imitated the cops and giggled for about two hours.
One day after school, John had arranged to buy some ‘Swazi Heads’ from a guy at the Royal York in Alberton. We planned to meet at my place after the pick-up and test his purchase. By some miracle, he made it there and rang the doorbell.
When I opened the front door, John was levitating above the welcome mat like a Hindu Yogi. It was very apparent that he’d sampled some of the dope on his way to my house. His eyes were half-open and the parts I could see were so bloodshot, he looked like an Ebola victim.
“Fuck, are you OK?” I asked, concerned. He was looking at me without actually seeing me, and I noticed he was pale and perspiring heavily. Obviously disoriented, when he tried to speak he slurred and became confused. He staggered through the front door and collapsed onto a couch, mumbling incoherently. He seemed to be slipping in and out of consciousness.
All my alarm bells started sounding. I knew I had to act quickly and decisively. The clock was ticking as my parents would return home from work in just a few hours. Without hesitation, I took the dope from John, emptied out a Camel and started making a spliff. It was obvious that whatever he’d collected was some really good shit. We fired up another doobie, John got a second wind, and we bopped around the house to ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’, like young braves stomping around a totem pole.
At school, we had fallen into a daily routine. In the mornings, before the bell sounded, we’d gather around a black dustbin outside the library and try to look tough and cool while we spoke shit to each other. The dustbin was an appropriate meeting point – we were young white trash and proud of it.
The bin was on a walkway, separated from a paved rectangular quad by a strip of grass. All students gathered every morning on the quad for announcements and a daily dose of religious indoctrination.
John was tall, fair-haired, and good-looking and he attracted the attention of girls both younger and older than he was. Accordingly, he picked up a fair amount of trouble too. One warm Valentines Day morning at the bin, we were waiting for the bell to ring when a mousey young girl darted out of the noisy crowd on the quad, and giggling, ran over the grass to John and handed him an envelope. The envelope was covered in glitter and ornate, coloured letters, spelling out his name. Cheap perfume wafted from the paper like a naïve promise.
“This is from Natalie” she said excitedly before scurrying away back to the safety of the crowd. I imagined a group of young girls shielding the faceless Natalie as she peeped at John from the quad.
John, seated on the bin lid, looked down at the envelope in his hand and considered it for a moment. Then, without a word, he tilted forward onto his feet, lifted the bin lid and tossed the unopened envelope into the bin. He then sat back down and returned to the conversation we were having before the interruption.
One night I was laying in bed when I heard the pop-crash-tinkle sound of a burglar breaking a neighbour’s window. That day at the bin, I swear I heard the same sound as the fragile glass heart belonging to a young girl named Natalie, shattered and rained onto cold brick paving.
It was the finest example of teenage social cruelty I ever witnessed. It’s probably unfair because the story turns John into a villain that he really wasn’t. The only thing I can say in his defence is that he was probably embarrassed in front of the rest of us. Even so, I wonder if he remembers that morning, and if he does, I wonder if the memory makes him squeeze his eyes shut and cringe like I do.
I think like most people, I remember the frustration of the transition from childhood into adolescence and shrugging off the limits and controls set by our parents. For me, those controls disappeared gradually… apron strings frayed and then broke one by one. Another memory I have of John, is at a moment when I realized that the apron strings were all gone. John was living with his Mom, Michael and his younger sister in a bungalow in a small resort park called Margoes. The two of us were alone there one day when we ‘borrowed’ his Mom’s car. I remember John driving fast on back roads around Heidelberg with music blaring from the car stereo. At an intersection he turned the car sharply and accelerated away. At that moment, we were listening to the soundtrack of the movie McVicar, just as Roger Daltrey screamed, “Freeeeeee Me”. It was powerful synchronicity – we were young, intoxicated with new freedom and the road stretched out ahead of us. Whenever I hear the lyric of Springsteen’s Thunder Road;
‘Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair,
Well the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere,’
I remember the exhilaration I felt in that moment.
The morning huddles at the school dustbin turned out to be a bad idea.
One day, a classmate of John’s named Shaun joined us at the bin. The day before, the three of us had arranged to go to a gaming arcade called Fun City, to hang out and smoke a fatty. Shaun offered to provide the dope and we planned to walk to the arcade when school let out. In the morning at the bin, he told us that he had scored, and we were good to go. He lifted a leg of his school pants to show us the bump in his sock where he was holding a plastic pill bottle containing the dope. When the morning bell rang, we went about our days, looking forward to Fun City.
What we didn’t know at that point, was that some miserable little turd who’d been within earshot and had watched our exchange, was about to bubble us to a teacher.
Later that morning, I was looking out of a classroom window when I saw two uniformed cops frog-marching John and Shaun through the school grounds, to a waiting police van. They both looked scared and bewildered.
I spent the rest of the day freaked out and on edge, wondering what the hell had happened. Later, in the afternoon, me and a group of guys in my class, were sent to the office for ‘jacks’ (caning), for unrelated misbehavior. After a deputy head named Mr. Joubert had administered the punishment, he dismissed the others but ominously, told me to stay behind. Mr. Joubert was a dark-skinned, older gent with glasses and a head full of brylcreem. A heavy smoker, he had a pasty complexion and he always looked like he was one more Rothmans away from a fatal stroke. After my classmates had left, he told me that my name had been mentioned in that morning’s ‘drug investigation’, and then he switched into full interrogation mode. He grilled me for the next half-hour like I was Pablo Escobar. It became obvious that he’d missed his true calling as a drug enforcement agent, he was enjoying this way too much.
“But you were invited to the party?”, he asked, probing. “What party?”, I replied, feigning ignorance.
“The DAGGA party!”, he shouted, slamming his hand down on the desk in triumph.
At the end of it all, I acted dumb (it came easily to me), denied any involvement and stonewalled him. Eventually, Eliot Ness became bored and released me back into the general population. He was also probably gagging for a ciggie.
John and Shaun were expelled. I was given a letter to take home and get signed by my parents.
This wasn’t a problem. At the time, both of my folks were really hitting their stride in their journey into alcoholism. My Mom was barely functioning, and my Father couldn’t get that pesky barstool out of his arse. I waited until my Mom was sufficiently hammered and then muttered something about ‘my buddy John and a big misunderstanding’. She signed the letter without reading it, and I slithered away from the whole debacle. Normal service was resumed. Yet another fine example of the problem-solving power of alcohol. Just one of the many benefits of being scum.