War Baby

war baby

Music censorship in S.A. during the good old/bad old days was interesting to say the least. Like most government departments (previous and current), their decisions seemed irrational and inconsistent. They also seemed to ban songs and albums after most of the public had heard them on the radio and purchased them. One exception was ‘Biko’ by Peter Gabriel – the government of the day banned that quicker than you could slip a comb into your sock. That pesky communist Peter Gabriel was about as welcome as a haemorrhoid. They did such a good job sweeping that one under the carpet, the first time I heard it, I was in Amsterdam about 8 years after its release. You can imagine my relief when I realised it was a crap song and that I hadn’t been missing much.

For the most part, music was banned for political reasons. ‘Biko’ (Peter Gabriel), ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ (Pink Floyd) and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (Special AKA – formerly The Specials) were notable examples. Censorship didn’t only affect anti-apartheid songs though. Because the government used religion to legitimise its policies, the church became an influential and dominant force. This mutually parasitic relationship was a deadly alliance. In a nutshell, the political / religious mindset of the time was as follows; In order to keep itself in power and to uphold morality and good Christian values, the government took a big shit all over morality and good Christian values.

As a result of the strong religious influence, some albums were banned because they were deemed blasphemous or obscene. ‘Godspell’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and Chris De Burgh’s, ‘Spanish Train and Other Stories’, were all red-carded for mentioning The Big Guy. The song ‘Spanish Train’ ruffled feathers because it had God losing to the devil at poker and chess, gambling for the souls of the dead. Maybe God’s a dominoes man, who knows?
Charlie Daniels brought the devil back for round 2 with ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ and duly set things right by having him lose a fiddle playing contest, thereby avoiding censorship.
With ruthless efficiency and timing, they banned ‘Spanish Train’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, and Marianne Faithful’s ‘Broken English’, just as soon as every household in the country had bought a copy. Donna Summer’s ‘Love to Love You Baby’, as well as a lesser known song called ‘Superman’ by Celi Bee and the Buzzy Bunch, were also considered ‘indecent’. In this climate, a tour of South Africa by Frank Zappa and The Mothers, supported by The Sex Pistols, definitely wasn’t on the cards.

Given the conservative religious atmosphere, I was always surprised at how much overtly gay music seemed to stay under the radar. In the late 70’s there was nothing subtle or ambiguous about Freddy Mercury, Elton John or The Village People. All were obviously poodle carriers, but they never seemed to offend the censors. If you had any doubt after seeing a Village People album cover, the songs, ‘YMCA’, ‘Macho Man’ and ‘In the Navy’ would have clarified things for you. Even Boys Town Gang and Sylvester managed to slip in the back door (drumroll…ka-dissshhh). I’m thinking maybe the good old boys at the Directorate of Publications liked a bit of fruit in their diet, if you catch my drift. Either that or they were just clueless.

Going into the 80’s, gay music artists became increasingly commonplace. Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat, all produced brilliant music and set a more progressive tone. By the time we got to Boy George and Dead or Alive, I think the guys at the Censor Board were so confused, they just put down their red pens and fucked off home.

To the title of the post – Around ’83 there were a couple of songs played on the radio that caught my attention. ‘War Baby’ and ‘Atmospherics: Listen to the Radio’ were by a guy called Tom Robinson. These two songs were the first I’d heard from him and although they weren’t massive hits, I really enjoyed them. At the time I didn’t even know he was also gay, and when the radio stopped playing him, he fell off my radar, but the songs had stuck in my head.
Five or six years later, towards the end of the decade, in a music shop in Hillbrow I saw a ‘Best of’ Tom Robinson CD called ‘The Collection 1977 – 1987’. At this point, wandering around Hillbrow in the evening, browsing the book shops and record stores was becoming dicey, but it wasn’t scenes from The Purge just yet. Then we were still referring to Hillbrow affectionately as ‘The Bronx’. In another four or five years, ‘Beirut’ would be more accurate.
After listening to my new CD a few times I soon realised that Tom Robinson was gay. The Mystery of Tom’s Sexuality was no match for my keen, deductive mind. Also, track 13 on the album, a song called ‘Glad to be Gay’ was a pretty big clue.

The memory attached to this album involves a friend of mine named Mark Davies. Before I get to the memory part, I’ll tell you a bit about Mark.
I think we met through football; we both played for Alberton when we were 16 or 17 years old. We weren’t in the same school, but Mark was a good friend of one of my school mates, a guy named John Dagley. There were four or five of us who knocked around together at weekends.
We’ve been friends for a long time and I have so many stories involving Mark, even a summary could turn into a 10 part mini-series. For brevity, the best I can do is to skim a flat stone across my lake of Mark memories, and tell you about the few spots where the stone touches the water.
We’ve remained good friends because we have the same juvenile, puerile sense of humour and we both laugh a lot whenever we get together or talk on the phone. Sometimes, if I re-read some of our WhatsApp exchanges, I laugh until my eyes water.

Probably the best way to give you an idea of the level of toilet humour we both enjoy, is to provide an example. We were in our mid-twenties when I told Mark what was even then, an old chestnut of a joke. This is the joke:
Q. If Cock Robin is the answer, what’s the question? A. What’s that you’re sticking up my bum, Batman?
We were driving when I told him that joke, I think a song by the band Cock Robin had played on the radio and reminded me of it. Mark was in the passenger seat, and he laughed so long and hard, he ended up in a ball in the footwell under the cubbyhole. At one point I thought he might’ve been having a stroke – and he didn’t stop laughing for the next two weeks. What’s even funnier though, is that I’m pretty sure if I reminded him of that joke again today, he’d wet himself all over again. I wish I could tell you that our humour has matured and that we now smoke pipes and trade Wildean witticisms, but I can’t. We’re the same guffawing buffoons we were 30 years ago, only with less hair and lower scrotums.

Mark has had a few names down the years. For some reason (I don’t think even he knows why), during his army days, he was renamed ‘Dagga Davies’. The name stuck, although we later abbreviated it further to just ‘Dagga’. It makes him sound like some kind of reggae dope fiend (which he never was), but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Back there in the early 90’s, he had another name for a while. He’s notoriously bad a buying vehicles – down the years he’s made some strange car choices. At one point he bought a second hand, sporty-type Alpha Romeo. He didn’t drive it for too long but while he did, thanks to our mate Paul Kennedy, he became known as ‘Carlos Davies’. Not so funny in writing, but when Paul said it with a heavy Portuguese inflection – “Eh, Bom Dia Carlos!”, it usually got a few laughs.
The Alpha was unreliable, so it didn’t last. Around that time, we were regulars at a pub called Busby’s in Brackenhurst. One night, Carlos couldn’t get the car started outside the pub and in a full ‘Hulk’ rage, he tore off the front bumper. I can still see him marching back into Busby’s like an irate customer with this huge, white bumper under his arm.

Another couple of names we’ve given him are, ‘Dark Mavis’ (nifty spoonerism there), and more recently but very briefly, ‘Kenny Rogers’ after he grew a dodgy grey beard.

For a few years, Mark and I shared accommodation – first a flat and then a house. Imagine Joey and Chandler but without the witty banter and good looks. Also, instead of ‘coffee shop hi-jinx’, we spent our weekends guzzling booze and performing a whole range of death-defying stunts. Drunken brawls that could’ve ended very badly, nodding off behind the wheel on the highway, nodding off at red traffic lights, waking up hungover in car parks – we started calling my car a Toyota Posturepedic.
This went on for more than a decade and somehow, we avoided jail and came away relatively unscathed. Don’t ask me how – if life was fair, I’d be scribbling this with crayons and drool. I think we’re all allotted a limited amount of luck and beer coupons to get us through this life. I used up all of mine before I was thirty.

My favourite ‘drunk’ story from these times doesn’t involve me. One night Dagga visited a girl he was seeing, and drank himself stinky. At some point in the evening, they argued and then – now approaching the black-out zone (Dark Mavis) – he left the house and took off running like a belligerent wino zombie (if you’re trying to conjure an image of this scene, please remember to use the theme from Chariots of Fire as background music).
Unfortunately, due to whiskey amnesia, the details of this epic stagger through the streets were forever lost to history. A bit later, when the booze fog lifted and our hero’s memory came back on, he found himself standing in his father’s driveway, battering on the garage door with both fists. Then, as his father pulled open the garage door, at this most poignant ‘Cats in the Cradle’ moment, Dagga looked down and noticed he was wearing only underpants and one sock.
I have better ‘drunk’ stories, ones that involve hospitals, cops, and degenerates (us). But for me, this story, with the ‘one sock’ detail, will always be a classic. One day, when all of this is over and I finally meet my maker, if I’m granted one wish, I’ll ask the devil to play back the video footage of those lost hours and Dagga’s drunken midnight lurch through the suburbs.

One Friday night, I had made plans to go to a movie with a girlfriend. As we left the house, Dagga had parked himself in front of his hi-fi in the lounge, and was preparing to spend the evening listening to CD’s…with a few drinks. About three hours later, we returned to ‘Telegraph Road’ booming out at full volume and a semi-comatose Dagga in the same spot on the floor. Now surrounded by a hundred scattered CD cases and an almost empty bottle of whiskey, he was in a deep sleep on the carpet. When I shook him awake, he jumped up, and looking at me, but not really seeing me, he started to jog around the lounge. Like a boxer who’s taken a heavy blow and stumbles into all four sets of ropes, Dagga ran into every wall in the house before he eventually pinballed down the hallway into his room, and collapsed. This time he wasn’t in underpants and one sock, but whenever I think about it, I pretend he was.

After these few anecdotes, the obvious questions that should occur to any reasonable reader are; what the fuck is wrong with him? and, can he be helped? Unfortunately, I must tell you that he is indeed cognitively impaired. As a young child, Mark was clinically diagnosed as being a chronic Manchester United supporter. Down the years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to rehabilitate him, but at the end of the day, there’s not a lot you can do for these fuckers.

Back to ‘War Baby’. Shortly after I bought the Tom Robinson CD in Hillbrow, and following some personal turbulence, one night I ended up without a place to sleep. Dagga, who was renting a flat at the time, generously offered me his couch. I gratefully accepted and so began our period of co-habitation. His most prized possession at that time was his Marantz amplifier and speakers. Both of us music lovers, we put them to very good use. Along with the Tom Robinson CD, I remember we were also listening to The Waterboys album, ‘This is the Sea’ and (strangely) a Christopher Cross compilation album containing ‘Ride Like the Wind’ and ‘Sailing’. Life was good, except for one thing – the flat was a one-bedroom unit. Typically, we’d play some music and have some beers while we were getting ready for another night of drunken mayhem. On a few occasions, I remember putting on the Tom Robinson album and letting it play. When it got to the jolly chanting chorus of track 13, ‘…siiing if you’re glad to be gay, sing if you’re happy that way…’, both of us would scramble and dive across furniture to press the stop button. Two young guys living in a one bedroom flat was bad enough – a gay anthem blaring from the speakers would convince the neighbours that we were fairies. On a deeper level, our primitive man-brains were also worried that maybe, just maybe, a busload of gorgeous female gymnasts would be passing the flat, cruising for casual sex and after hearing ‘Glad to be Gay’ coming from our window, would reluctantly drive on.

I have more stories…many more, but you don’t have the time and anyway, they’d never get past the censors.

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