AS YOU BEGIN to read this book, a niggly thought enters your mind. ‘Who is “I”?’ it says. Is it Syd Kitchen himself, or is it the book’s author Donvé Lee in the guise of Kitchen? And why? Did Kitchen give Lee the nod that she could do this? Was he indeed as unashamedly arrogant as he is often portrayed in these pages? The whole book is written in the first person, until the last chapter, and this presence of “I” is a conundrum which never leaves you, even though, as the narrative unfolds and you get cast away on the beauty of the words and the desperate rush against time in Kitchen’s life, you forgive it.
Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine doesn’t pretend to be a serious autobiography, but it offers the kind of portrait of the man that brings him so close to you, you can smell his second-hand smoke. It is an exhaustive body of research, edited and honed into magical life with a deft hand and a great deal of empathy for the man, his music and the Durban-centred ethos of the South Africa into which Kitchen was born and came into his own. It pulls no punches in terms of how appallingly the music industry, particularly in South Africa, treats its own by often only celebrating them in their wake.
But indeed, there’s the rub: without the skeleton of a serious autobiography, without an introduction in which we get to understand Lee’s modus operandi in this work, something is both lost and gained. If you don’t know anything about Kitchen, or the maverick brilliance of his music and the context in which he was creating fretwork with his guitar that beggared belief, this might not be the ideal starting point. If you’re not South African, it might not either – the book lacks a resource, an index, an appendix, a section in which you can find people’s names and festivals, rather, equipped with no dates or context, you just have to go with the flow of the material.
It does all fit together in the end, but this book will arguably not comfortably become a part of the annuls of formal research, and for many this might mean that the whirligig phenomenon that was Syd Kitchen, who lived for 60 years, and wrote music and poetry and gigged all over the country and very much later, the world, may be lost to formal music history. With all the delicious and sad, real and gritty anecdotes, the work lacks a basic skeleton that would position Kitchen in South African funk or rock or jazz or ballads.
Having said that, it’s an unstoppably beautiful read, in which you feel yourself accelerating and then imposing brakes on yourself as you feel it nearing closure. It’s a book which enables you to fall in love with Kitchen and his vulnerabilities, his idiosyncrasies and his stubborn clasping of his dreams, his ability to never let go of his self-belief, even in the absence of the support of anyone else.
It’s also a tale of drugs and smoke, of whiskey and cancer, but one which guides a pure and unapologetic trajectory through all the muck of addiction and intoxication to not lead to a stern moral voice but one that celebrates the gritty, dirty business of making art that matters. When you come to the end of this extraordinary book, you will feel that you know Kitchen, the fierce hippie, the skinny leprechaun, the magician at his instrument. And maybe that is all that matters.
- Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine by Donvé Lee is published by Tracey McDonald Publishers, Johannesburg (2017).