The film is a snapshot of South Africa and its culture set in the last twenty years of Apartheid. Michael Cross is fast becoming thee film maker for music documentaries of the era. Lovingly compiled one day his films will be shown in museums and art galleries.
James Phillips grew up in a typical suburban house complete with white fence. His family seems like good people. Musically his first steps were playing Bob Dylan covers in the local church as a teenager. The Dylan influence is apparent in the vocal phrasing of the title track to this film.
When eighteen he joined Corporal Punishment a band I didn’t understand at the time having only heard the two songs on the “Six of the Best compilation”. In 1979 it sounded to me a shambolic mess with no proper songs. Their music sounds better with time and now reminds me of the Libertines, all treble, scratchy guitar melody lines and yes there are some good songs in there. I suspect that James Phillips would have liked the Kinks. He is a good lyricist but some of the irony leaves me cold.
From the onset James wrote songs from a totally South African perspective, and there is humor in there. A feisty agent provocateur he could be engaging, intelligent and sincere when he wanted to be. The description of the tour with Leopard by Carl Raubenheimer is hilarious.
Soon after the Corporals split. In James’s words “it was pointless”. Overnight he left Springs and went to Cape Town, the reason “woman trouble” no other details given.
Then to Rhodes University in Grahamstown to study music and played in the Rhodes Jazz Ensemble. I wonder if any recordings exist.
In the holidays whilst in Cape Town he formed the short lived Illegal Gathering and recorded the “Voice of Nooit” cassette. The songs sound good and fresh and include a Velvet Underground cover “Rock and Roll”. The title track is a strange stoned collage.
James became a Christian for a year. This part intrigues me. I suspect that part of him just wanted to be a clean living regular guy and then the other side of him was this drug taking, heavy drinking maniac. The maniac side won of course.
He changed his name to James the Baptist and went acoustic.
The film then jumps to “Hou My Vas Korporaal” probably his most famous song and there are two versions in the film. For the song he assumes the character Bernoldos Niemand. The song is country and western and sung in Afrikaans and great it is too. Reminiscent of David Kramer (a guilty pleasure) or the Kinks, he sings about the anti-conscription campaign and the disillusionment of fighting a war they did not believe in and it touched the heart and soul of many a white South African youth. A key line is “it’s not my fault but I shut my mouth.” There is almost a “homo erotic” element to the song. A seven single was released at the time with superb picture sleeve.
James talks about there also being Apartheid between the English and Afrikaner. “You can’t blame the language on what people do to other people”. “It’s not the language that is at fault.”
I remember in seventies Durban, local thugs looking forward to the summer holidays when they would pick fights with holidaymakers from the Transvaal or Free State.
The film touches upon his shyness with women and his reliance on drink when talking to them. I met Corporal Punishment in 79/80 at Jonathan Handley’s huge (for us) rehearsal/recording space. They were difficult to read, so quiet, was it shyness or aloofness or both. I am shy as well so it was pretty much a quiet meeting.
Another song I like is “My Broken Heart” a song in the vein of “Cold, Cold Heart” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams.
Bernoldos Niemand then joins the Voelvry Tour after which the band broke up – “a waste of time”.
Then we jump back 5 years to 1983 the Cherry Faced Lurchers and their residency at Jamesons, a multiracial club. A live LP was released in 1985. The stand out song is “Shot Down” which shows things as they were in South Africa at the time. The song reminds me of Iggy Pop’s “Turn Blue” except whereas Iggy sings about heroin “I shot myself down….I shot myself up”, James is singing about people being “shot down in the street”.
A film “Shot Down” was released in 1987. The scene shown is of James at the drive in and in his words “Catch an “ouk’s” eye and that’s it” resulting in “Are you checking me out?” followed by violence. I saw similar scenes in Durban almost every weekend.
One evening sitting on the verge outside a jorl (house party) a bunch of guys came up to me. “You checking me out?” “No” “You called me a poes” “No” “You think I’m a poes”. Silence, it is an impossible question to answer. The guys jump me and start kicking. I was bruised a bit but nothing serious, the difference being that no guns or knives were drawn.
The film then jumps to his final demos which were released on the posthumous album “Soul Ou”. The song “Africa is Dying” is where James Phillips finally hits the spot and shows a maturity and sensitivity that had been hinted at all long and it is certainly soulful. It reminds me of Nina Simone at her best (and I have watched her live close up). The song still resonates in Africa today with its wars, hunger, poverty, corruption. You cannot fault his ability and feel and delivery. It is a great song.
Am interview with James at the time has him looking old beyond his years and almost destitute, dirty, reminiscent of a street junkie or homeless person, matted dreadlocks. It is a sad portrait and one wonders how low he had fallen at this point.
The “Sunny Skies” album. The film jumps around a lot so please excuse me of losing track of where one bit fits in the context of the whole picture. It is confusing when I write, but it does add to the excitement of the viewing experience, or does it really matter.
James talks about Mandela and his release and the end of apartheid. “There’s going to be good guys and there’s going to be bad guys and we don’t know yet who are going to be the villains”.
The cover art of Sunny Skies “a lot of tension in the air to coincide with what is happening in the country. A storm is about to break”.
“Sunny Skies” doesn’t really do much for me music wise – technically it is of high standard but to me it sounds dated even then. Randy Newman and Lowell George are cited as an influence and I never liked their music. At the same time his lyrics are more politically aware.
In 1994 James joins the Soccer Party, a sardonic, satirical political party which seemed to exist mainly for smoking lots of dagga.
Later that year he collaborates with Warrick Sony and William Kentridge on “Faustus in Africa”. He seemed more excited about the shows at the Grahamstown Arts Festival than his own shows. I think this tells me a lot about him. I think that part of him wanted to break out of his trap of drink, drugs and “the ou’s” and move onto something bigger, more serious, adult and artistic and that working with William Kentridge must have stirred something inside of him. Maybe I am being naive but I can’t imagine Kentridge getting totally wasted – he is a hard worker, prolific and perfectionist. I think that’s what James wanted but didn’t know how to break out of the cycle.
I also think that recording “Sunny Skies” was a goal that he had set himself and once the recording was complete and the record was out there he lost interest as he had achieved what he set out to do. It is a recurring thing in his life.
In 1995 James Phillips was badly injured in a car crash. On 31 July 1995 he died. He was 36.
He is described as a “bundle of contradictions” “puritanical versus debauched”.
There was no mention of any relationship in the film apart from the girl of “My Broken Heart”. He did not appear to be in a relationship at the time of his death, he never had a child or responsibilities. He had very little money but he collected literature by South African writers. It is a tragic life but one which inspired many.
As an aside, I heard an interview about Chet Baker a year or so ago in which his promoter/tour manager talks about Chet and his drugs. He described the life of a musician as a miserable one, one seedy hotel room after another seedy hotel room and the only way of dealing with it was to take drugs. I suspect James never got as far as hotel rooms.
“The Fun’s Not over yet” is a good film about a complicated, conflicted and contrary character. I watched the film three times and I enjoyed and it made me think.