History and Hotdogsby Matt Vend / 16.05.2013
We rolled out of Durban Friday midday, with Andrew ‘Lappies’ Loubser, behind the wheel. Usually this kind of information would be insignificant enough to leave out but we hit the highway at about 180km per hour. It seemed rather significant as a meandering drive to Harrismith and 40km’s onto our final destination Verkykerskop could have easily ended in a bloody car wreck. Luckily Lappies is one of the best fast drivers I have ever come across, taking his self-appointed role as band dad/drummer to heart, making sure his bandmates/kids are well fed with THC and fear before we were scheduled to hit the stage at 6pm later that evening.
Lappies makes the act of driving a criminal affair as he races up to trucks and hides behind them dodging speed traps and traffic police.
We get to the festival at about 4pm and are surprised with the layout of the event. The main stage is in a giant gym hall and other areas of the festival are all indoors as well. A tiny 50’s style diner is set up near the campsite and a friendly man with prison/sailor tattoos is selling wors rolls and soup. Is this a hoax? I’m get visions of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre film. Is the sausage beef or human flesh? Are we about to become wors meat, or some pyscho’s lampshade? In all my years of travelling up and down this country playing music I have never been exposed to something this visually and conceptually accurate. It was weird, and a little unsettling at first, borderlining on contrived, the only thing giving it away being the chairs and furniture stolen from the Harrismith Wimpy. But after a few hours you start to take in the immense detail of all the buildings and you start to feel like you are in some sort of strange high school musical or a rehabilitated 50s theme park.
The story behind the festival site is as retro a story as they come. Basically a few would-be rebels decided to pack up their city slicking ways in Johannesburg and take over this tiny town, by building on to what was already there. The few structures in Verkykerskop included a police station, a general dealer and some farms and their sheep. Now they boast a chapel for weddings, a backpackers, self-catering accommodation and self-sustained farms and the big hall, with a restaurant and bar areas for such events. All of this made from old materials and stuffed with vintage paraphernalia.
Basically the organisers just had to front the stage, sound, lighting and bands and the rest was conveniently already there. Most importantly, I can safely say Retrofest treated the bands like family. With hot buffet meals on offer after performances and just a general, “let’s look after each other” sentiment, it was a pleasure to work for them. Scott and his merry team of misfits have been doing some amazing boutique type festivals lately including the increasingly popular Smoking Dragon New Year’s Festival. I’d love to see more alternatives to the mainstream bigger events, it gives niche artists, like me and my cronies, a chance to grow and breathe in an environment that is truly dedicated to nurturing performers and musicians of all genres.
The festivities kicked off with a South African musical icon, Chris Chameleon. He played to an audience no bigger than 50 people, but gave a show worthy of a packed Wembley stadium. This is the part where I get to say ‘ja no big deal Chris Chameleon opened for my new band’ (we just happened to have been billed on the line up next). Although his solo stuff has seen him go from transsexual bass playing weirdo in Boo! to Afrikaans cultural icon. Boo! is still the band he will always be best known for. Frank Opperman from Orkney Snork Nie (a popular Afrikaans sitcom from the 80s) was MCing, and it seemed surreal to meet the guy who I vividly remember watching on TV as a laaitie.
The standout act for the night was Cortina Whiplash, the femme fatales of South African rock music.
The next morning I awoke in the back of a bakkie freezing my arse off. The morning brought a certain airiness back to the place, the stillness and starkness of the high Freestate seems relentless and so beautiful. These feelings of apprehension were soon replaced by the sight of old cars, retro scooters, biker gangs, 50s pin up look a likes, and cake, loads of the stuff. Frank Opperman was hosting the first self-proclaimed Verkykerskop hotdog eating competition along with the Mr and Mrs Retro fest. Two ancient looking creatures won that competition, how could they not have, as they were in fact hot in the 50s. They didn’t even have to do anything all they did was stand on stage making out whilst the MC was like ‘hey guys this is a family restaurant’ then they flashed a peace sign (without a shred of irony) and boom no one could dispute their inherent retro-ness.
This was about the time I noticed how white everything was, although we did have Loopy and Pure from Fruits and Veg adding a bit of colour to our mildly multi-racial gang of reprobates. And it hit home, despite the cool cars, the linoleum finishes and the Grease soundtrack, no self-respecting black person in South Africa, in 2013 would want to relive an era like the 50s. It’s like let’s drive to the Freestate to get beaten up by a bunch of racist and homophobic white supremacists because that is what they would have done to us back then. And while it’s an important incongruity to point out, I must stress that didn’t hear or witness any kind of bigotry the whole weekend. And despite the glaring lack of that PC buzzword “inclusivity”, it doesn’t mean these niche events are trying to alienate anyone it’s just sometimes how it works out.
The time had come for the hotdog eating comp, I’ve been a vegetarian for roughly 12 years now and when I found out fry’s veg foods had sponsored the comp I couldn’t have been more stoked. It would however be a complete lie if I had said I entered the contest to stand in solidarity with my furry friends. I also happen to be a struggling musician and we musicians are like camels, we need to stock up for the long journey through the desert, as we often don’t know when or where the next meal is coming from. As I was about to sink my fourth hotdog in 7 minutes I got a whiff of the monster’s breath next to me and almost vomited everywhere, apparently he eats school children for breakfast. Free lunch comes at a price.
The hotdog contest attracted a bigger crowd then any of the performers over the entire weekend and by this time the hall was getting real festive with a Johnny Cash tribute band in the background, Roller Derby ladies riding their retro skates jumping through hoola hoops and kids with greasy haircuts and poker dot bandanas. With the back of the hall filled to the brim with cakes and cupcakes, we drank tea out of fine china whilst stuffing our faces with red velvet slices.
Then all of a sudden it was over, I awoke in the back of my lady’s car early Sunday morning and Dorothy was back in Kansas. Most of the vintage cars had departed, and others were slowly filtering out. Kurt from the Mizers and the Explosion boys were still up and their gin soaked voices would never have let them lie about the shenanigans of the night before.
We took the long way home, through the midlands, soaking in the last remaining bits of the past noticing towns that had become wastelands, shifting fond childhood memories into things that now seemed distant. Fields and rivers now unhinged and desolate, barely standing, ghostly and distorted.
* All images © Matt Vend