After Life Dissatisfactionby Brandon Edmonds / 20.06.2013
The titular Al in Paul Simon’s 1986 hit, ‘You can call me Al’, is having a mid-life crisis on the mean streets of Johannesburg. “Why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle? Rest of my life is so hard” Weirdly, South Africa, in the “ungovernable” 1980s, gets him to see beyond himself and open up to life’s redemptive spiritual possibilities; just as crippled Jake was redeemed in Avatar by identifying with the earthy blue natives of Pandora. Pudgy Al sees “angels in the architecture / Spinning in infinity” and prays. Returning to California, humbled, a downright better man. You’re welcome, Paul Simon. Have a Grammy.
Jump cut to Arno Carstens, a new dad in his forties, adrift on the placid waters of an adult-contemporary sea of endless nostalgia gigs and early morning TV show inserts to promote yet another solo effort that smacks of a bottle of tequila without the worm. A celebrity in a country still trying to nail down its own brand identity: basket case or rainbow? A place where the past won’t let go of the present since so many apartheid distortions have slipped through the transition to democracy unscathed: land, capital, inequality. Aluta gotta continua, y’all.
The past is Arno’s cross to bear too. He is a bit like a shitty Doctor Who whose Tardis only ever returns to the glory days of his 90s Springbok Nude Girls prime, when he was a golden alt.rock god with the pick of the nations’ sons and daughters at his feet. A powerful old testament voice with the mind of an artist and the body of an Olympic swimmer. The guy got more pussy in the 90s than the Soweto String Quartet. And he was, like, foie gras on toast good! Listen to the falsetto chorus on ‘Supergirl’. Hear how doomed and cocksure Arnie sounds on ‘Blue Eyes’. Swoon at how long he holds ‘Genie’ until it turns the song into pure molten chemistry. The Springbok Nude Girls were as rare as intelligent life in the universe. They remain the anxiety of influence every new young suburban rock band in the country has to metabolise and conquer.
So anyway Al’s soft middle was the symptom of his mid-life crisis while Arno just seems soft in the head lately. His mid-life crisis aint pretty. Pretension, doubt, emotional violence. Court appearances. It’s all up in here.
Around Christmas 2010, a cop stops a black Mercedes in downtown Cape Town for allegedly swerving down side streets, or something. Arno gets out from behind the wheel and appears, according to the cop, “unsteady on his feet… and he smelled of alcohol.” At a hearing this May, Carstens’ lawyer told the court people stagger for all kinds of reasons! Arno was apparently 4 times the legal limit but the veracity of the blood work is in dispute. The trial continues. Smoke. Fire.
A mid-life crisis is easily spotted by the vehemence of the denial a subject will muster to avoid owning up to it. “Adult contemporary? To be labelled an old man? Are you fucking crazy?” Arno in a revealing Rolling Stone interview. A dude protesting too much while biting the adult contemporary hand that feeds him. Golden Gods are emotionally ill-equipped to age gracefully. They’ve been affirmed too extravagantly (blow jobs, ovations, invites). It must be difficult for Arno.
He’s a family man now and that means putting others first. Being selfless when celebrity encourages the opposite. As he told that noxious Expresso morning TV show, “It used to be beer stains now it’s baby vomit.” Family is a great way to answer mid-life’s most difficult question: “Will I do anything useful with the rest of my life?” Arno is not going to let go of the most rewarding era of himself (fame, adulation, creative peaks) for a life getting barfed on and midnight nappy changes, without a fight. No parent does. But how do you stay cool and relevant, how do you find new sources of self-respect, when you’re a forty-something home-owning consumer, the very thing Grunge told you not to be?
Arno is a big part of South Africa’s Generation X who grew up in the 90s and now run the media and drive culture in this country. They are editors, team-leaders, company heads. They own things, service mortgages, pay for school fees, medical aid and uncapped broadband; spending more and more as they reach upper management and have families and settle down. His adult contemporaries share the big decisions, compromises and responsibilities he faces, each of which only hammers home how much they’ve aged, with spilled baby formula rather than bubblegum on their boots these days. “Our country is constantly going through this growing pains bullshit,” Arno said in an interview promoting 2003’s Another Universe, his first solo record. “We should be grown up by now.”
Desperate for substance, you try your hand at painting, a dignified, age-appropriate way of seeming gifted and special. Plus you can do it at home when the kid’s finally asleep. Who knows, you may turn out to be Picasso or Mister Brainwash? Arno is neither. He’s Chagall if Chagall painted without a brain, hands or talent. A wealthy middle-aged man with the leisure time to slap paint on canvas until half-assed, sloppily figurative shapes appear without urgency or resonance. This is art like a miniature pony is a stallion: with an average fucking price tag of R25k!
Arno’s 2012 “Artist Statement” is tragically revealing in light of his aforementioned ‘mid-life crisis’:
“I am Arno Carstens the solo singer songwriter and I am the lead singer of the Springbok Nude Girls. This split personality… is evident in my painting.” The violence of a split personality trying to reconcile the integrity of his Nudies fame with the aging slide into adult contemporary soft rock is all over the paintings. Providing an emotional charge sadly unmatched by imagination or technique.
His demonic “Self Portrait” (R50k!) is truly wrenching though. Arno painted his own shadow on the wall. “I used the lounge light behind me to create a reflection of myself on the canvas.” A charcoal head and shoulders engulfed by flames. Braai by Dante. Deep gashes for facial features. At the very least it suggests someone profoundly uncomfortable with who they are. This creature is in hell.
Arno’s latest solo release, last year’s Atari Gala (the title yells please-think-I’m-still-hip), plumbs the same wrenching depths of his mid-life crisis. In the really very good, ‘Battlescars Galactica’, he brutally unpicks devotion with scathing clarity.
“I wish that we had more to show / than hatred under smiles of old ”. You almost fear for his marriage. “Chances are we’re bored,” he sings on ‘Two Dogs’ about a couple “too angry to heal” or feel. “Loving me now is the only thing I’m good for.” Which is exactly what he needs to overcome to resolve his mid-life crisis. The only way he can move on. ‘Switch off the Machine’ is a dirge about death as the title suggests. The video, all the new videos, done in sombre black and white. An extraordinarily bleak song, from a new father, about letting go of whatever means most to you – to change. For Arno, it’s the Golden God he was. “And now that it’s done, it’s time to move on.” So brave. You want to hug him. Arno is still making music worth hearing. Keep an eye out for those angels in the architecture, bru, we love you.