Nevermind the Gossipby Kimon de Greef / Images by Tru 2013 / 15.08.2013
“You see his eyes? He’s wasted.”
“That mic is too far from his mouth.”
The men were tall and played front row rugby at school. They went to London on their gap year and discovered pot and Finley Quaye, who is now, more than a decade later, hunched before them on the eve of Women’s Day, looking, well, kinda fucked.
“Is he lip syncing? The stage is too small.”
“Must be a sensitive microphone.”
“He had a drug problem or something. But he was the man.”
“Check his eyes!”
It was eleven o’ clock. An organizer had told me to arrive at ten. My mother dropped me off because my knee was immobile after crashing my bike. I peg-legged upstairs, where nobody under the age of thirty was playing foosball or having a drink.
Mercury Live I remember as a succession of mediocre student nights with bodyboarding films on the big screen (those were rad) and singalong rock tunes exactly like Tin Roof, which I endured because my friends went (we didn’t know better)… and a blonde with a facial scar from maths class I once got down with in an embarrassing sequence of dance moves that made first lectures an ordeal for the rest of semester. Another time I made out with an ex-girlfriend “inappropriately”, according to a strange onlooker who happened to be my best friend. We used to spin each other on the roundabout outside and stumble over the lawn, and pretend we were going to approach girls and speak to them, but we were much too shy.
The bodyboarding films have been replaced by live Twitter feeds. I recognized nobody and felt afraid of having my leg bumped so I prowled the edges of the crowd, steering clear of drunks. The soundman played John Lee Hooker, an unexpected treat.
Finley shuffled on wearing a khaki shirt and a green cap. His first few songs were unremarkable. Every so often he glanced up shyly. He looked kind of burned out and a bit paranoid, reminding me of an awkward teenaged cousin.
“He wants us to film it,” said one of the rugby players, pointing towards a man in the crowd waving an imaginary iPhone. The pair shoved past and I recoiled towards the sound desk (where gigs always sound best, my dad once told me).
The band was tight but very restrained. Marcus Wyatt played his trumpet like he was testing it out. Bassist Schalk Joubert grinned nervously each time the singer drifted towards him. Albert Frost looked down and played blues in a reggae format. A girl in floral garb sang fine harmonies and vanished into the background like a sweet harmonic phantom.
I don’t know what happened but 45 minutes later the room was heaving. Finley had transformed into a maniacal groove chimp, eating his microphone like a Kit-Kat.
Well, he was a bit calmer than that, but he’d stopped singing at his shoes like a limp puppet and was gyrating just a bit. “He sings like Horace Andy!” I yelled at a moderately famous Cape Town producer, who told me I was being cruel. “I’m on a Horace Andy tip these days!” I insisted, squeezing his shoulder to make sure he heard me. I’d taken strong painkillers and consumed three drinks. “There’s nothing cruel about the comparison!”
Finley dipped into vibrato low register again. I thought of Massive Attack’s Spying Glass. Actually, it’s a reference that fits considering that according to Wikipedia at least, Finley is related to Tricky, another pioneer of the 1990s Bristol trip-hop scene. Tricky has denied the link and even recorded Can’t Freestyle, a sneering diss track, as a rebuke.
Finley also dated Paula Yates, the infamous British party queen, for three months. She died of a heroin overdose a year later. He’s been in rehab, he’s lost out on royalties, he’s been found guilty of assault. But never mind the gossip: he still has a magnificent voice.
On stage the band — who’d rehearsed just once before the show — were loosening up. Marcus Wyatt was playing divine riffs with his eyes closed. Albert Frost was stomping his wah-wah pedal like a cuttlefish playing blues underwater. The engineer at the sound desk was dubbing the mix live, swamping the vocals in reverb. “I listened to these songs a thousand times when I was young,” he told me afterwards, flicking blonde hair from his eyes. “I knew exactly where to add the effects. It was fun.”
The crowd, after skanking to reggae riddims for over an hour, made an easy transition now leaping around to nightclub rock. Mercury is eternal like this: no matter what happens on stage, at the end of the night the lighting man will play ‘Black Betty’ and everybody will wheel about in drunken ecstasy.
I excused myself and hobbled downstairs, where I hailed a taxi for the first time in my life. “Shame,” clucked the driver when I told him about my leg. He was from Angola and very chatty. We drove companionably home along the empty streets.
*All images © Tru 2013.