Viva Unit 11 Vivaby Sihle Mthembu / Images by Erin Wulfsohn / 12.12.2011
When I asked my friend Thulani what’s the most memorable night he has had at Unit 11 he summed it all up in a three word phrase: “the sequel bru”. Our second night at the venue. It was the launch of The Dead Alphabet’s album The Kill. The second time we went to Unit 11 we were determined to have an epic time. Our first night there could at best be described as a sausage fest.
The sequel consisted of five hours of non-stop of music, and we drank tequila every time we spotted a white girl with a tattoo. Way before midnight everyone was drunk. In fact too drunk for a Friday. The Dead Alphabet aided the evening with a potent cocktail of punk rock that had most of the Stamford Hill rednecks twisting and turning to the uber cool vibes coming from the speakers.
I vaguely remember Grant, the photographer, asking us to pose for a pic. Surrounded by strangers, we all huddled in and smiled. Snap-snap, our distorted faces were archived. We were in the foreground of a venue that was a tattoo against public decency. Somewhere during the night I have nebulous memories of Red Light Stereo performing their signature stage burners. By then we were firmly under the hypnosis of the red and blue neon lights. The night had turned into a concoction of bumping into familiar faces, cups that were in constant need of refilling and the random shouts of encore from the girls in the back who were so pissed all they wanted were repeats to sustain the heightened state of ecstasy they found themselves in.
I didn’t go to work the next day. None of us did. The only words I could master when I finally got out of bed were “we ate too much cake”. I vowed never to go back, but I seem to do that every two weekends or so. The foosball game is taking its toll. I’ve made too many unsavory contacts at that place. Particularly at Take Array. We have gathered there too often under the guise of intellectually stimulating conversation. But often even these gatherings seem to degenerate into drawn out rants about living in the most depressingly unoriginal era ever. There is nothing more infinitely comforting than being chucked out of Unit 11 only to find yourself standing outside an hour later discussing the importance of urban regeneration with random strangers. In the words of Henry Hill, “It was a glorious time.”
In a few weeks however Unit 11 will be closing down. Rumour has been rife in the city that owner Ryan and his team have incurred too much debt. That the Unit 11 show will grind to a halt early in the new year. Understandably this has been meet with frowning faces all round.
Kids all around Durban who were thinking of taking this whole music thing seriously are gonna have to reconsider. The DJs will have to get proper 9-5’s and focus less on the business of dropping vibey tunes that we can sway to as we attempt to bring down the building with our blasphemy. The closing of Unit 11 is the perfect justification to stop all this melancholic musical poverty nonsense and choose a better life. Alas Unit 11 is where originality had found a safe breeding ground.
But to call Unit 11 a musical venue would be far too simplistic. It would mean that it is just a hall with a nice speaker system. But it is much more than that, it is a place that escapes the normality that comes with places where social gatherings are conducted. It is a venue where creative conspiracies are born. A meeting place where common ground is found between ailing artists and audiences in search of cheap beers and good times.
But if there is something that the guys at Unit 11 are leaving with it’s the two Ds. Debt and dignity. They refuse to subject themselves to the public embarrassment that comes with begging. And for that I admire them. There won’t be an SMS line where we can send R3 towards saving the space. There won’t be a t-shirt that will go viral and somehow move the apathetic citizens of South Africa to the point that they do all they can to ensure that Unit 11 is not closed down. The signage outside the converted warehouse will eventually be replaced by cheap branding. Most likely for clothes or furniture. Maybe it will be the manufacturing point of several variations of low price goods that can be distributed to various newly developed China Malls, all around the country.
But the saddest thing about the closing of the space is not merely the fact that there is now going to be a notable omission on the east-to-west pub crawl. But rather it is the fact that the shutting down of Unit 11 and other places like it is a big victory towards creating an insulated culture that is overwhelmingly in favour of global mediocrity. It is a hard blow towards all individuals attempting to add value to Durban’s urban lifestyle scene. Where are we gonna host next year’s edition of the Paper Plane World Cup?
At the risk of overreaching, the space was a much needed artery bridging the gap between artists who were interested in their craft and consumers who more or less knew what they wanted. It is at this place that on countless occasions Purity has delivered a fistful of clairvoyant musical notes. On the same stage a few weeks ago the BLK JKS hit every conceivable cord as they invaded the city, and left it all on the stage. Soon the noise of loud 20-somethings screaming at the top of their lungs will be over. I wanted to ask how in debt they are but I opted not to, after all it is rude to ask about the cause of death particularly if the funeral is still pending.
Unfortunately whether we like it or not, this will not just end in a sustained state of nostalgia. The closing of Unit 11 will not just be summed up by Facebook statuses begging with phrases such as “remember that gig at Unit when we…”
This will mark a significant shift in Durban’s cultural divide. A return to the status quo. Black middle class kids who have a sympathy for the punk rock ‘n roll cause will once again be reduced to the conformity that comes with drinking on Florida Road. The streets of Musgrave, Glenwood, Morningside and the rest of Durban’s surrounding suburbs will once again be filled with a frenzy of tattoo infested youths, riding their BMX bikes and skate boards, playing graffiti tag on the walls of private property. Why? Because there are just not enough options on a Friday night.
Stamford Hill will no longer be the epicenter of havoc. A place where I almost fell in love with a girl after she spilt half her bear on my shoes. It will be fuzzy. Only to be resurrected in the images Samora Chapman and Kevin Goss-Ross, or shaky-cam one minute clips uploaded on Vimeo. We shall be reduced to playing lego at the Winston, and maybe if we are feeling really adventurous we might even host house parties. Yes house parties sound like a good idea. Although it’s gonna be a little strange. The weirdness of bumping into kettles and the stove whilst attempting to get drunk and vibe it up in your kitchen is gonna take some getting used to. The Unit is just gonna be another one of those items to be added and curated in the museum of our fading youth. It won’t have a sequel.