Songs from the Cellby Leila Bloch / 13.04.2011
After abandoning the doo-bee-doo positivity of all that Freshlyground fame in 2008, keyboardist and music producer Aron Turest-Swartz soon found himself in the Northern Cape’s Douglas Correctional Facility. He was just visiting, playing one of his final gigs with Freshlyground, to mark World Aids Day. But on that serendipitous visit Turest-Swartz discovered a clean cut convict playing some of the sweetest, most marketable pop tunes imaginable.
“Is julle gereed vir Larry?” they announced over the PA.
“And everyone went crazy,” says Turest-Swartz. “He walked onstage, this tall thin man with a guitar. He started singing. Everyone was totally riveted. I was really blown away because I hadn’t heard a voice like that before. I thought, ‘I wonder whose songs those are?'”
How Larry ended up in the Douglas Correctional Facility is an all too familiar South African narrative. He was addicted to mandrax and ended up getting caught for housebreaking. But prison also gave him his big break.
“I was thinking, ‘Why did that happen?’ and ‘Why did that happen?'” He told the LA Times in a recent interview. “After eight months, I was thinked up. When the guy next to me would say, ‘What are you thinking about?’ I’d say, ‘Nothing. Nothing.'”
According to what is fast becoming his legend, Larry asked to be put into solitary confinement, where he spent many months, and he started to write songs.
“I started to put my feelings in words. I wanted my guitar to sound exactly the way I felt.”
He had soon composed over forty original songs, in languages as diverse as Spanish and Portuguese as well as English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. Fellow inmates were apparently nothing but supportive of his endeavours, some wardens went as far as collaborating and funding him. It’s not the kind of story you’d expect emanating from a South African prison. A tale of support, catharsis and creativity instead of the usual chronicles of ultra-violence, drugs, corruption and sodomy. His good behaviour led to an early release, which coincided with the commercial release of his first album, Crazy Life in December 2010. A spate of gigs and tours followed, having as recently as this last weekend, played Green Point Park and the KKNK festival. It’s quite obvious that Larry Joe’s entire marketing push revolves around his time in the clink.
And it won’t be the first time music producers and other cultural entrepreneurs are seeking inspiration from behind bars. Long before Johnny Cash ventured into Folsom Prison, pop culture has always held a unique fascination with life behind bars. In South Africa, the relationship surfacing today between criminality and entertainment was pre-empted in Jonny Steinberg’s prison intervention, The Number back in 2004. What started as a magazine assignment became a day to day dedication to a conversation that led to the biography of Magadien Wentzel, in the build up and aftermath of his release from Pollsmoor Prison. Steinberg readily peered in to reveal the inner workings of gangsterism and violence entrenched in both South Africa’s history and society. The collaboration was less entertaining and more a forensic study of crime and desperation. But it struck a nerve and became a South African best seller. A year later, photographer Mikhael Subotzky launched a very successful career off the back of a stunning series of photographs from the same prison. Both pivoted on a voyeuristic desire to catch a glimpse of the hidden life of prisoners. Especially strong in South Africa with the fever pitch of crime and violence in our society.
More importantly Larry Joe’s story is one of hope and redemption as opposed to a kind of lingering fatalism in both Steinberg and Subotzky. “Cos someone in my history / Believe in all my agony.” The straightforward and honest appeal of Larry Joe’s lyrics does not shy away from the real angst of his experience, though the style can be repetitively sentimental. He’s pursuing a highly bankable mainstream genre of acoustic soul with elements of R&B. But don’t let that put you off, his performances capture both a longing and catharsis – for the audience and the performer alike. What’s rare is having an artist’s intention stated upfront before the performance.
“The main thing is in prison he just wanted to express his feelings on life and his story.” Turest-Swartz explains. While watching Larry Joe perform you can’t help but be drawn in to his own personal narrative and then the music. The two don’t necessarily bleed into one another.
Interestingly, for both Aron Turest-Swartz and Larry Joe, their collaboration is typified by both transformation and isolation. According to Turest-Swartz being famous is an incredibly lonely experience. The type of solitude not unlike that in a prison cell, although Aron imagines “this may be a little lonelier.”
“In prison you think about everything” says Joe. “One is never too bad to be good.”
After Oz, Prison Break and The Number is julle gereed vir Larry Joe?