“Don’t it always seem to go” queried Joni Mitchell, “That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Big Yellow Taxi could, in fact, be the leitmotif of David Coplan’s memoir Last Night at the Bassline (Jacana) and he said as much at the book’s Rosebank launch: that there was a kind of hopeful innocence in the crafting of a new socio-musical world on Melville’s Seventh Street that would probably be impossible in these Guptarised days.
The book isn’t Coplan’s usual kind of scholarly tome. The 168-page narrative unfolds in a deliberately looser, more personal, easy-reading voice, although it’s clearly underpinned by research as well as Coplan’s personal experience and conversations, and is helpfully indexed and footnoted. And it’s certainly as important, in its own way, as books like In Township Tonight. Given how thinly documented the most recent eras of South African music history are, books such as this, full of the experiences and voices of key role-players, are vital to the record. It’s a unique document of what was certainly a very special slice of urban, musical and social history. As important as the words are the photographs: Oscar Gutierrez’s love for the music has always guided his eye, and he has curated from his vast archive 60-odd pictures so evocative you can almost hear them.
Anybody involved in publishing knows how expensive it is to produce books – with pictures at all, nogal! But it’s still a pity most of the images were used so small. The story that’s told cries out for a larger format, to let the pictures sing louder. And there are points, too, when the book itself feels too small, because there are at least two other potential volumes hiding inside it.
One is a scholarly history of the place and its era. That’s deliberately dealt with here through the lens of highly personal, quite often quirky, reflections; Coplan spoke at the launch of wanting to exercise a different set of writing muscles in this work. Because he’s both a keen observer and a knowledgeable scholar, those reflections are always worthwhile. But they are also sometimes arguable, as any personal reflections are. They form part of a landscape of multiple alternative analyses this book has no space for. As one example, the demise of the ‘old’ Bassline is discussed in the personal frame of disagreements with a landlord. But it happened at a time when other discourses were equally relevant: changing patterns of urbanism, transport, settlement and sociality; the changing operations and business models of both live and recorded music industries; the changing nature of the genre; the impact of generational taste shifts; issues of race; and more. That’s not this book – the nostalgic, often rose-tinted spectacles would have to come off for that – but it’s also a book we need.
The other book hiding inside Last Night at the Bassline is the autobiography Coplan now clearly must write. He’s had a fascinating life, from playing with Philip Tabane to authoring the first study of South African performance that smashed the lens of externally imposed ethnomusicological difference and let performers and creators speak for themselves. When, in Chapter Two, we meet the Bassline’s owner/managers Brad and Paige, and Coplan interrogates his own role in creating words about music, something quite remarkable and exciting happens in the text. The human-ness of the book works powerfully when Coplan is explicitly present in narration, actually recalling memories of performances and encounters with club denizens and offering his wry asides not as omniscient analysis but as idiosyncratic opinion that tells the reader who he is. Sadly, in many places that voice recedes, displaced by an ‘invisible’ narrator.
There are also ways in which Last Night at the Bassline speaks to In Township Tonight. In the latter book, the rather compressed (and later) update chapter alludes to many stories that demand to be told more fully. One is about the growing Pan-African nature of the Joburg music scene, and that gets a better unfolding here through discussion of the changing guest acts at a single club.
One omission puzzles. One of the things the Bassline needs to be remembered for is an initiative that probably contributed more to the Joburg jazz scene than any other at that time: hosting the long-running residency of a quintet called Voice (Marcus Wyatt, Sydney Mnisi, Andile Yenana, Herbie Tsoaeli and Morabo Morojele). Think of where those musicians have gone since then, and the influence they’ve had. Think of the original repertoire created, and the band and solo recordings. Only a long-running residency can achieve that kind of thing. Yet while individuals from the ensemble get deserved mentions, the outfit Voice gets mentioned just once, in an interview with bassist Carlo Mombelli.
The rose-coloured glasses and nostalgia occasionally cloy. Pace George Benson, hindsight is not always 20:20 vision. In that era, even Seventh Street in Melville was not the warm bohemian utopia memory may paint it. I’ve stood outside and heard racist epithets (often in Afrikans) directed at the place and its music and musicians by the passing citizens of what was a historically ‘white’ and Nat-voting suburb. In that sense, the early Bassline was often just a little red base in enemy space, even as it struggled to be an advance guard of social change. Sometimes, it wasn’t even that: the gulf between club patrons and near-destitute car-guards and others on the street always jarred: a weathervane for what was continuing to go wrong even as the club’s warm interior cosied our dreams of things going right. The Bassline wasn’t the first place where exciting, original, liberated jazz was made in the city – Kippies and Sof’town share that honour – and it will not be the last, as the Afrikan Freedom Station and the Orbit among others demonstrate.
The book’s ‘main characters’ are clearly owner/managers Brad and Paige. Coplan paints them in romantic colours, his affection and admiration for their efforts very apparent. But the book’s implicit message is that shifting the parameters of what could happen in that kind of suburb, and what could happen in the music, wouldn’t have been possible without others too: all the musicians, and audiences, and the club staff, and those car guards, and multiple people who don’t ever appear on the pages. Yet the owners’ achievement – keeping a more than decent jazz stage going for a remarkable nine years – is notable in international, not only in Joburg, terms. And given that, most music fans might not be concerned if they were actually ogres who chopped up noisy patrons and baked them into pies. Come to think of it, the food sometimes did taste a bit funny…