A few years ago when I read Donvé Lee’s illuminating debut novel An Intimate War (2010), I promised myself that I would read anything this author writes. I doubt I would have picked up Syd Kitchen’s biography otherwise. Kitchen’s name meant nothing to me before I read the book. An acoustic folk musician who came into prominence in South Africa in the 1970s, Syd Kitchen was not the kind of person I enjoy reading about: an addict and a gambler who “didn’t so much as burn the candle at both ends as apply a blowtorch to the middle” (according to Michael Cross). But there is no doubt that he had a unique talent and a charisma which touched many people’s lives, and Lee’s compassionate portrayal of the man made me curious about his music.
Born in Durban on Valentine’s Day in 1951, Syd Kitchen led a life marred by substance abuse and resulting poverty. A self-taught guitarists, songwriter and performer, he just about tried everything apart from conformity. His rebellious nature often brought him in conflict with other musicians and the record companies. A victim of sexual abuse, he found it difficult to find healing and stability in his life. But all his life he was surrounded by adoring fans, especially women, and friends who carried him through until self-neglect eventually killed him much too early, at the young age of sixty.
He became an iconic figure in the music circles around South Africa. The title of his fourth album – Africa’s Not for Sissies (2001) – became a well-known catchphrase. His international breakthrough arrived late in his life, and although it was relatively small, it was significant. Several documentaries record his life. Lee’s is the first biography.
I love the scene with which Lee opens the book: Sev Kitchen, one of Syd’s two daughters, once asked her father why he wasn’t “as big” as other musicians in the country. He explained that he was “like a special braai marinade…tangy mango orange chutney with a bit of chocolate in it. Very few people might like it but the ones that do will only eat that.” Sev goes on to observe that her father was “not just going to go and be sticky barbecue for everyone.” Nor will Lee’s book be, but Scars that Shine is a fascinating biography even if you do not know the subject.
Lee writes the biography in the guise of an autobiography, allowing Kitchen to tell his own story in the first person. It is no mean feat. Her own voice only surfaces distinctly in the Foreword where she recalls how the idea for the book came about and tells us: “The more I delved into Syd Kitchen’s extraordinary life, the more Syds I uncovered. I found a saint, a scholar, and a skollie. I found an insufferable narcissist, a profoundly lovable but troubled human being, and a man who planted fertile seeds as he danced through the lives of others.” Lee’s biography can be counted among them.
by Donvé Lee
Tracey McDonald Publishers, 2017
An edited version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 5 May 2017.