Steve Louw is a South African singer-songwriter and rock musician. His first album was in 1984 with All Night Radio. Winner of Best South African Rock Act, and a member of the South African Rock Hall of Fame, Steve is one of SA Rock’s most talented and unassuming singer-songwriters. He and his band Big Sky appeared on stage with Rodriguez on a sold-out South African tour in 1998.
Steve Louw released his first solo international album “Headlight Dreams” in May 2021 which was nominated for a South African Music Award in 2022. His second solo album “Thunder And Rain” is due for release on the 11th November 2022.
A 12-part history of Steve Louw, in his own words…
MARCH 2020: It’s a cold winter Sunday morning in Nashville, Tennessee. We stopped next to the big black idling tour bus parked outside the studio. Joe Bonamassa climbed down grinning, wearing his trademark baseball cap and hoodie, carrying his Les Paul and a small vintage Fender Deluxe amp.
He had just driven in from Florida. He was on his way to do a show in Chicago, when Kevin (Shirley, his producer) called him in the night to tell him that he’d left off the solo on the title track of his new album Royal Tea, which they had just finished recording in London, at Abbey Road Studios. Laidback and laconic, he sipped his coffee, plugged in, and played a blistering solo to the track. The studio we were in was in a converted church, filled with vintage analogue gear, and we were set up recording my new album with the band Joe used on his own projects.
As he laid down his vintage 59 Teaburst Les Paul and reached for his coffee, Kevin hit play and the song we were working on “Wind in Your Hair” came through the speakers. ”Play along to this track of Steve’s,“ said Kevin grinning. Joe’s lovely, lyrical guitar licks and a blazing solo filled the room. Everyone was stoked, Joe smiled, stretched back, swigged down his coffee, and headed for Chicago.
The full moon shone in through the split windscreen of my old VW bus, lighting up the narrow road through the mountains better than the six-volt headlights. I was heading to a small theatre venue in the middle of a town square in Stellenbosch, to play a set of new songs and a few blues covers. I had decided to do what I thought was a Led Zeppelin cover, Gallows Pole.
It was 1976, and I had recently met two phenomenal musicians Rob Nagel who played bass and blues harp, and an electrifying guitarist, Willem Moller. We were doing separate sets on the same bill at the Stellenbosch Folk Club. Also on the bill were David Kramer and Lesley Rae Dowling.
As I pulled in, I flipped the cassette and Rodriguez’ “Sugar Man” filled the van from the big wooden speakers lying in back. I had my 12-string Ibanez guitar which I had bought in 1969, (it’s on the intro of “Waiting For The Dawn“) and my 20-year-old self was psyched up for the gig. Steeped in Zeppelin, Muddy, Little Walter, Hendrix, Duane Eddy and Dylan, I was ready. The future seemed a long way off….. right now felt good.
AUGUST 1981: The Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’ echoed off every wall, and blared out of every cab window and shop door in the hot August weather in New York City. Their groove and the pulse of the city seemed to be superimposed, laying down a thick backbeat. Keith Richards’ guitar owned the city. I had listened to that sound since buying the seven-single of ‘Satisfaction’. His groove felt like the heartbeat of Africa. His sound took me to Elvis and Duane Eddy.
I had arrived from Cape Town, with a guitar, demos of my songs and an intro to legendary engineer and producer Phil Ramone (Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan). I knew I was closer to the heart of the music I loved, than ever before.
Phil owned A & R Recording Studios, where engineers Shelly Yakus and Bob Ludwig began their careers. Our paths would cross, but now as I listened, my music filled the control room of the legendary studio where Dylan had sung the songs which would become the masterpiece Blood On The Tracks. I knew Phil recognised that I still had a long way to go. That was OK, I wasn’t in a hurry, and just being there in that room was good enough for me.
NEW YORK CITY March 2020. The 5th March 2020 was our wedding anniversary. I had just got back to NYC from Nashville recording the songs that would become the album ‘Headlight Dreams‘ with Kevin ‘The Caveman’ Shirley. We had made five albums together, and been friends since playing small Cape Town clubs in the early 1980s with our bands ‘All Night Radio’ and ‘The Council’. Kevin had gone on to become a world-famous producer and engineer (Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin), but he had always looked out for me, and we had had a great time making records together.
I looked at my phone and saw an email headed: Bob Ludwig Master. A wedding anniversary present from Kevin! I clicked on the link and ‘The Wind in Your Hair’ played out across the NYC winter streets. “What a great song, vocal and band, this album sounds extra real like you-all were having a lot of fun” was the note with the link from Bob.
I had written the song after spending a few months alone looking after our farm, and Erna being back in Cape Town looking after our young children. She had decided to make the six-hundred-kilometre road trip alone to come and see me. Walking down the farm road I saw the dust of a car approaching and then stop. Squinting into the sunlight I realised who it was, and my eyes filled with tears. The most beautiful radiant smiling eyes looked back at me.
Forty years later the NYC streets seemed as though they were welcoming me back. It would be the last few days before the city would be locked down, and a global pandemic would strike. I walked out on the streets thinking of myself as the 25-year-old kid trying to hustle his way into a music career. I passed the building where the club ‘The Bottom Line’ had been and where I had seen so many riveting performances by artists I had followed for years from South Africa. I crossed Washington Square and headed uptown to where Phil’s studio had been.
It was great to be alive.
It was a hot summer in 1984 in Johannesburg when Little Steven (aka Miami Steve van Zandt) looked straight into my eyes through the lens of my camera. He was listening to the live recording of my band, All Night Radio, and I could see he was into it. His leopard print coat, snakeskin boots and silk bandanna were all too hot for the Johannesburg summer heat, but he looked like the coolest person I had ever seen.
He was in South Africa to promote Voice of America, his second album. He had recently quit the E-Street Band to launch his solo career and I was interviewing him for a local newspaper. We had been talking for hours about studios, recording and his work as a producer with Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and Gary U.S. Bonds, and his two Little Steven albums, Men without Women, and Voice of America.
The UN cultural boycott of South Africa was in place, and he was visiting South Africa to see for himself what was happening in the country. Voice of America was a political album, and tracks like “Checkpoint Charlie” and “Los Desaparecidos” dealt with the regimes of East Germany and Argentina. The Sun City album would become Little Steven’s natural progression of that work, and after Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, one of the most significant protest songs against apartheid.
I thought Steve would be cool with helping me get further up the road. He was, and he suggested we record with the engineer who had just finished his new album, and which I thought sounded great. Six weeks later we were in UCA studios in Cape Town with John Rollo, the engineer on Voice of America, and long-time associate of The Kinks. I had left NYC, figuring that recording and gigging with the great musicians I knew back home would break us through to some sort of recognition. John knew how to make a live rock ’n’ roll record, and we were ready, after a year of gigging in clubs. We stripped the UCA studio bare, brought up the freight lift, put the drums near its metal mouth, stripped off the toms and we rocked. Ten days later we were mixing at the House of Music New Jersey, and in August 1984 All Night Radio made its radio airplay debut.
We brought in our great drummer, Richard “Dish” Devey along for the tour and rehearsed on the stage of the now-defunct Three Arts Theatre where I had seen Ray Charles, José Feliciano and Tina Turner from backstage, with my school buddy, Dereck Quibell, the theatre owners’ son.
We hit the road for a national tour, and from where I was sitting, behind the wheel of a VW panel van, the future looked great.
FEBRUARY 2019: “You’ve got songs, Stevie, and before I see you you’ll write more. Just be in Nashville the last three days of February next year, and we’ll make a record”. I put down the phone. Kevin (Shirley) was in Abbey Road studios with Joe Bonamassa, and I had a year to get myself together before leap year 2020 rolled around. The music started playing in my head again.
It was Kevin‘s 25th birthday and he was leaving South Africa for Australia. He had hired Rita’s, a big underground club, and all of the artists with whom Kevin had made records were playing.
We had just finished the second All Night Radio album, and Tim Parr of Ella Mental had come in and played a beautiful solo on the title track, accompanying David Kramer’s dobro blikkitaar. It was a beautiful night to say goodbye.
Kevin left, drove his Toyota convertible to Cape Town airport, parked it, got on a plane and was gone, on his way to Australia, and the next part of his rock ‘n roll journey.
Fast forward to March 2020 – “I’ve got to mix “Train Don’t Run” on this console,” Kevin says to me. “It’s the same one they used mixing Dark Side of the Moon”. He was excited. A tornado had just passed through Nashville, everything was eerie and, as usual, he wanted to make music. “This is your best song ever, Stevie,” Kevin declared, as Rob McNelley’s soaring solo filled the room. “I love this song!” It was good to be together again.
In 35 years, his passion for making music had always burned bright. Whether working with me or mixing “Stairway to Heaven” for “How the West was Won” (which he would change to “Stairway to Kevin” and crack them up!) with Jimmy Page, he could only do a great job. I was there because he had forced me to step up and believe in myself. I had been working hard for the last year and fragments of songs had been worked into stories. My friend’s direction, coupled with my daily discipline, felt good.
I had bought a small three-quarter Martin guitar in Vancouver, where I was spending Christmas 2019 with my family. It sounded great in the shop, and when I got back to my hotel room, I started playing it with a capo high up on the neck. That small guitar gave me the gift that would become “Train Don’t Run”
The song had the wind, the dust and the breadth of the Karoo plains in it. A few months earlier I had been riding cross those plains for weeks on my motorbike. Alone, day after day, for 8000km. The landscape seeped into me. I could see ow the plains had looked for thousands of years, I could see how settlers had come and attempted to force nature to bend to their will. Now time reclaimed space. The rusted overgrown tracks where my father had got on a train to find work in the city of Johannesburg; the area where my grandfather had looked after an area of regional track for the State railway bore silent testimony. The sidings were empty and broken, trees grew through the railway tracks, the wind blew through the pepper trees. The earth was healing as time passed.
Tony Visconti wore leather pants, his greying hair slicked back. I was straight out of two years of smoky, sweaty clubs and other dives. He was straight out of stardom, working with David Bowie. I had been asked by my record label to look after him during his trip to Johannesburg to record local stars, Ymage.
At the time, I was working on the songs that would become “Waiting for the Dawn” and Kevin was coming back to South Africa to produce it. He had been away in Australia for a year making a name for himself as a recording engineer.
Visconti had split his recording project into two parts, and Kevin and I would go to Cape Town with Godfrey Mcinga, Jimmy Mngwandi and Don Laka to cut the tracks of the album’s songs at UCA studio, while he went back to London. He was demanding. I was a bad gofer and was glad to be back at UCA’s studio with the three great players we had met in Joburg, making music. I felt good about the songs, and we, Kevin and I, thought that we could break through with a song like “Waiting for the Dawn”. Kevin was booked to fly back to Australia, via London, once the album was mixed by Shelly Yakus (Tom Petty, Patti Smith).
I sat at the bar having a beer with my brother Ardi, before leaving for London. He had introduced me to the music of Lou Reed, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin, and I had highjacked his Gallotone guitar and learned to play out of Alfred’s Chord Book. He looked into my eyes, saying: “Looks like you are going to make it, Boetman, I’m proud of you.” We had had a tumultuous fist-filled relationship, but we were finding our way back to each other again, and I felt like he thought my music had some worth. “Thanks, I think so too,“ I replied. It would be the last time I looked into his eyes.
Kevin put his arm around my shoulders as we walked through Hyde Park. I felt broken and numb. I had just heard that, as we flew to London, the 747 plane my brother was flying back to South Africa on, had blown up near Mauritius. It felt like the world had stopped turning. Everything seemed still and I couldn’t hear any music.
In late October 2011, I was journeying through The Grand Canyon on a raft atop a raging Colorado River with a group of friends who were serious adventurers, all about 20 years my junior. They had done first descents of remote Alaskan rivers, skied down 14 000-foot mountain peaks in Wyoming and kayaked over 200-foot waterfalls in Patagonia. I was glad to be invited along and glad there was a guitar to play every night.
This trip was a walk in the park for them, but serious adventuring for me. I felt I was deep near the Earth’s beating heart’s core, and for 21 days she and I were one. I left the river with my mind wiped clean and the rhythm of it in my heart.
When I heard “Crazy River”, playing over the studio speakers 10 years later, I was right back in the Canyon carved by the Colorado River. I could see the night sky and full moon; I could feel the Earth’s heartbeat. The song’s beat was the Earth’s heartbeat, the rivers were the Colorado, Amazon and Nile combined. Wild, free, places always moving from the mountains towards the sea of change and greater possibility.
It was past midnight when Jimmy Iovine and The Edge walked into the studio where we were mixing “Waiting for the Dawn”. He was producing Rattle and Hum with U2, and they were recording guitar in the room next door. The studio sheet showed that “MaWayJa” was in with Shelly Yakus, and they wanted to know what that was all about. I had got the name from Don Laka (it means Voyager) and it seemed like a good fit for me. I was trying to finish the album that had been put on hold six months earlier, on the 27th of November 1987. I was alone making creative production decisions that I probably wasn’t in a state to make. Kevin was back in Australia, and his son Josh had just been born.
There were musicians all over the place in the A&M Recording studio complex, and after 25 years in the business, Shelly Yakus knew them all. Benmont Tench, Waddy Watchtel and Roy Bittan were all talked into adding parts to the album. It was a heady time, but I missed Kevin’s decisiveness, and I felt out of my depth. I wanted to get the album finished and to start feeling better. The album which had been put on hold in November had to be completed. I thought that this could be a breakthrough record for me, but the joy and excitement Kevin and I had shared were gone, and I struggled to recreate the magic that Kevin had created with his rough studio mixes.
“So, when are you are going to listen to the songs?” We were about to head out to dinner, the night before we would start recording in Nashville, TN, in February 2020. “OK, play me a couple now.” After five minutes Kevin looked at me, ”let’s go eat,” he said and headed out the door.
Walking down the dark windy streets I thought of the next day. I felt like I was a minor-league player, tossed out onto the field by mistake, at the start of a major league game. I was invisible on social media, hadn’t been in a studio for years, and had just played my top three songs to the producer with no visible reaction. Kevin looked at me. “How are you doing, Stevie? That “Seven Roses” is stellar, let’s get a steak!”
It sounded to me like the E-Street Band and The Heartbreakers had come to town. What great players, what gracious and humble people, what a killer intro. We had just cut the track for “Seven Roses” on our first day in the studio. Like magic, there was the song, playing, as I listened. It sounded great, it sounded like we had been playing together for years. It sounded like we were having fun. I felt like I was back where I belonged, making music.
“What are we doing, a polka thing?” Scott Crago laughed as he breezed past me into the studio. With long blonde hair and Southern Californian surfer vibe, he looked the part for the gig he had just landed as the Eagles’ drummer for their reunion tour. It was May 1994, and I was in Brooklyn Recording, a studio filled with vintage gear and an old Neve console. It was good to be back in a recording studio making music.
A lot had happened in the last five years. I was married, we had three daughters, and life was beautiful. Waiting for the Dawn had been well received in South Africa, with three songs getting heavy airplay. We had toured behind the album and had been as commercially successful as you could be at the tip of Africa.
The world had undergone seismic political upheaval. Apartheid was over, the USSR was dismantled, South American dictators were on the run, and I had just participated in South Africa’s first democratic election and seen Nelson Mandela inaugurated as the country’s first President.
I was, by default, producing the album and Kevin was on the verge of a breakthrough in Australia, working with three fifteen-year-olds, making the album that would become Frogstomp by Silverchair. I didn’t know much about production, but I knew that I needed to get my songs into a studio with a great bunch of musicians and play. The rest would take care of itself. The engineer, Bill Dooley, a laconic New Yorker who shared my love of NHL Hockey and the New York Rangers, helped us all get comfortable with each other and rocking.
I had released Waiting for the Dawn as Big Sky, and this album, Horizon, would be the follow-up. I had taken a while to come up with the songs, and taken a few detours along the way, working on film scores, buying some land where I built our family home, and starting a tree farm.
Nashville 2020: “Play that again, you just played it in a different time signature” laughed Greg Morrow. “I don’t know if I can, what I played, in the beginning, is the right riff.” “Oh, OK,” and he changed his notes. I had been struggling with “Get out of my Heart” for days. I had written it as a full-on rocker, a call to arms, and performed it live to raucous applause. It never felt like I had found the song’s heart, and that there was so much more ambivalence in the song that wasn’t being projected. I hit upon the weird time signature, and then, the lyric and the vocal sat comfortably within the music. I had hoped that I could pull it off. Rob McNelley nailed it down right away, and with him leading, we cut the track, slower than the other songs, but powerful. It felt like I was on a back road in Twin Peaks territory, loving the nightlife.
I walked out into the cold Nashville night carrying my guitar. I felt like I could walk down that road and just keep going until the city’s lights faded behind me and only the moon to light my way. I was far from home, alone in a strange city, but it felt like I had turned back onto the right track.
I was back in Brooklyn Recording, in early 1997, and the room felt familiar. We were tracking the songs that would become the album, one of which was “Going Down with Mister Green”, and the band that played on Horizon was back in the groove. We were friends, and I was getting used to producing. I figured it was easy. Just show them the songs and let everyone play! Horizon had done well, and the songs for the next album had come quickly. Benmont Tench (the keyboard player with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), walked up to me during a break. I had first met him in 1988, when he played on “Waiting for the Dawn” and “Diamonds and Dirt”, and he was a Southern gentleman, the son of a Federal Court judge, and a musical genius. I had been a fan of his since hearing his piano riff on “Breakdown,” and his Hammond B3 solo on “Refugee”. It was always a privilege to hear him play.
He had just traded his old Camaro Z/28 for a Mercedes sports, with a car phone, and we took a walk outside to have a look. As we looked over the car, Benmont looked up at me and said, “These are the best songs you’ve written. I love your lyric on “Hitchhike” … It’s easier for the needle, to pass through the eye of the meek. Lay down your guns, boy, sink down to your feet. We were standing in the hot LA sun; the studio was set up and we were into it. It felt like it was going to be a good album.
Kevin was in New York, producing Nine Lives, the Aerosmith album which went on to be one of their most successful. He was on a winning streak, having just done Silverchair’s Frogstomp, and Journey’s Trial by Fire, all of which had been multi-platinum successes. It had taken him just seven years to become a world-famous producer and engineer, and there was no holding him back. He had moved to New York City, and his 25th birthday party, at Rita’s, seemed a long way back.
It was Saturday afternoon, the 29th day of February 2020, and we had finished eight songs in the last two-and-a-half days. I had called the songs that I felt hung together the best, first, but now my choices were becoming more difficult. I still had four or five songs, but I knew, as soon as we had tracked a song, Kevin and the band would look at me and say “What’s next?”
I had left the rockers to last, and I felt we could try one now. I played the acoustic intro to “Headlight Dreams” and looked for the reaction. “Cool, let’s do it, sounds like fun,” said Kev (McKendree). I liked the song’s story, and as I played the acoustic intro, the band kicked in, sounding big and heavy. “That was fun,“ Kev laughed, as we walked back into the control room. We were grinning at each other, and it felt like we had been playing together for years. As we walked up to the console, Kevin pushed up the faders, opened a bottle of red wine and started mixing.
Rodriguez walked into the UCA rehearsal studio in Cape Town, grinning, looking fit and healthy, despite having just got off of a flight from Detroit, leaving the freezing winter behind him. It was the 5th of March 1998, the day before the first show of Rodriguez’ sold-out arena tour of South Africa, and the first time he had ever been to South Africa. There was a media frenzy around the tour and the fact that he was here, alive, well, and ready to rock a country where he was a mysterious, multi-platinum-selling artist, whose only media profile was the picture on the cover of Cold Fact.
We handed him the guitar we had bought him. Laughingly, he said he hadn’t played for a while as he’d been busy working, mainly on construction jobs. Then the voice and the songs we had all been listening to for the past 25 years filled the room.
Graeme Currie, our bass player, played the riff of “I Wonder”, for about the 15th time, and glanced backstage over his shoulder. The Bellville Velodrome was packed, and 7000 frantic fans surged forward to see “The Man”. Standing backstage, Rodriguez looked stunned. The audience spotted him as he took a step towards the lights. Seven thousand
voices erupted in a frenzy as he reached the mic and “I wonder, how many times you’ve been had….” filled the arena.
The next week’s six shows around the country were just as triumphant as the opening night, and it felt as though this was Rodriguez, stepping out into worldwide artistic and commercial recognition. That would only happen more than ten years later, after the release of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The last time I saw him was Friday 13th March 1998, standing in his cowboy boots at 3am on the Durban beachfront, holding a beer and grinning. He looked like a happy man.
It was 2019, the end of the decade, and 1998 seemed a long way back. I crossed the white-baked salt flats of Verneukpan, on my motorcycle, tracing the still visible route of Malcolm Campbell’s unsuccessful attempt to set the world land speed record in 1929, in his racer The Bluebird. My father was 14 when they came through his hometown of Calvinia, and I was always fascinated by this story. My dad was the ukulele player in a band, and together with a banjo and a concertina player, they played the local folk songs at their towns’ weekend dances.
My bike kicked up fine white dust and the setting sun was blinding in my eyes. It was the second day of a solo motorcycle trip around South Africa, and it felt like I was back in a far-off distant time. The back of the bike was fishtailing as it spun in the soft sand, a jackal bolted for the bushes, and I turned out onto the road to the Namibian border. In a few months, I would be back in the studio after a long break. I opened the bike’s throttle as far as it would go and felt the future accelerating towards me.
It felt like my nervous system had been flayed from my body, stripped bare and draped over my shoulders, that I had been recalled and rearranged.
The world stopped turning in November 2001. My mother had died in a violent attack in her garden in Cape Town, and it felt as though I couldn’t speak. I headed for Cape Saint Francis, a place that feels as if energy lines converge on a point in the sea where great waves consistently break. I couldn’t speak, but I could sing, and I wrote most of the songs which would become the album, Beyond The Blue, in about ten days, in a rented house on the beach. I poured myself into music, it was all I could do, and singing and writing the songs felt healing. I knew I had to get back to the studio to record the songs and get out and play live.
Kevin was there for me, and two months later I was with friends in Englewood, New Jersey, in a studio converted from a hundred-year-old railroad station. Anton Fig, Blondie Chaplin and Keith Lentin, all from South Africa, and Pat Thrall and Adam Holzman. Anton, Pat and Adam had all played on “Destiny”, the track we recorded for The Best Of The Decade, and it was a great play with Blondie and Keith, both of whom I had been a fan of since seeing The Flames and Hammak, in Cape Town, 30-years ago.
After a couple of days, we finished the record and Kevin and I headed out to Long Island, where he had a beach cottage. We tore around the back roads in his sports car, body surfed, drank and laughed. He slowly put me back together.
He was packing for London, moving and upgrading his gear in preparation for the gig of mixing Led Zeppelin’s live concerts, which would become the album and DVD “How The West Was Won“. He signed the one-page letter agreement and looked at me. “I never thought I would see my name next to Led Zeppelin’s in a contract!” He scribbled his signature, “Let’s go for a drink!”
It was Spring 2019 when I rode down, down the rocky path from the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho, back toward the Karoo plains. I had been following the Orange River for 3000 km from the Augrabies Falls, back to its source in The Highlands. The power of nature was all around me, and the massive cliff drop-offs scared me. Riding alone in a remote place brought the surroundings into sharp focus. “I’ve crossed rivers, that were just dry sand, asked for deliverance from this promised land” (“Heavy Weather”). Rob McNelley had been sitting playing his red Gibson 335 as we tracked “Heavy Weather”, and as he started playing a solo, he stood up, lent into the guitar, and the notes wailed across the room.
Pat Thrall called me from Atlanta in September 2003, where he was working with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. They were coming to Cape Town and wanted to record with local musicians, in preparation for an album and concert to raise funds and global awareness to help fight the AIDS tragedy. I knew Dave Stewart as a great producer, musician and songwriter, and I looked forward to them coming to Cape Town.
Brian May walked into UCA, carrying his red guitar by the neck, plugged into a VOX AC30 amp and the sound of Queen filled the room. He was adding guitar parts to a track that Dave had finished the night before. Pat had called me that morning, laughing. “You lucked out Steve, after you left last night, Dave decided to work on the track you guys did together and it’s come out great! He is going to finish it today.”
I stood backstage at the Green Point Stadium on the 29th of November 2003, where 40 000 people had to come to watch the first-ever 46664 concert. Johnny Clegg was singing “Asimbonanga” and “The Crossing” to Nelson Mandela in the audience. It was a riveting performance and a highlight of the concert. We had sat in the sunshine, outside the rehearsal venue, the day before and spoke about the years since 1985, when we had played together, the death of my mother, South Africa, and Johnny’s upcoming US tour. When he walked off stage, I hugged him. “You’re out the van, and in the big tour bus after that, Johnny!” We laughed, happy to be together on such a great night.
I had been on my farm for a few weeks working on my songs in early 2019 when I heard a crazy buzzing outside the window where I was sitting writing. I got up and looked up into the eaves at a watermelon-sized blob of hanging buzzing bees about to move into a new home. There were bees everywhere, and I locked down all the windows to keep them out. I phoned my buddy who was a beekeeper to come around and help me out. He calmly stuck his hand into the middle of the swarm, extracted the Queen, put her in a wooden box, and watched as the whole swarm followed her in. It was sunset, and I had the tag for the song I was working on. “You’re my Queen, my Queen Bee maybe, I’ll stick with you ‘til the sun goes down.”
I love the sound of a Hammond organ and its rotating Leslie speaker working together. Steve Winwood, Richard Manuel, Benmont Tench and Kevin McKendree can each make that sound. I heard it as Kevin played his solo on “Queen Bee Maybe”, the first song we recorded in Nashville in February 2020. I knew then that we were going to have a great time making this record.
I’d been anticipating recording another album for more than a year. I’d been looking forward to working in Nashville my whole life.
I have always been fascinated by the sound of the records made in Nashville. Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Neil Young’s Harvest and R.E.M.’s Document were all albums that had a great sound, and a great feel, each recorded in that great city. They all sounded like a bunch of people having a good time, making great music together. I knew I would be working with people who were at the top of their game. I wanted to make an album that sounded just like that.
A couple of months before I was due to head to Nashville, I pulled into Calvinia, my dad’s hometown, a dusty dorp in the Northern Cape. I stopped outside a large house that had been the high school from which he had graduated in 1932. I had been here two weeks before, at the start of my motorbike trip. Eight thousand kilometres later, I was glad to be back. It felt like the dust and the space of the Karoo plains had seeped into my soul. Soon I would be working with Kevin in Nashville, after the long break since we had recorded Trancas Canyon.
I thought of how we all set out on a road ahead, and who we would meet on that road. My grandfather had ridden across these plains, as part of a horseback commando against British soldiers. My father had left, on a train for Johannesburg, and returned home in a Whippet motor car, seven years later, to see his family, before enlisting in the Air Force and joining the Second World War. My brother had left on a jet plane, one that had never returned.
My father had played music on this school stoep. I had played music in bars and on stages. In ancient times, the San assembled where this town now sat and looked across these plains divining their mythology in the billions of stars above them. They made music, on gong rocks and sang, soothing their spirits.
Dinosaurs walked where I now sat, crossing a large inland sea. Ancient spirits walked with me, as I walked out of the town, and onto the plains. The moon rose, backlighting “DeToren”, a mountain where Settlers had captured and persecuted San nomads. I had ridden a long way, and I was glad to be back where I’d started. I walked into town, climbed on my iron horse, and headed for the city lights to realise Headlight Dreams.