The Purple Turtle’s Re-Launch
Finally allowed inside the adult video store.
Okay, I’ve spent a while looking at my notes from my Friday evening, and I am going to start off by saying that I don’t feel like I aught to be nice about anything from this night. The evening was a disappointment, I parked about three blocks away from the pub because it’s in fucking Long Street, paid two different car guards, and otherwise felt like I’d spent an average evening in smoky, poorly-attended band night in any other bar. If this much had matched up to my expectations I wouldn’t be as crabby as I am, but let me start with a little backstory.
Since arriving in Cape Town, every time I’ve ever hopefully tugged on somebody’s sleeve and assumed the Labrador-retriever stance towards the Purple Turtle in Long Street, I have been met with the furrowed brow, the arm scratching the back of the head, and shuffling stance, and the “Uumm no, you don’t wanna go there… it used to be awesome, but lately it’s gotten pretty, you know, dodgy…”.
Thus the Purple Turtle became a frustrating ghost story I’d drag out of people when I sensed they knew more than I. In response to my barrage of questions from veteran frequenters, a soft look would often become the candidate as they shook their heads, quietly reliving forgotten moments with words like “Upstairs you could… oh, good times.” On the “Cape Town Nightlife” website, the Purple Turtle is described as “…one of the most famous live music venues in Cape Town and has probably hosted most of the decent bands in the country. The clientele tend towards the grunge-goth. It has live music, mostly Punk on Wednesdays and Saturdays…” I also notice that this site was last update in 2002, and was probably written by a wide-eyed tour guide, but irrespective, I do know that this is so no longer the case. I can not claim to know what I have missed, but I do notice that dull spark re-igniting in people’s eye-holes when I mention the bar’s name, and I feel that it is pretty much everyone’s opinion that this little place will never be the same as what it was.
So then I catch wind of this upcoming event – the Purple Turtle is re-launching, once again opening the venue to live band performances, a dirty phoenix rising from the backstreet ashes. And of course I’m bouncing off the walls at this news. Thing is, something is not quite right; I bubble over with this news at people and the most I get as a reaction is generally either indifference or “Oh? Huh. Well. Hope it’s not the regular crowd.” I am jubilant and everyone else is “meh”. What am I missing? Never mind, the week plods on and I count down the days until the opening. Fuck everyone, I am going to the Purple fucking Turtle and it’s going to be amazing: I’m like a kid whose dirty uncle has finally agreed to let him sneak into an adult video store.
So, Friday arrives, I enter the doors of the Purple Turtle, and I step into – a pub. Just that. It’s not very full at all; a few tables are open (and stay so for the entire night), and those present are your typical slew of folks dressed in black. None of the “dodgy” patrons so feared and loathed by veteran visitors, but hardly the new Gandalf’s - or perhaps some people thought so. A wee emo girl walks up and down (perhaps to trick us into thinking there are more of her), and a few nervous-looking emokids are huddled around a table in a safe corner somewhere.
By the way, just so we’re on the same ground, if you have a haircut that covers more than two thirds of your face, is black, wear any article of clothing with black and white checker-print, and top it off with a black band t-shirt and complimenting black clothes, I’m going to refer to you as an emo. I know that most people (including emos) don’t like to be called that, but Christ, look in a mirror. This is not a natural, accidental “oh I just left the house like this” look, you went out and bought those clothes and got those accessories and you modeled them after a commercial musical and stylistic movement not of your own imagination – and that movement has earned the label of “emo”, and if you are an architect of this fashion, that label becomes you.
We sit down and look around. Yep, it’s a pub, sure enough. Generic rock music blares through the speakers and beers flow at around thrice the price of Gandalf’s… but then, that is true of most places that aren’t Gandalf’s. Look, I don’t think there’s any reason for me to harp on about what we all know about Gandies, but let me be honest: the first time I walked in there, wet-behind-the-ears and fresh-faced, that place was a concept out of a fairy tale. A place for alternative crowds, neither R&B and/or hip hop? Beers for a fucking five, sir? Embrace me, I may never return home. This was some time ago and while I have become more adept at stepping over vomit and broken glass and my perceptions have since re-aligned themselves, nothing about this place, in any way, made me think I’d come back here and maybe just move in.
Or was I being unfair? Was the night perhaps still young? I turned my attention to the band setting up on stage, still clinging to optimism.
Ah, the bands.
The dudes setting up first were Labyrinth. Out of all three bands I was most curious about these guys because I knew nothing about them. I’d heard of – but never attended – Red Light in June and The Undefined, so I sort of had an idea of what to expect in terms of genre, but I am drawn nevertheless to mystery, and also “labyrinth” is one of my favourite words. I’m a fickle fucker when it comes to clever names, I confess.
Anyway, I’m going to be civil and tell you that I honestly felt bad for these guys – firstly, the opening band is never what people (or the majority) attend a show for, but mostly because it took like two hours for the Turtle people to sort their sound shit out. Yup. The band members were up there for about an hour, plonking away and demo riffs, whipping out apologetic Smoke on the Water and Purple Haze chords… and the whole time the sound guy is fighting a tentacled creature behind the soundboard and bellowing sailor’s curses and wookie howlings.
After literally playing their first song three times, Labyrinth finally gets into their act, and it’s a little obvious that they’re still a new band. Their style is pretty much commercial hard rock, with Incubus-type songs and a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover, and they’re not terrible, - but they strike me as a very garage-band effort. Or maybe they just got fed-up from the two-hour sound test. They seem competent and capable, but kind of lack a feature that makes them unique on stage; oh sure, they’re friendly enough, their lead singer thanks us for attending and comes off all smiley and bashful, but that’s about it. I don’t think there’s much more for me to say about them other than that they got a bum deal that evening – sorry dudes.
Taking over from them was Red Light in June, and I think these guys probably had the most active crowd participation during the evening – despite the low bar numbers. They are a hard rock band fronted by a pretty arresting female lead – the lady was up on stage in a little black dress, red hair, a tattoo sleeve; 40’s pin-up-poster-girl. The whole band assemblage actually has really amusing character –the lead guitarist sports long, blonde hair (which he whips back and forth over and over as he plays) and their bassist looks like Stephen King in a Led Zepplin t-shirt. Way cool.
So they play their first set, and the sound is pretty clear-cut hard rock – they have fun with what they’re doing, but I have to say that the show seemed to be a lot more about their moves than the music. The guitar lead plays a few fairly competent riffs, but the wide-legged stance and hair-whipping perhaps out-performs him; the drums lose tempo once or twice, but it’s honest enough anthem rock. Is it, however, unfair of me to say that halfway through the third song, after absently pondering on whom I was reminded of, I suddenly heard Alanis Morissette with extra balls? The vocalists’s voice is powerful, and people off-street gathered in crowds to peer through the windows (some even disappeared and returned with drinks) – it’s catchy and it’s initially salient, yes, but once I’d made that Alanis connection, I’m afraid that it didn’t go away. And then there’s this thing with the orgasm faces and the occasional intentional riding up of the skirt - cleverly done so the singer can snake her tattooed arm down her leg and straighten it out while she tightens her grip on the mike. Sneaky and well-executed, lady, but I totally see what you’re doing there!
Nah, look, I know what I sound like right now, but I get that Red Light has a very set performance and it undeniably gets a reaction out of the right crowds (but the Turtle wasn’t it) – from the lead sliding her hand up and down the guitarist’s waist to the back-to-back howling and the whipping of the blonde hair preceding the skinny-jeans-scissor kick: I’m pretty sure they know how gimmicky it is, but I also think it could be a pretty fun stage presence, and this act is probably going to grow amongst relevant fans in Cape Town.
Suddenly the stage is consumed by five kids with matching haircuts (using the E-word is, by now, becoming redundant) - it turns out the wee emo girl (ah, I said it anyway) I mentioned earlier is actually lead/back-up vocals to the band. So now we’re finally watching The Undefined!
According to their website they’ve actually been a busy bunch of bees and have done shows all over the country and people and fans have had all sorts of nice things to say about them. With a music video airing on MK and a gig on KTV under their belts, and Barney Simon being quoted as calling them “fucking awesome”, I guess this means they’re a pretty big deal in some circles!
They play their first song, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. Actually, it’s not their song, it’s a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knock-knock-knocking on…. Heaven’s doooor…”, yeah, that one, and I am left frowning into my beer. Is this an ironic set-up? They haven’t even made this song their own. They just sang it. They took a bland song, and they sang a bland song. What’s going to happen next? Perhaps this is a cunning trick to make anything they play afterwards a significant improvement, because they break for another twenty minutes and I sit trying to push the irritating song out of my head. Guerilla brain-washing tactics? I’m intrigued, but wary that I may be over-thinking this.
I take a moment to deviate again to their blurb on Facebook (in the future, Wikipedia, Google and Facebook will all become one bastard sandwich pumped into an intravenous drip inserted to us at birth – but that’s another story), wherein they declare themselves a “commercial hard rock / alternative rock / acoustic rock band….with such a diverse style, it is no wonder they are called The Undefined”. So, what I’d honestly read into this, if I didn’t know better, was that the band consists of a bunch of kids who can play other people’s songs really well.
Hmm. I’m not sure if this is a deserving gripe, but here goes. They are clearly not really about labeling themselves in terms of genre, but not because their songs are a unique blend of anything new and “indefinable” - I feel like I can define ‘em in one word. It’s because they play a slew of totally different songs; one of them is this whispered, groany lament while the guitars whine and the cymbals clash, the next one starts of with the wee girl scream-growling impressively and whipping her fringe - and then fades into a repertoire of luke-warm ballads. And here she’s bent double, with her fist bunched up against the side of the head as she twists her mouth in a very relatable gesture of pain, again and again. “Stage presence”, I suppose. Their website says they have “a knack for taking old and new songs alike and adding on that undefined spin, truly making it their own” – but they don’t. They play other people’s songs and they play songs that sound like some other songs.
Now, they are not necessarily bad songs, take note, it is clear that these guys have been playing together for a long time; The Undefined is notably a structured band, well-rehearsed and put together – but they do not stand out as being particularly unique to the act. They have their whole emo-look polished, but it’s like they’ve picked out every element of what makes a commercial rock song a commercial rock song, and written something for that, and then done the same for the rest of the “styles” of their set.
They did however surprise me by ending off with a genuine hardcore song, and whether you like the genre or not, it’s actually a pretty good one. The identical haircuts all head-bang in synch and the wee girl joins in the thrash-drumming fun by making an extra drum stick appear and bashing the cymbals while she jigs around on stage, and she unloads more of the screaming and growling she let us sample earlier on in the night – this really seems like something they can perpetuate and stick to – as in, finding something they can do well and make their own. So go for it! But then, what am I doing, really? Asking the world for more hardcore bands? No, I’m suggesting they craft their own style into what they do – not by singing classic songs a little faster or slower. Really, they do look like they have fun playing the songs they like and they’re apparently well-received by fans – I do, however, feel that this may be a sneaky ploy to please too many different crowds (which I’m sure it does, given the right audience).
It’s easy for me to pick on these guys the way I am because I don’t have a screaming wall of fans to make me re-align my paradigms. The honest truth is, I would like to see them perform in their respective elements and judge the crowd reaction to give them a fairer review, and I wish I could see more of the actual fans and how they react. In all likelihood I will probably end up making fun of even more people, and I might not actually change my mind about the music, but that’s just because I’d be that person cradling a beer with the label messily scratched off as an uneasy minority.
So. Band members and fans, you are probably not going to like me for this, but let me lay down my defense again for what I’ve written – you guys had the misfortune of being slapped into the setting of a shitty scenario, and also I’m an asshole. You are not terrible performers, but the venue was. With the exception of Labyrinth, garage-band newcomers (you’ll get there), Red Light in June and The Undefined have considerable support groups and from the looks of your fan pages and user comments, there’s love for you to be had. There exists an audience for both of you and from your respective performances; I think you are used to playing for a larger and genuinely appreciative audience.
So let’s get back to The Purple Turtle’s re-launch. I think the event expected the wrong crowd and booked the wrong bands, and did the wrong thing by making us think they were going back to their fabled roots. I think that my view of what could be pretty solid performances by bands I’d otherwise not mind too much, despite not being a particular fan of the genre, has been tainted by me getting a bran muffin instead of the fucking cake I ordered in the first place – but then, I didn’t order, and they didn’t specify.
I will not shun the Purple Turtle based on this. In fact, I look forward to seeing Them Tornadoes perform there this Saturday. And I do look forward to the fact the Purple Turtle now seems to be hosting regular gigs - but I will use discretion and, unless this place pulls out some new, magical stops, will attend the venue for the bands playing, and not for the excellent ambience and competitive beers-for-the-price-of-three. The launch did not strike me as a new venue for the Alternative Scene – it is, as I’ve said, a pub that has gigs now.
America’s (supposed) moon landing is not a memory that will be ever be mine, nor are the fabled olden days of the Purple Turtle.
-I hunger for your opinions! Did you think I was being mightily unfair, have totally missed something, or has this in any way eased out a small chuckle?
There’s a comment box below, and guess what, you can be as anonymous as you fucking want to be, drop some words!