In her new biography, 'Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine', author Donvé Lee has penned a moving picture of a singular South African singer-songwriter
When he died five years ago few would have been familiar with the music of Syd Kitchen. For those who did know him he remained the embodiment of the guitar hero folk muso who spent 40 years doing things his way, mostly without any real financial reward and impervious to the warnings from his friends of what his chain smoking, hard zolling, hard drinking ways would do to him.
Donvé Lee first met Kitchen in a cloud of marijuana smoke at a gig in Cape Town in 2001 - bonding over a mutual love of The Incredible String Band. Later he asked her if she'd write his biography one day and now she has, telling the story through his own words of the many different sides of a man who was "a saint, a scholar and a skollie".
Lee presents her subject as a man with a giant ego, who had little interest in taking the road well travelled and never cared too much for what anyone else thought of him - his life firmly directed by the only thing he had any talent for, playing the guitar and writing songs.
From his working-class childhood in Durban through to his first stabs at writing songs and his performances with his brother Pete as The Kitchen Brothers, Lee traces Kitchen's journey through the late 1960s folk scene to his brief tenure as the owner of a guitar shop before the release of Syd Kitchen and the Utensils' album Waiting for the Heave in 1987 and his subsequent recordings - often self-funded and self-distributed. Along the way he leaves behind many broken hearts, a child and whatever trappings of domestic suburban life he may have briefly established in his 20s.
His story is full of familiar names from the South African music scene - Dave Marks, Colin Shamley, Chris Prior, Richard Haslop, Madala Kunene - many of whom testify to the copious amounts of drugs and drink he consumed while still remaining in awe of his singular talents as a songwriter.
Throughout it all, Kitchen remains staunchly unapologetic for his ways and while he may occasionally acknowledge chaos left in his wake, his ego never quite allows him to dwell on what hurt he might have caused - and in the end even those to whom he was cruel seem to come around.
Like many potheads and autodidacts, Kitchen was a great raconteur with a wry sense of humour and a fondness for exaggeration. As one of his girlfriend's recalls: "He was a child and a wise old man all rolled into one. He liked the enchanting version of events. There was always an element of truth in what he said, though you never knew quite which bits to take with a pinch of salt."
LISTEN to Syd Kitchen's track Walking
By the time Kitchen enjoys a few moments of success in his 50s, travelling to New York and Europe, recording a song on a John Martyn tribute album - it's tinged by his stubborn refusal to do anything about his health and his eventual death from lung cancer at the age of 60.
Ultimately, Lee's book is a bittersweet testimony to an undeniably singular songwriting talent who did it his way. You have to believe that Kitchen would have been happy with her efforts - but as with all things Syd related - you never can tell.
•'Syd Kitchen: Scars that Shine' by Donvé Lee is published by Tracey Macdonald Publishers, R260.
• This article was originally published in The Times.