Conversations in community: Rock the hill

25 August 2015
Rockabilly baby: Julian Mayer (64) weekend muso, guitarist (with his 1972 Fender Jazz bass and 1920 His Master's Voice gramophone), collector and principal technical officer in mechanical engineering. Photographed above Madiba Drive, upper campus.
Rockabilly baby: Julian Mayer (64) weekend muso, guitarist (with his 1972 Fender Jazz bass and 1920 His Master's Voice gramophone), collector and principal technical officer in mechanical engineering. Photographed above Madiba Drive, upper campus.

In the third of our new series getting to know the people of UCT, Helen Swingler interviewed rockabilly guitarist and musical and vintage mechanical curiosities collector Julian Mayer, who is also principal technical officer in mechanical engineering

Walk by Julian Mayer's office any lunchtime and you'll likely hear him "noodling about" on an unplugged 1972 Fender Jazz bass guitar, as he's doing now, amid vintage radiograms and clocks and a workbench strung with soldering irons and bits of electrical wire.

A weekend musician, Mayer also uses the guitar to demonstrate wave propagation to engineering students.

Now he's testing a melody, playing by ear, and a refrain emerges.

'It wasn't roaring, it was weeping.'

His fingers float over the strings, searching out chords.

"Beautiful," he says.

Engineering alumnus Dan Heymann's protest song, Weeping, was first recorded with Bright Blue in 1987 and voted all-time favourite South African song by readers of the South African Rock Encyclopaedia.

"It's the best song to come out of South Africa," says Mayer the rockabilly. It's a genre that grew out of the earliest styles of rock and roll, the Elvis era of the 50s, and married to rhythm and blues – and a bit of country.

Forget the stars-and-stripes tag that's associated with 'country', says Mayer. For him, country music is the music of the place.

Country and country rock are big themes in his life right now. After pressing pause on years of bands and part-time gigs, his music career has just been retreaded thanks to a chance meeting and a compelling invitation.

But more on that later.

Rockabilly, collectorbilly

He picks up a 1970 Taylor, another vintage guitar. "I'm not a hoarder," he says, plunk-plunking on the Taylor. "I'm a collector. Collectors have a very specific psychological profile. Some are compensating for some dire disappointment in their past."

One can sense a lyric coming, and Mayer improvises at once: "My wife left me and took my dawg, my car and my Bible. Man, I miss that dawg."

Music offsets his mechanical brain, which has also helped teach thousands of UCT students during his 37 years here.

Mechanical music

When he started at UCT in 1978, the electronic store was small. Now it's very hi-tech and Mayer has become something of an electronics expert, contributing a series of modules to the introductory engineering course.

"I get the students building small electronic amplifiers, little audio amps, so they get their hands on a soldering iron and a printed circuit board. They're amazed at what comes out of it."

He pops the metal clasp on an old leather case. The lid leans back on a 1920 His Master's Voice wind-up gramophone. Mayer lowers the needle onto the 78 rpm Bakelite record, as it follows a wobbly orbit. Bing Crosby sings White Christmas as if from the bottom of a wastepaper basket.

"The kids can't believe it's completely mechanical. No electronics."

He learnt to operate a gramophone before he could walk. His Polish mother, a classical pianist, inspired a love of music and he grew locked into the joys of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor. He took violin lessons and developed a "very, very good ear", but his German father pooh-poohed the idea of a boy with a bow.

When his sister abandoned her guitar, Mayer got his break.

"I taught myself slowly. I mean the 'blues rock' era had just started and the guitar playing was fundamental – if you practised long enough you could play Shadows songs. Even a spotty kid like me with a wooden guitar was suddenly in huge demand."

As a student, his first paid gig at R14 a night was singing and playing solo in the revolving restaurant atop the old Ritz Plaza Hotel in Sea Point. He played in a thousand places – "every genre of music from heavy metal to German oompah".

A self-taught bass guitarist, Mayer played for Bagatelle but switched for a while to guitar to perform with Bitter Creek, a tribute band that played exclusively Eagles music.

"I eventually wound up playing in a very noisy 'hard rock' band until I realised that my hearing was deteriorating and I was developing tinnitus, so in 2012 played my last loud gig."

Rocking Nairobi

Then came a chance meeting with Tony Ridgway of Rocking Horse fame. Mayer had played in this country-rock band three decades before. And they invited him back for a concert to celebrate their 30th anniversary. A couple of months later, this gig in Nairobi came up.

The band was booked as the closing act at Kenya's first-ever country music festival, Boots & Hats, organised by South African country star CC Lamondt, now living in Nairobi.

Lamondt had also invited artists from Mozambique and the DRC and had organised a huge set and sound, lighting and rigging crews.

So on a hot March night at Nairobi's Ngong Racecourse, a place of meagre grey-green grass and dust, Mayer swung his Fender Bass around his neck and walked onto a stage, swimming in light, every amplified sound ripping the dark.

The band had started with three acoustic guitars playing Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson and was now three songs in when Mayer and keyboard player Tony Drake were cued on stage.

"We went up and it was solid. We'd worked hard and every note, every harmony was on the button."

Locals in Stetson hats and Laredo-style boots with metal toecaps were on their feet.

"It blew my mind."

Perhaps it's that Nairobi is an unlikely hub for boots-and-hats culture. The New York Times' East Africa correspondent Isma'il Kushkush thought it worth a look and interviewed the band.

With a 30th anniversary Rocking Horse CD in the making and a possible audience growing in Kenya, all Mayer is missing are cowboy boots. He seems resigned to owning some.

Would he do another concert in Nairobi? He looks incredulous.

"Of course! I've got nine-and-a-half years left on my yellow-fever injection!"

Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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