The indomitable Jim Neversink
By Robert Laing
It's 5AM in the Bohemian. My plan had been to have one beer with Jim Neversink after Rokkeloos finished playing. Jim tells great stories, both in his songs and at a bar counter. Time and alcohol just vanish. The day before I'd popped in to give him a copy of an interview we had done for a Johannesburg community radio station. Yesterday I ended up getting home after 4AM.
My radio idea is to play tracks off local CDs and have the song writer explain the stories behind them. Jim Neversink's debut CD is my current favourite, and I approached him after a performance at back2basix and asked if he would be willing to record a pilot show at community radio station 1485AM. Not only did he pitch, he was there before me. The stories behind his songs are truly fascinating. A one hour radio interview somehow turned into two consecutive all-night drinking sessions.
"We've decided you're not Jim Neversink," the Bohemian's booking agent Wouda jokes. "You're Jim Neverleave."
To survive as a local musician, Jim works there during the day as a barman.
It's Saturday morning. At least I can spend the day recuperating. Jim, on the other hand, is headlining the White Mountain Music Festival in the Drakensberg tonight.
Jim calls his sound "loserbilly". It's part country, part punk — a South African specialty pioneered by the Radio Rats. His song Palomino Gold Dust Saloon is about a bar in a Durban hotel where he saw James Phillips and the Lurchers play. That performance made Jim decide to play rock 'n roll. He played in Famous Curtain Trick for seven years, got disillusioned with music, and then re-emerged as Jim Neversink.
There's been enough pain and heartache in Jim Neversink's life to keep Oprah busy for weeks. Before going through this catalogue of woe, it's important to stress that Jim is no whiner looking for sympathy. He's a very entertaining guy.
While growing up, he went through the trauma of a father committing suicide not just once, but twice. His adoptive dad killed himself, and he later discovered his biological dad did too. He also lost an eye in a childhood accident. That's why he learned to play guitar. Doctors told him he needed to look down for several weeks to save his retina.
He had a girlfriend, who'd jolled at CBGBs in New York where she became Lenny Kaye's lover, who died from drugs. Jim's line in Angel "Your hair falls out like hay" isn't metaphorical, that's what happened before she died. I thought Angel and Moving In were simply about geographically separated lovers getting back together. A willingness to give up everything to join a lover "miles and miles away" sounded sweet, until it hit me she's not miles and miles away, she's six foot under. He'd be getting an angel because she's dead.
More recently, he had a claustrophobia-induced nervous breakdown. Prisoners he was teaching music locked him in a toilet as a joke. He picked his stage name as a personal commitment to never sink that low again.
From this cauldron of suffering, a great album has emerged — perhaps the best original new songs in the world right now. Morrissey and Lloyd Cole have listed themselves as fans on www.myspace.com/westernworld, or so Jim's cousin Katherine Hunt who is his band's webmistress as well as violinist and bass player tells him. He can't afford a computer.
The importance of Jim Neversink and Rokkeloos was revealed to me by a web gig-guide I started as a hobby, www.joeblog.co.za. My server logs provide me with a completely different picture of the popularity of local bands than that given by our commercial radio stations. Rokkeloos is far away the most searched for band, with Jim Neversink a distant second. No-one would ever guess South Africa has a vibrant rock scene from listening to 5FM or Highveld.
Rokkeloos are the reason I'm beating my brains with liquor and no sleep for a second night in a row. The many people Jim introduced me to yesterday included Rokkeloos's spunky lead singer and writer Petro. She combines the best of Madonna, Debbie Harry, and Koos Kombuis. "You must watch this band," Jim insisted. Rokkeloos are brilliant and deserve their own feature. I'll write it once I recover from this hangover.
The suicides of his two fathers bookend his album. The opening lines of the first track Western World "If I had a gun right now, I wouldn't even waste a page" alludes to suicide notes that don't get written to help those left behind understand why. The final track Always Dreaming of You is an elegy for his adoptive father Geoff Whitehead.
His song Ride Ride Ride is about cop-turned-bank-robber André Stander. When he discovered his line "Maybe someday they'll make a movie of my life" was prophetic, he pitched the song for the soundtrack of Stander. But just as they cast an American who couldn't do an Afrikaans accent to play the lead, they botched the movie with American music.
If you listen closely to Angel, you can hear crickets chirping in the background.
"That dates back to the beginning, when there was just me in my bedroom recording my songs."
His cousin Katherine, a classically trained violinist, added the mournful strings to Angel and other tracks. She recruited her boyfriend Matthew Fink, whose day job is engineering records for the likes of Steve Hofmeyr, to produce the Jim Neversink CD as well as play guitar and accordion in the band.
An ad that drummer Warrick Poultney placed in a music shop impressed them. His influences included Television, The Ramones, The Patti Smith Group... all the stuff the rest of the band loved. Warrick had waited over a year for a band with similar taste to call, and was just about to sell his drum kit and give up.
Before I watched Jim Neversink and his band perform live the first time, I'd just read an article in The Village Voice about CBGBs in its heyday. The article, coincidently, was written by Lenny Kaye, a member of The Patti Smith Group and ex-lover of the love of Jim's youth who inspired his most morbid and macabre lyrics. The Jim Neversink band headlined a Nu Folk festival at back2basix that day. While all the acts were good, Jim's band stood out by being more than technically sound musicians, they were interesting performers to watch. It made me think this is what it must have been like to watch a band like the Talking Heads play at CBGBs before they got famous.
My first impression was his otherwise stunning album was let-down by a lousy cover, a badly lit photo of a man in a bar. But now I understand how integral bars are to Jim Neversink.
In Joburg, a musician this talented has to work as a barman at the Bohemian during the day to survive. He's an aficionado of gritty barroom yarns, dry one line jokes, and pick-up lines, and says he loves the job. His alternative would be to perform music he doesn't like. For a purist, being a barman is better.
Jim's real name is Michael Whitehead. When I asked him which he prefers to be called, he replied: "After five, I'm Jim".
His catchiest song in my opinion is Mail-order Russian Bride. Mail-order brides are a running gag of his. We're chatting up a pretty girl who has just arrived from Australia. Jim turns to me and says: "I just sent off this e-mail, and look, here she is. And she is stunning!"
One of the things that makes drinking with Jim so entertaining is his efforts to charm the pants off any attractive woman nearby. A drawback of this hobby is a wake of ex-girlfriends who feel jilted and vengeful.
These include the booking agent of the venue he enjoyed performing in most, making Gauteng's sparse selection of places where local musicians can play even more of a starvation diet for him.
He recounts the revenge attacks done on him, but misses a story I recall reading in Business Day. It was a review of an art exhibition where the artist turned the personal SMSs Jim sent her into a painting.
Jim rolls his eyes, but art attacks are the least of his troubles. A blond sidles up looking stunningly attractive to me, but then I'm not a spoiled rock star. Jim brusquely tells her to go away — which leaves me gobsmacked coming from somebody so unfailingly polite.
"She organised two champion kick-boxers to kick me in the head. And I already have one brain tumour."
The blond has moved to the other end of the bar. I glance at her face. There's a scheming smile. I read in it more painful material for a loserbilly song coming Jim's way.
- Calabashmusic: Track Downloads
- Tonight 29 March 2006: Album Review
- The Weekender 8 April 2006 — Jim Neversinks rare appeal
Author: , 19 July 2007
WOW what a story! His music and set up make some much sense to me now!! Was listening to his song on the new Cellardoor Live cd..... thought hmmm ... catchy.... but never listened to the words..... now when i listen to it again -- it will mean something different!
Nice article - Thanks
Jim neversink - you guys rock!!!!
Author: Uni, 5 June 2008
I first met Michael (or was it Jim - it was after 5) - and when he mentioned his band plays alt-country, I thought what is this guy on? Dragged a friend along to go see a gig they did at the Tanz Cafe, and was truly impressed, I went out and bought the CD. Only my 2nd local CD bought, so I was impressed. Used to see them play alot at the bo, haven't been in a while, bu I'll be sure to look out for their new stuff. My favourite tune is still 2 star ride. Great stuff guys.
Author: Piet Croucamp, 11 July 2008
At last a fuckin musician with a personality...
Author: Shawn Phillips, 19 January 2009
I spent an afternoon with Jim,)Michael), at my brother-in-law's house in Melville not long ago. He may work in bars, and play in them, but that, in fact, is the last place he should be playing. He should be headlining major festivals, and concert venues throughout the country, and the rest of the world. He is a beckoning light in a world of unmeasurable superficiality. More people listen to musicians than any other voice there is. We are those people, and he fulfills the requirements we need most today. He not only entertains, he enlightens. And that folks, is the bottom line.
Thanks Shawn and Joe.
Author: Jim Neversink, 19 January 2009
Shawn, I've been trying to reach you for a while,you said that you are on facebook...but where ?
I'll phone your brother-in-law, perhaps he knows.
Hope all well with you my friend. Thanks for the nice words.
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