By Jennifer Platt for The Sunday Times
Here I Am
PJ Powers with Marianne Thamm (Penguin)
**** (four stars)
Penelope Jane Dunlop. PJ Powers. Thandeka. The making of this musical sensation – from a middle-class white girl to the much-loved singer who was embraced in the townships – is echoed in South Africa’s own freedom fairytale.
Her book, carefully constructed with Marianne Thamm, grips you from the opening chapter. PJ Powers is woken from a stupor by uncontrollable shaking. She’s in her bed in a rented townhouse in Fourways – “wearing the same clothes for days on end” – surrounded by empty bottles of vodka. She is jonesing for her fix. Eventually she manages to crawl out of bed to the bathroom where she finds a half-empty can of hairspray. PJ ingests it – it contains alcohol. She collapses and is rushed to the hospital by her sister Priscilla, who saves her life. The Schadenfreude is as delicious as usual, reading about a great fall.
But then you get to know the real PJ, youngest child in a family of four, and, the Schadenfreude dissipates, and what you’re left with is sheer admiration for this determined person who knew what she wanted to do since she was five years old.
In 1978, she was seventeen. Penelope left Durban for the bright lights of Hillbrow, where people, “could forget, if only momentarily, that they lived in repressive, conservative and deeply-divided South Africa,” and “to reinvent themselves”. She was then the lead singer in an all-girl group, Pantha. They wanted to follow in the footsteps of Clout, the band that had huge success with the hit song Substitute. Managed by Eddie Eckstein, Pantha moved into the Hyde Park Hotel, where they were booked to play a regular gig. But they were terrible! And soon found themselves homeless and jobless. They managed to get another gig at the Bella Napoli in Hillbrow and a flat in Ponte Tower. A couple of band members started dating, which was PJ’s first introduction to the lesbian scene. Oblivious to the fact she was one herself, she said to Eckstein, “Eddie, we can’t have lesbians in the band! It’s disgusting! Fire them!” To which he responded, “People have choices, get over it!”
Eventually, it was Eckstein who was fired: the band felt it was his fault they’d had a series of bad gigs. PJ, having met Mike Fuller briefly before, decided to give him a call. Thus began the love/hate relationship that has followed her throughout the ups and downs of her career. And PJ holds no punches to describe what really is a rock ’n roll cliché: a manager who takes advantage of a talented young performer. Today, she is still in legal battles with Fuller, trying to get back the publishing rights to all her music.
The meat and heart of this book is PJ’s transformation into Thandeka, which gave her an incredible sense of self and homecoming. She is first called the name at a concert in Soweto, in 1982. Frontlining Hotline, she and the all-white male band have had an inexplicable hit with You’re So Good To Me on the Radio Zulu charts and are subsequently invited to perform at Jabulani Stadium in Orlando. They are overwhelmed by the reception they receive from the 40 000-strong crowd (packed into a 30 000-seat stadium). The event also saw the birth of her most famous hit – Jabulani. Her fellow band member George van Dyk penned the song three years later, celebrating the day.
Despite the fame, PJ fell on bad times, essentially because she didn’t take responsibility for her finances. The lows are low: performing at a Bears furniture store in unglamorous Estcourt. The highs, very high: outperforming Eric Clapton at a concert in Maputo. “According to the local newspapers I ‘stole’ the show from Clapton, which I have to admit I did.”
Her biography is packed with personal detail, from battling with weight issues and her alcoholism to trying to navigate her relationships with various women, to her relationship with Madiba. What most impresses, though, is the honesty with which she tells her story – even if, at times, it sometimes comes across as blowing her own horn. Thandeka remains the loved one.
Follow Jennifer on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt
- Here I Am by PJ Powers and Marianne Thamm
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Image courtesy of Fiona Macphearson