I became a fan of Johnny Clegg and Savuka when MTV actually gave the video for “Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World”—the title track of their 1989 album—a decent amount of airplay (oddly enough, it was not from hearing it in the 1990 Dana Carvey film Opportunity Knocks or the following year’s Career Opportunities with Jennifer Connelly). I bought the cassette and played it constantly. Eventually, I dove deeper into his vast catalog and developed a stronger respect and admiration for Clegg and his work, both musically and as an activist.
Since 2014, I was fortunate enough to see him perform three times—including his final Philly-area show in 2017 during his “Final Journey” tour (which I was able to share with my wife, Alison).
Now, there are a lot of older music acts doing “farewell” or “final” tours these days, but they seem to keep adding legs to them years after they started. But in Clegg’s case, the finality was brought on by a long battle with pancreatic cancer. The end was likely near, and he wanted one more chance to say goodbye to his fans before spending whatever time he had left with his family and his causes.
That end came earlier this week. Johnny Clegg died Tuesday, July 16, at the age of 66.
I heard the news on WXPN Tuesday afternoon and it absolutely gutted me even though I knew it was coming sooner rather than later. I just thought he would have a little more time. Clegg was one of my musical heroes and the world needs voices like his right now. The universe is a much poorer place without him.
But to put it in perspective, he didn’t just gain a couple of extra years from his cancer treatments. He was living on borrowed time since the late 1980s.
As a white anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, Clegg’s life was always at risk. As Savuka were working on the Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World album in early 1989, a number of anti-apartheid activists, including Clegg’s friend and fellow anthropologist* David Webster, were assassinated.
(*Yes, Johnny Clegg was a professor of anthropology in South Africa before he left academia behind to be a trailblazing musician. But the great thing about the shows I saw was that the between-song banter were mini history and anthropology lectures. Johnny Clegg’s concerts were among the best I have ever seen.)
So while I had been enjoying the upbeat “Cruel, Crazy World” since first hearing it in 1989, it wasn’t until around seven years ago that I finally realized the heartbreakingly sad truth of the song. Clegg’s first son Jesse was born in 1988. A year later, people like Clegg were getting murdered and he felt he was next. The song was written as a farewell gift to his young son in case something happened. Fortunately, it didn’t. But as it turns out, I discovered this right after I had become a father for the first time so it became very difficult, emotionally, for me to listen to the song for some time.
Here is Johnny Clegg and his band with an amazing performance of “Cruel, Crazy Beautiful World” at the 46664 Arctic concert in 2005. It was part of a series of AIDS benefit concerts in honor of Nelson Mandela.
Flash-forward to 2017 and Jesse Clegg, now a successful singer-songwriter in South Africa with a more traditional pop-rock vibe, writes a song to record as a duet with his father on his final album, King of Time.
Jesse opened for his dad when I saw him in 2014 and again on the “Final Journey” tour in 2017. Seeing them perform “I’ve Been Looking” together brought my Johnny Clegg fandom around full circle, as the song that introduced me to him was written specifically for Jesse.
I’ve always loved Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s “The Crossing (Osiyeza)” from the 1993 album Heat, Dust and Dreams. The song is dedicated to assassinated Savuka bandmate and Zulu dance partner Dudu Zulu, and the original studio version features The Hooters’ Eric Bazilian on mandolin so there is even a Philly connection. It’s a beautiful song and I’ve always thought about recording a cover of it, but I wasn’t really confident in singing the Zulu lyrics in the choruses. But I wanted to do something as a tribute and to address the loss personally, so I recorded it anyway. Hopefully, any flubs and/or mispronunciations will be forgiven.
For comparison, here is the original video for the studio version. I took some liberties with the bridge because I went with a slower tempo and something closer to the original just wasn’t working so I went a slightly different way with it.
And here is a cover recorded last year by a group called Friends of Johnny Clegg as both a tribute and a fundraiser for literacy and education programs in South Africa, a cause championed by Johnny Clegg. The ensemble features Jesse Clegg and a number of South African all-star musicians. But Americans will recognize appearances by Dave Matthews (at 2:38) in the second verse, and Mike Rutherford (guitar solo at 3:41) and Peter Gabriel (first heard at 3:55 and seen at 3:59) in the bridge.
Speaking of Peter Gabriel, he issued a statement upon the passing of Johnny Clegg that read, in part:
His love of all things Zulu was obvious and his beautiful Mandela tribute, ‘Asimbonanga’, along with his regular high-kicking Zulu war dance won him millions of new fans both black and white. Even in his last few months, despite his illness, he was still devoting himself to raising money and supporting kids literacy programs with his own foundation. He will be remembered for all his soulful music and a very big heart.
– Peter Gabriel
I hope a better version of this becomes available at some point, but below is a video retrospective that was shown before Johnny Clegg and his band took the stage during his “Final Journey” tour. It is a fitting way to end this brief tribute to an extraordinary human being.
RIP, Johnny Clegg. You will be missed and remembered for a long, long time.
(Featured image via Friends of Johnny Clegg.)