“No, woman, no cry” is not a happy song. It’s based on the time that Bob Marley spent in a housing project (the Government Yard) in a ghetto called Trenchtown, in Kingston, Jamaica. The singer is comforting a woman (no-one has ever worked out who). He’s using an isolated, intimate moment to highlight the deprivation and hopelessness and grind of poverty. It’s sad and it’s haunting, and coupled with the soaring melody, it should strike a chord in the hardest of hearts.
Well bugger Bob Marley . That’s not what it was about where I come from. Where I come from, an entire generation sat down and listened to the song and didn’t hear “No, woman, don’t cry.” We heard “If you don’t have a girlfriend, you’re never going to be sad!” Excellent! It was happy song! Bob Marley was a witty little jokester!
And so a curious phenomenon arose. When “No, woman, no cry” came on late at night in a pub or a club, everyone paused whatever they were doing and sang along in raucous, boozy voices. And when they got to the chorus of this hauntingly personal protest song, the decibels rose a little; “NO WOMAN NO CRY” and every time Bob reached the end of the line, comforting his mysterious companion and challenging the world with her pain, we assembled worthies would echo back with a rumbling crash “BullSHIT!”
Sorry Bob. We’ve all grown up, and we know what you meant now. We’ll never do it again. But a quiet little part of me hopes that we have been replaced; that another generation of ignorant buffoons has shuffled in behind our dusty old bars and plonked down on our sticky naugahyde chairs and sit there still, raising their faces to the sky and echoing through time “BullSHIT!” The world needs its harmless buffoons.
South Africans tend not to be sing-alongy people. We’re not really into standing in groups, left arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, right arms swinging foaming beermugs as we belt out drinking songs. That’s just not who we are. So the chance to let go, and loosen up, and feel an odd sense of camaraderie with a bunch of strangers is invaluable, and justifies our delayed understanding of old Bob.
We need have no such concerns for Smokie. Smokie is an English rock band who were big in the 70’s. Their biggest hit was a song called ”Living Next Door to Alice”. The singer has had a lifelong crush on his neighbour, and now she’s leaving. It’s not a great song. It’s not even a good song. By rights, it should have disappeared into the dustbin of music history. Except for a rather curious phenomenon.
If you play the song to a bar-full of South Africans, or Australians, or New Zealanders, something odd happens. You have to wait for the chorus to see it. As the band hits the line “and for 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice”, the entire bar will turn around and shout “Alice? ALICE? WHO THE F*CK IS ALICE?”
I have no idea why we do this. I was a bit too young when the song came out. Maybe there was some incident or a parody version or something. Or maybe it’s just one of those things. What I do know is that we love doing it so much that it has kept the song alive. Smokie still comes out here on tour. It must be a surreal experience, creaking up onto stage nearly forty years later to crank out the same damn song while a mass of hoarsely ragged voices screams back “Alice? ALICE? WHO THE F*CK IS ALICE?” I suppose it’s a living.
All these years later, they’re going to get me into trouble. I don’t have a CD player in my car, and the radio is tuned into a talk station so I can listen to the news, because I’m middle aged now, and when the music shows play Skrillex I think there’s something wrong with my brake-pads.
Which is all very well, but on the weekends they turn themselves into an easy-listening music channel. It’s horrific. They play stuff like Barry Manilow and Englebert Humperdink. And they play “Living Next Door to Alice”. One of these days, they’re going to play it when I’ve got my kids in the car. And like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I’m not going to be able to overcome years of conditioning, and will belt out the unofficial refrain.
I just hope I’m not there when my little four-year-old runs in and tugs her mother by the dress and and blurts out “Mommy. Mommy! MOMMY! Daddy wants to know who the f*ck Alice is!”