REGAN THAW: A moment of nostalgia during COVID-19


All we have is time these days. Plenty of it can take our minds to nostalgic places. That, too, we have in abundance. Nostalgia over eating out, free from the anxiety over whether or not that extra helping of fries will come with some added coronavirus; perhaps a yearning to get back to the gym (remember those incubators of athlete's foot?) Soft memories of our children before they transformed into feral woodland creatures under the lockdown.

From memories of my late sister, the smell of my daughter as a baby, to my discarded Masters of the Universe action figures (thanks, mom!) and live music concerts; my mind has been saturated with the past, bringing with it an appreciation of what many of us took for granted.

Nostalgia led me to memories of a 16-year-old version of myself who dared to travel from nowhere Kimberley to the Big Smoke that is Joburg to see a band I’d been worshipping since I was a young child.

Nineteen-ninety-four was not only a milestone for South Africa. I turned 16 that year, and as a sweet 16-esque birthday gift to myself to mark arriving at a new stage of awkward puberty, I used my pocket-money to buy a ticket to a Depeche Mode concert. There wasn’t a chance in hell I was going to miss them. My idolising of the band may have bothered my parents somewhat. The dirge of Depeche Mode’s dark electro grooves seeping from behind my closed bedroom door for hours on end must’ve been irritating. Posters of the band plastered over the crucifix my mother put up on a wall in my bedroom in the hope I'd "come right" was interpreted as a teenager going astray.

In the days before online bookings, it was a phone call to an aunt, who lived in Johannesburg, requesting her to physically purchase a ticket that marked my first step to taking my Depeche Mode obsession to a new stage. I recall a "Yes! Thanks, Aunty Steph" bursting from my mouth after she called me back to confirm I was good to go.

Ticket purchased, all that was left was to actually get to Joburg. That's where puppy dog eyes and the return of "mommy, daddy" to my parlance came in handy. How could any parent deny their child such an experience? This must've been the thought that occurred to mine, along with apprehension, as the parent-child negotiating opened. I'd already prepared my response should their's have been in the negative: a storming off to my bedroom, a loud bang of the door and the volume on my cassette tape deck turned as high as it could go, followed by, well, hours of Depeche Mode's dark electro-grooves seeping under the door. Good thing my parents had hearts and realised the danger of denying me this dream.

The weekend of the concert arrived and the three of us embarked on what, for me, was tantamount to a religious pilgrimage. Much of the five-hour drive was spent in the company of my dad complaining about Depeche Mode blaring from the car's tape player. "Depeche Mode? It's more like 'Depressed Mod'," he'd bark, poking the radio in search of his aural relief. I was daydreaming in the backseat of my first ever concert.

Arriving in Johannesburg was an experience unto itself. The highways whizzing with life. Even the buildings intimidated me. But the real intimidation was yet to come. We had very little time to acclimatise. My mom's nerve's had been gradually fraying; her 'baby' was to be freed (that's how I saw it), all so he could hear some live music. To her, it must've felt as if I was being sacrificed. The altar lay ahead of me.

The Standard Bank Stadium, as it was known then, was located in downtown Joburg, which already then was in decline. The drive into the heart of the city was in itself stressful, for a family of out-of-towners from the sticks. The stadium gaped at us as my mom, holding my hand, me almost recoiling in embarrassment; rushed us through the throngs of people. Muttering "my God" to herself, she weaved us through the masses. I couldn't contain my smile. Stern warnings, a hug and my mother set me free.

In my oversized Doc Martens and freshly washed Levis, I clomped to the merchandise stand. A memento was in order. As I type I'm holding the T-shirt I bought that evening. The threadbare, musty-smelling but priceless piece of clothing might very well follow me to the grave. It takes me straight back to the seat, way back in a corner of a cavernous stadium, heaving with carbon dioxide, sweat and thousands of fellow fans. A far, far cry from the anxiety that will accompany us these days when (if) we are eventually allowed back into public spaces like stadiums to watch bands.

There I sat, all by myself, awaiting the moment I could lay eyes on a band I first saw on a grainy VHS tape recording of a 1986 'Top of the Pops' episode where lead singer Dave Gahan, in a black leather jacket, flanked by his band members put his spell on me. Surrounded by strangers, a country bumpkin 16-year-old's face started hurting from smiling so much as lights lit up the stage, thousands of people erupted into cheers and tens of thousands of memories were born.

I sang, danced, albeit devoid of rhythm, and maybe even shed a tear that night. It's stayed with me for decades, and I'll never let it go.

Now, more than ever, we should cling to nostalgia. For many it may be the only lifebuoy we have in these dark times, as we drift further away from that previous life. If we never return to that old normal, my disappointment at being robbed of a chance to experience live music again, on any scale, will be slightly soothed by that evening.

Regan Thaw is an EWN/CapeTalk news anchor. You can follow him on Twitter.