(This piece first appeared on thesewalkingblues.com)
I’ll be frank with you. Steven ‘Joff’ Carter is not just another one of those absurdly talented artists and musicians that I admire (and envy) from afar. Yes, he is of course absurdly talented. That goes without saying. But to me, he is also a friend of the highest order. When I was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I lost a lot of people in my life. Many were awkward. Many tiptoed around the subject. And many avoided me altogether. Joff, however, was undeterred. He was there every day, twice a day, for the two months I was hospitalised, bearing little treats and reading material from the outside world. He wasn’t looking to be any hero. That’s just the kind of guy he is. The world may be going mad, but the centre holds with him.
To be fair though, this is not the tale I tell when I try to convey his Joffness. The tale I tell is of one man and a suicidal Khoi fish. It all began one cold winter’s morning. Steven ‘Joff’ Carter hit the snooze button on his alarm clock. It was a morning like any other winter’s morning, except this time his sleep was interrupted yet again, his mother shouting from the door as she left for work, “One of the fucking Khoi fish died.” As he was himself leaving home two hours later, he thoughtfully considered the sad little fish flaccid on the grass about a meter from the pond. In no hurry, he picked it up, dusted the grass off its scales and began to move it steadily through the water. He noticed a subtle movement in the creature and half an hour in, it began to swim, though slowly. Tragically, the poor thing did not last longer than a couple of days after its ordeal. But Joff remains the only man I know to have resuscitated a fish.
So don’t be fooled by his quiet and unassuming nature. This is a man who has lived the kind of life that breeds incredible stories. You only need to coax them out of him with a bottle of whiskey and a night by the fireside. Perhaps then he will tell you of the life he lived with manual labourers from the eastern block in Europe when he was 18… Of the people who had come from little, people with character, people who appreciated hard work and did not need all that excessive luxury to be happy. He will surely tell you, as he stares off wistfully into the distance, whiskey in hand, that those two years of caravan-living on a farm with these folk changed him forever. And you will see it for yourself when you find that his home is littered with tubes of oil paint and worn-out brushes, those creature-comforts few and far between, a pantry filled with potatoes and baked beans and little else.
Or perhaps he will tell you of his travels in Asia for seven months, of the adventures he had, the beauty he beheld, all on a shoe-string budget. He will no doubt tell you that he longed to go somewhere culturally different to what he’d known, somewhere that would deliver him from home comforts. If he is on his third whiskey, he may even tell you that his life hung in the balance when he returned home… Of how he lay bed bound for a year, having contracted a virus while on his travels… Of how his body began to deteriorate, while his vision became blurry, and the weight began to fall off him steadily each day. He might tell you of the doctor who saved his life, of his slow but reassuring path to recovery. No more would he go back to the 9 to 5 life of solely an animator that he had been living before his trip to Asia. His song-writing, his graffiti art, his oil painting, these he would now embrace with all the fervour of a man given a second chance to pursue his calling.
There is only one subject Steven ‘Joff’ Carter will remain evasive on, as the night begins to wear thin and the whisky bottle emptied. If you ask after his enduring love of hats, he will tell you only this, “I got a head full of lightning and a hat full of rain.”
But if you do not have the good fortune to ever encounter this man, you need only listen to the lyrics of his songs, songs written for the people he has met along the way and loved ones lost, songs of the broken-hearted as songs so often are. You need only stare into the haunting eyes he paints, eyes that speak from a place of knowing, a place of untold truths. You need only walk past his graffiti brazenly declaring itself on a few squares of cold concrete. There you will know that his spirit has been. There you will find a piece of this worldly soul. And it is you, this time, who just may be forever changed.