Some Parts of the World Pt. 4
More from the Netherlands' city center
8:52AM, Wed. Jun. 8, 2011
The big news here is that [Ratko] Mladić is finally in the Hague to stand trial for genocide and war crimes. It’s a bit strange staying in a city the world is watching but not hearing or seeing any news media that I can understand.
And unlike Italy, where I could understand at least some of the headlines and signs thanks to years of Spanish in Texas schools, we mostly find ourselves looking for graphic hints rather than trying to decipher unpronounceable Dutch street names.
The experience at the shows is just the opposite. In Italy, we had to move quickly from song to song – banter was totally lost on most of the audiences we performed for – whereas in the Netherlands, almost everyone speaks some English and understands the jokes. The lack of language barrier seems to lead inevitably to talk about politics.
One night this week, Doug and I stayed with a friendly couple who ushered us in, shared their wine, and started talking music. Ten minutes later, our host announced, “I hate America. I hate Americans, I hate capitalism, and I hate American music.”
Really though, he was a gracious and friendly host to us. He showed us his beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, fed us a generous breakfast, made sure we were comfortable in his guest rooms, accepted our CDs as gifts. He said he’d give them a listen, even though we make “American music.” (Doug protests, “I’m Canadian!”)
In the Hague, it’s a little more obvious why the Dutch could have hard feelings. Right in the middle of this international city’s center stands the awkward U.S. Embassy, choking up traffic and surrounded by what looks like temporary fencing that is too high to be attractive. There are obvious armed guards posted in little booths in front and across the street. No other embassy in the city looks like it, and apparently there’s been an agreement to move the Embassy out of the city center. It’s become a visible symbol of a bullying presence.
Of course, not everyone feels this way toward the U.S., or the music from across the Atlantic. In the Hague, we stayed with my friend Fred, who writes for a Dutch music site. He and his spirited wife Gineke have played host to many of our friends over the years, and they are a well-traveled pair. They’ve been to several continents and have probably stayed in more of the fifty states than most U.S. citizens. His music library is extensive, as is his accompanying knowledge – like most serious Americana fans here, he reminds me of those great (and increasingly rare) radio deejays, the ones who have committed thousands of pages of liner notes to memory and have met so many troubadours over the years that the stories aren’t all second-hand.
And our next host, from whose amazing home I started typing this entry, has apparently spent his life on passionate pursuits, one of which is great food (hurrah for us!), another of which is collecting. His collections are vast: tens of thousands of music CDs, almost all of which are great and/or important for some reason; hundreds of great movies; live music DVDs; graphic novels; books about World War I, psychology, poetry, child development, and who knows what else.
He has a bookshelf two stories high that houses nothing but material about Bob Dylan, but his first and truest musical love is Van Morrison, and we spent hours watching live DVD footage of his hero. I hesitate to admit I was a bit skeptical about endless Van Morrison videos, but all that viewing did me good, especially VM Live at Montreux, 1980. During that night’s concert, I worked harder and spent more as a singer than I think maybe I ever have, almost hyper-aware of the dynamics and melodic movement of each song. It was exhausting but exhilarating.
Fast forward 36 hours. We’re sitting around a country dinner table, eating Belgian beef stew with frites, mayonnaise, endive salad, and applesauce. Our group of six is made up of Doug, myself, our hosts Annette and Patrick, and two songwriters we shared the afternoon’s show with: Inneke23 (Belgium) and Little Birdie (Canada). At some point, I find myself defending the love of sports. Someone made the offhand comment dismissing sports games as unimportant, inconsequential, what does it matter if you miss one stupid game your favorite team plays? It’s silly when people get so riled up about it all.
I didn’t make any points during this conversation anywhere near as well as I wanted. But as I sat there stammering out parallels between what we as musicians do and strive for and what athletes train for, I was picturing our friend Kees, the Van Morrison fanatic, who with his friend Bart has traveled the world to see scores of concerts by this icon, who owns more music than he can listen to for the rest of his life, and whose labor of love (a listening room concert series) provides income, a place to stay, and unbelievably great meals for songwriters who come through the Netherlands. Images of Mladić floated in my mind, brushing past the comforting faces of fans who show up at my concerts in multiple cities and know immediately when I’m playing a song they’ve never heard.
I guess what I am still struggling to say is that I hope it matters. When any of us finds something we love to do (with any luck, we are good at what we love to do), and when we strive to do it in a way that is special, when we work to study what others have done in our field and try to contribute to the achievements of those who’ve gone before us, I hope it matters. Where would any of us be without collectors, sports fanatics, concertgoers, the passionate who believe art, music, sports [insert your own passion here] are more than silly entertainment?
BettySoo and Doug Cox are touring through Europe this spring and in the UK for several weeks in September. Both musicians tour year-round in North America and abroad to promote their project, Across the Borderline. Their new album, Lie to Me, comes out this summer.