TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
… I loved my job at that school. It taught me the ins and out of using my identity as a foreigner to make a living. The endless hours of conversation were an invaluable gift; it taught me volumes about myself, but it also taught me about the hearts and minds of others. Perhaps most importantly, it paid my rent and allowed me to take my Professional Foreigner act to the stage, in pursuit of my original dream, with my soon-to-be partners in crime, in a rock & roll band of our very own.
A quick word about music and Americans: when we leave the United States and travel around the world, certain things stick to us like glue. Pop culture. Sports. Politics. Everybody loves and hates our Presidents, especially these days. But there is one thing, one beautiful, undeniably American thing that we carry with us wherever we go: the almighty power of good ole rock & roll. Some would say it started with Chuck Berry, or Elvis, or even further back with Robert Johnson. Who knows? Who cares? Fact is, when Americans carry the stars and stripes into the world, we become an ambassador for rock. Some do it better than others, but we all get to do it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most American musicians, regardless of genre or ethnicity, are proud of our rock & roll heritage.
Music got its hooks in me early. I remember sitting in my humble bedroom as a seven year old boy in Plano, Texas, the pesky sun blasting through the windows, listening to my parents’ records: Elton John. Fleetwood Mac. Bruce Springsteen. Michael Jackson. The Beatles White Album. Chuck Mangione. Electric Light Orchestra. My beloved Nana Mangene gave me my very first record: The Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever, which was her gift to me for my first holy communion. I ripped it open and dashed to my bedroom, playing the album over and over on my little turntable. Stayin’ Alive, How Deep is Your Love, More Than A Woman, If I Can’t Have You, Jive Talkin’. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t get enough.
As I rolled into my early teens, I listened to 80’s hip-hop by The Fat Boys, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C., and eventually Beastie Boys, Ice-T and N.W.A. Hip-hop and rap were sweeping the world and even though we were white boys from New Hampshire, maybe because we were white boys from New Hampshire, we fell in love with hip-hop too.
But it wasn’t until I graduated from high school in 1988 that a gift from my Aunt Anne changed everything. In a move so gracious that it defies imagination, my Aunt gave me her vintage Takamine acoustic as a graduation gift and, after that, nothing was ever the same.
I had tried to play guitar before, when I was around 10, but it didn’t stick. Playing that first guitar hurt my fingers and I couldn’t get my little hand around the fret board. As I moved into puberty, I started to hang out with more musical friends, guys that actually played instruments and songs. Guys that were in bands. I enjoyed hip-hop, but there was no scene around us where kids were actually making that kind of music. Lots of kids had acoustic guitars, though, and it seemed like the coolest thing in the world to sit around playing one.
So, even though I was a committed and successful athlete, the “jocks” weren’t really my best friends. My heart was with the musicians. My friends had a band in high school called Nevada. They played classic rock cover tunes at school dances and local “Battle of the Bands”. I followed them wherever they went, voraciously listening, picking up a guitar and strumming here and there.
During the summer of 1988, after graduation, I cared about little else than that Takamine guitar. I disappeared into chord progressions and pentatonic scales and song books. I asked my friend Adam, a guitar God if ever there was one, to teach me. He said yes. He taught me out on my porch, in the early evening light of a humid New Hampshire summer. I paid his teaching fee with tickets to see the Grateful Dead in Saratoga Springs, New York. Out there on my porch, Adam teaching me the ropes, mosquitoes may have been swarming hungrily in pursuit of our blood but nothing, nothing, could tear me from that guitar. I was smitten.
I wanted to play in a band. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to pile into a van and drive to shitty little shows in shitty little bars. Even though being an athlete had been most of my identity up ‘till then, sports had little pull over me anymore. Now, it was all music, all the time.
Fast forward to my burgeoning life in Holland and, as you know, my day job as a conversation teacher with the nuns was going swimmingly. As weeks rolled into months, I’d earned the respect of my peers and, most importantly, the respect of my students. My work at the institute gave me the means to enhance my life in Holland. I was a happy man.
My schedule was ideal: I started my first lesson at 11:30 a.m, had an hour lunch break and then did four straight lessons until 5:30. Once a week I taught an evening session from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. The late starting time was perfect for milking every second out of the glorious night. As fate would have it, rock & roll is mostly a nighttime pursuit and I now had a situation in which I could be in a band at night and still have a few hours to recover in the morning, before getting on a train to my day job.
I put up an advertisement at a local music store in Eindhoven. One guy responded: Donnie Duvall. He was an American from Richmond, Virginia who had moved to the Netherlands to be with his Dutch girlfriend, Ellie. Donnie was a conservatory trained musician and, even though I didn’t know it yet, a nasty-ass guitar player. I called him immediately.
We arranged to meet…