TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
…A few nights later, we met and drank many beers in a now defunct watering hole called Cafe de Buut in Eindhoven, a bar where local legend Ad van Meurs – may his soul rest in peace – and musical angel Ankie Keultjes, had a flourishing Monday night residence. Upon meeting, it was clear that Donnie and I were different human beings. He was classically trained. I was self-taught. He was from the South. I was from the North. He loved GWAR. I loved the Grateful Dead. He was more punk. I was more hippie.
None of those differences mattered. We hit it off. Meeting Donnie was one of those transitional moments that every life has; our new lives in Holland now included making music.
The band got to work immediately. I played rhythm guitar, Donnie played lead. We both sang. We both wrote songs. We found a Dutch bass player, Irene, and a Dutch drummer, Eugene. They were as ambitious as we were. We lined up a practice room at a local foundation for musicians, known as Paraplu. We agreed to rehearse twice a week, on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, for three hours per session. In the final act that makes a band complete, we decided on our name: Grinn. Initially we decided to call ourselves Grin, after the cheeky smile, but it turns out guitar player Nils Lofgren had a band with that same name. So we added an “n” and made it Grinn.
It was an awful name.
Choosing band names, however, is not easy. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to come up with an exceptional band name. There are very few of those: Soundgarden. Sex Pistols. The Dandy Warhols. The Rolling Stones. Beastie Boys. The Roots. A Tribe Called Quest. The Clash. Names that evoke the band’s sound and, at the same time, have some kind of edge. Of course, conventional thinking goes, if the music is good enough, the name doesn’t matter, hence shitty band names such as: The Beatles. Pearl Jam. The Grateful Dead. Earth, Wind, and Fire. Phish. They Might Be Giants. Bullshit names, every one of them. And yet it doesn’t matter because the music is good. We were not slowed down by our sucky name. We wrote and practiced and went looking for gigs. It didn’t take too long. Within 6 months we found some places to play.
Before this tale descends into some sad story of broken dreams and bitter musicians, I’ll give it to you straight: Grinn never “made it”. But you couldn’t have told us that at the time. We were as driven as any rock & roll quartet and we worked our asses off. Saying “yes” to every gig, no matter how small or soul-assassinating, became our modus operandi. We believed in a simple philosophy: play live and do everything yourself. We realized that nobody is ever coming to discover anybody. It almost never works that way.
Which was pretty noble of us.
In retrospect, we never really had a legitimate chance of signing a record deal, or going on tour, but not because we weren’t talented. My take is that our sound was a little too diverse, made up of our differing influences without really meshing into one definable sound. We’d bounce back and forth between funk, “grunge”, punk, esoteric Zappaesque type noodlings, pop, and blues. Ours was a busy canvas. It would have been hard for a record company to make any money with us and that, dear reader, is the most bottom of bottom lines.
But it didn’t matter. We were too busy playing. It must be said that we generated a decent little local following. We had some fans. We played a few festivals. We played a few legendary Dutch clubs. We did ok, man.
The most important thing for me though, was that playing in the band became yet another way to continue my career as a Professional Foreigner. Regardless of what you may or may not believe about music, singing is acting, and that’s why it was an extension of my Professional Foreigner career. I was standing in front of people, playing a role, and using my culture to define that role.
As for a singer who is acting, it’s obvious when you see an artist like David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust, or KISS in their glory days. Those musical artists were just as much theater as rock. But any singer who steps up to a microphone and attempts to sing a song is also playing a character. Perhaps several different characters in one night. The point of singing is for the singer to convey the emotion. That requires acting. Even for the most non-theatrical artists.
In our band, my, and Donnie’s, act was to “be American”. The context may have been different than teaching conversation English to business executives during the day, but the “act” was the same. Donnie and I both got to play the role. In Eindhoven, the Netherlands, at that time, there weren’t any bands that consisted of two American musicians that had found each other after moving to Holland. We had a unique story.
This was a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, as I mentioned before, American musicians playing music outside of America, in any genre, have street cred. Although the merits of this reputation could be argued, there’s no doubt that America is perceived as the rock&roll nation. Fact is, when you get outside of America, as a performing musician, foreign audiences have expectations. We owe a great debt to those American artists that spread the message of rock&roll to every corner of the globe. Those musicians were missionaries and they gave a priceless gift to the world.
We used the reputation wholeheartedly. We figured there was no reason to shy away. If our forefathers had paved the way by convincing Europeans that Americans rock, who were we to blow that off? If people wanted to give us more credibility as as band because we were (50%) American, that was just fine.
There was another side to the same coin, however.
If we were so good, having been reared on rock in the USA, why were we local artists playing in small bars in a Southern Dutch province, for 15 people on a Wednesday night?
Our situation was a bit like an English guy moving to the States and becoming a hot-shit local soccer coach, his pedigree as an Englishman boosting his reputation in the area. But then one day, Manchester United comes to town to play an exhibition match against the local MLS team and, well, you get the picture. If the English guy was so good, why wasn’t he playing, or coaching, for Man U?
So we were stuck between people liking that we were American and hating that we were American. On stage though, I definitely played the Performer American card. I talked a lot between songs, unafraid of the audience. I only spoke English. I had learned a few Dutch words and sayings in the meantime but I didn’t use them onstage. Our shows were an “English-Only” zone. I regularly reminded the audience that they should be drinking more. I asked them to bring shots up to the stage. I told them they should be tipping the bartenders. None of these typical American bar band techniques worked very well on a Dutch audience because Dutch people don’t generally drink a lot of shots and they don’t tip much either. But so what, here we were, up on stage in Holland, jamming out! If people thought we were obnoxious for yelling , “shots!” on stage, so be it. We came to party, so let’s get it on.
The next morning, I’d go back and teach Dutch businessmen how to speak English. Without really knowing it, the yin and yang of teaching and playing in the band began to feed off of each other. As an English teacher I was legitimate because I was American and as a musician I was legitimate because of the very same fact…