Texas Troubadour Abroad: Amsterdam
My name is Keegan McInroe, and I am a singer-songwriter from Lubbock who’s been living in Fort Worth off and on since 2001, when I began my four years of study at Texas Christian University. Over the course of my 10 years writing, performing, and recording original music, I’ve played hundreds of shows and traveled thousands of miles throughout the United States and Europe. My latest tour is taking me to New York City, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague, Barcelona, and dozens of stops in between. Whether you’re an independent musician like me, a fellow budget traveler, or simply a reader who loves a good tale from the road, Texas Troubadour Abroad –– my (mostly) weekly travelogue published here on the Weekly’s website –– will have something for you.
”If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” –– Vincent Van Gogh
I have posted up at the bar in Brouwerij’t IJ, a local Amsterdam brewery in the eastern part of the city’s center, located in the shadow of De Gooyer Mill, an octagonal windmill dating from 1725. It is raining, and I’m certain I’ve given many an Amsterdamer a good laugh, bicycling these wet streets in jeans, my wool beanie, and cotton Levi jacket. Leaving the rain-slicker back in Texas might prove a wardrobe fail. I feel like I’ve just been pulled from the spin cycle and put on with no time to dry.
Couple this with my rented bright yellow and blue bicycle –– only three euros a day with my local friend’s national railways membership card –– and I am truly a rolling hazard-sign.
Every time I begin my tottering, scrambling mount, feet slipping on pedals, arms struggling to keep balance, eyes squinting against the soft onslaught of tiny droplets, I hear the screech of cars braking to avoid whatever this moment’s distraction I’ve given them can mean on an Amsterdam road –– likely another bicycler.
But once I get going, I’m steady enough and must only endure the knowledge of this spectacle and the physical repercussions involved in active-life in damp-to-quite-damp clothing. Besides, my barometer of success must certainly, ultimately, be survival. And here I do sit.
Given my influences and my current location in this most, some might say, notorious of cities, I feel almost guilty about not rocketing into some tale of mental and physical collapse and chaos, mayhem, debauchery, depravity, and paranoia-driven ranting –– Lord knows it is lurking within and without. Perhaps later. I do have this final evening here, and I am feeling creative.
For now, however, I calmly, quietly sip my beer, a Belgian tripel with an 8 percent ABV called “Zatte,” the oldest (1985) in the brewery’s repertoire. In several hours I will be arriving at ’Skek for my third and final performance in Amsterdam of this tour. Last night I played a house concert at my aforementioned friend’s place, where I am also crashing tonight; two nights prior I performed at Café De Koe, a very charming, mostly-locals restaurant and bar with a mad chef from Liverpool and a menu written on the wall in Dutch, which the waitstaff kindly translated for me.
I do enjoy a light rain, and my intention on this lovely, soaking day was to finally make my way to Vondelpark, the highly praised, continually recommended 120-acre park in Amsterdam’s Oud Zuid (Old South) District. Four visits to Amsterdam, and I’ve never been.
Thwarted again –– this time by Mother Nature. The occasion has always differed, but the result is the same. Vondelpark will have to wait, once more.
Now there are flashes of lightning, and the drizzle is picking up tempo. It is turning into a bit of a pisser. My comedy has just taken a potentially nasty turn. I order another beer and ponder the raised odds I am gifting myself with to see the daytime nurse at whichever hospital might receive me.
During my first visit here, back in the early winter of 2004, I was close to experiencing Vondelpark, but got completely engulfed at the Van Gogh Museum, which enjoys a nearby location. A friend and I had made our way to the museum after sitting on beanbags and sipping tea at The Mushroom Gallery, where little painted-on blades of grass crept up the walls, seemingly growing out of the artificial-grass carpeting below, and each low table was a mushroom stem and head. Impossible to balance anything on the head of a mushroom, so we held our saucers in-hand like gentleman.
That visit to the Van Gogh Museum is still among my top memories of any trip, anywhere. My friend left me for the Anne Frank House after his look about the gallery. I was apparently still taking in the first painting, but he didn’t disturb me, and I didn’t realize when he left. I had no, nor do I yet have, any desire to see where little Anne was abducted and carried away to die in a concentration camp. I do, however, have a mild interest in artists, and Van Gogh was speaking to me that day, speaking in a way that I cannot do justice to or make sense of with words, but I will say that I felt I met a brother in those paintings; or, perhaps, saw something like a reflection in a vibrant mirror of yellows, purples, greens, grays, and black, perpetually moving, swirling, telling me stories, relating sorrows, smiling knowingly, understanding –– that is closer to how I felt.
Vincent is a kindred-spirit, and he continues to inspire and move me, but I’ll be damned if I can find a decent t-shirt relating to the man anywhere in this town. I don’t usually buy clothing on the road, unless a necessity comes up –– like, say, a rain-jacket –– but I have developed strong feelings for this place and its tortured hero, and I don’t wish to walk away from my stay here without something to wear on my chest that informs the world of my affections. Something like a severed-ear riding a bicycle over a canal would be ideal.
It is now the morning after my adventures in rainy-day bicycling. I survived but am without Van Gogh paraphernalia. There was a break in the weather yesterday at the brewery, so I made my move. Now I am drinking an Americano coffee in the bar-car of a train bound for Berlin. I’ll be changing trains in Osnabrück, making my way to Kiel in the north of Germany for a house concert I am playing there this evening. From Amsterdam, it will take just more than six hours to make the journey.
Last night’s two sets of music at ’Skek went quite well. ’Skek is a small restaurant, the main room of which features a long, wooden bar, table-seating for about 30, and a little stage set in the nook of the street-facing window, perfect for small bands and singer-songwriters. There is an adjacent room for additional dining and a small upstairs area with a few tables where one can take in food and amusements with a view of the main room below.
Due to ’Skek’s location in the vortex of the tourist frenzy, there was an energetic, built-in crowd, many of whom were kind enough to approach me after I played with compliments and even financial donations. The possibility of a very pleasant, modestly lucrative evening was at hand.
However, it appears that when I am “feeling creative” on my last night in Amsterdam, it means I will shuffle out of the venue I have finished performing at, flag down a cab just in time to keep me from having to endure another stroll through the Red Light District and all those potentially disease-laden come-hither raps upon the windows, and hit it to the nearest late-night casino, in this case the Holland Casino in Leidseplein, where I will sit at the 2/2 Texas Hold ’Em table, wisely protecting and slowly building upon my 60 euro buy-in for over an hour, before unintentionally raising on a hand I have no business in, accelerating into all-or-nothing bluffing –– because I have panicked and am unable to stop the bleeding –– and in one hand, blow the 20 euro I’d come up and the 60 I was in for, three hands before they shut the damn Casino down for the night at 3 a.m. And then, as penance for this foolishness, I will force upon myself a long and contemplative stumble back to my night’s accommodation in cowboy boots with a guitar slung across my drooping shoulders.
Thankfully, Amsterdam is a beautiful city to suffer such long walks through, especially at night, and while it can feel a bit dodgy walking around certain parts of the city center in the wee hours of the morning, the outlying neighborhoods are quiet and tranquil, and there were long stretches last night were I didn’t pass another body.
It is something of a wonder that Amsterdam’s beauty is not typically the first remark one hears in reference to the capital city. In the 17th century, a series of four canals were planned and dug in consecutive semicircle rings around the city center. An even earlier canal, the Singel, has been around since 1480 when it served as a moat around the medieval city of Amsterdam. In addition to the canals, there are lovely parks –– so I hear –– and plenty of trees, old brick roads, and brick-faced buildings, and homes that have been around long enough to develop a serious lean, which is a nice effect when combined with other Dutch treasures to be had.
Yes, Amsterdam has just about any dirty vice one may wish to entertain readily at hand, legal or no –– as do most bustling metropolises for those with a given desire and the know-how to scratch a service –– but one could stroll sober as a judge along the canals and streets and squares of Amsterdam for days and nights and retire satisfied and invigorated. So it seems to me. Amsterdam is one of my favorite towns, and I’ve often thought how nice it would be to take up residency here for a spell, nestled into one of those old wooden boats that line the sides of the canals and rock along to whichever sonic waves happen to be pushing their way by.
But Amsterdam is now in my rearview mirror. As is Utrecht, Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris since my last report, and it would be poor form not to make mention of some of the goings-on there as those days were indeed filled with moments of interest and at least one somewhat eerie case of –– synchronicity, I suppose.
Seven days ago I took the train from Paris to Brussels. There are several options for the wayfaring rambler to move about Europe, and I have opted to do the bulk of my travel via train. I have what is called a Global Eurail Pass, and mine is good for unlimited travel in 24 countries in Western Europe for two months, excepting the United Kingdom. There are a variety of choices in passes, and there are many things to be said about traveling in such a way, but there will be plenty of time to discuss the joys and specifics of riding the rails later.
When I arrived in Brussels, a friend-of-a-friend, twice-removed –– let’s call him “Sam” –– who was to be the host for the evening’s house concert, met me at Brussels’ Gare de Bruxelles-Midi, and we made the short walk to his flat in the Saint-Gilles neighborhood. Located on the second floor of a newly renovated building, complete with a working elevator, we arrived in his home and settled in for a delicious “almost-traditional” meatball dish in a celery sauce, celery being a substitute for the traditional use of tomato, and a few glasses of red wine. The guests began arriving soon thereafter, and by the time I began my set, there were 25 to 30 people packed in and ready to listen.
I am somewhat of a newcomer to the house concert scene, but for this tour, I’ve booked several of these type of shows –– and this run’s first such gig in Brussels was a dandy, with plenty of nice banter and back-and-forth with the crowd between songs, hearty applause and laughter in all the proper places. The after-party that transpired was a worthy nightcap, and there was even an impressive bottle of vodka, fashioned out of glass to the size and scale of an AK-47 (apparently). Many that night were mercilessly pushed over the edge after facing the business end of this intoxicating marvel and whichever sadist was wielding it at the time. It came in its own carrying case, complete with six shot glasses and a glass hand-grenade full of brown vodka, which I never ventured trying.
The next morning, Sam and I took a drive out in the surrounding countryside to the little village of Ottenburg where he grew up. We visited a dairy where they make ice cream so fresh you can smell and almost taste the warm teat it came from. Then we stopped into a pub. At the pub, I made mention that I’d always wanted to visit Antwerp, and before I could stop him, Sam was calling a former colleague of his, now living in Antwerp, to see if she’d be willing to put up a stranger for the night, which, due to some last-minute booking changes, I had off. She and her boyfriend, Vincent, had plans of going out that evening, and the green light for me to tag along and receive shelter was given. Two hours later I was on a train north to see these new friends-of-a-friend.
The following day I had an afternoon show in Utrecht, so I took an early train, leaving Antwerp and Belgium behind and entering into Holland. Utrecht is older than Amsterdam, dating from around 50 CE when the Romans built a fortress there to house the occupying soldiers. This fourth largest city in the Netherlands is also riddled with gorgeous canals and is home to the largest university in Holland, Utrecht University. Sadly, I had very little time for exploring, as I was only to be in town for a total of about six hours.
The venue I performed at is called Café Averechts, an all-volunteer staffed bar that hosts numerous sorts of cultural-enhancing events, from lectures to concerts with hobo Texas pickers like myself. They also have volunteer chefs come in and prepare nice meals from time to time. All profits made at the bar go to a number of chosen and rotating charities, and all tips are collected in a pot where, every two months, Café Averechts sends said monies to charity along with a matching donation of their own. Good folks here, and the man who booked me and handled the sound duties through their capable system is also a local leftist politician, I was told, and he had the room sounding warm, clear, and well-balanced.
I opened for a band of fellow nomads called The Negritos, formerly based out of Barcelona, who do an impressive blending of South American, Spanish, and folk music, which comes across with great passion and compels gypsy-like, involuntary movement of the limbs in those listening.
After their performance, the two Argentinian brothers who founded the band and me began talking and enjoying communal ritual outside beneath the hanging clouds and the occasional sprinkling of rain. They were asking me about mythical blues man, Robert Johnson.
I close many shows with the old blues song, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” which many attribute to Johnson, and I had decided the end of my set at Café Averechts would be another good occasion to break out the glass slide and communicate one of the primary roots of the American music tree with those in attendance. To introduce the song, I gave a little background information, making mention that it was Robert Johnson who ever-so-infamously went down to that crossroads in Mississippi and made his deal with the Devil –– and died early in life, poisoned it is widely believed, by a jealous husband.
One of the brothers asked if he was 27 when he died, to which I replied that I wasn’t sure. I added that if he was, “They should put him on the poster.”
We were on the same page, because the brother immediately began speaking of the famous “27 Club,” a growing list of notable musicians who all tragically died at the age of 27. One often sees posters of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Kobain, and now Amy Winehouse, as well as others, all sitting or standing together somewhere, enjoying their peculiar and unenviable membership in the Club. I’ve never seen Robert Johnson in such renderings, and I’ve never heard him discussed in their company.
After the conversation, I left Utrecht and made the 40 kilometers north to Amsterdam, where I checked-in for two nights in an eight bed mixed-dorm room at St. Christopher’s Inn, which is backed up against the Red Light District. I threw my bag in my given locker and tucked my guitar snug in bed to resemble my body laying there so as to discourage potential thieving.
Leaving my room, I walked down the short hallway, through reception, to Belushi’s, the hostel bar. Belushi’s was closing, and I began to make my way for the door. Through the low lights, a familiar scene painted on the entirety of a far wall caught my eye and sent excited neurons firing about my skull. Dumbfounded, I stared at the likeness of the varied members of the “27 Club” sitting about a barroom together. Staring back, smack in the middle, grinning ear-to-ear, guitar in lap, was Mr. Robert Johnson.
May 17, 2013
En route to Kiel, Germany