The day I performed a duet on live Dutch TV in Amsterdam with drag queen and Pride ambassador, Dolly Bellefleur, is one of my favorite bizarre and magical musical moments. Like most of the highlights in my music career, my most memorable events under the spotlight came in the strangest and most unexpected ways.
A few years earlier, I had gotten the rare opportunity to stay in Dalkeith Castle outside Edinburgh, Scotland, for three weeks over the Holidays. It was a 90-room palace built as a medieval castle in the 12th century and eventually designed to resemble the Palace of Versailles. My good friend, Tim, was living there with his partner. They called it Narnia and it was. It was also very haunted.
There were only five of us in the castle for most of my stay and ghosts followed us everywhere. The halls were lined with giant paintings of long-dead royales and it seemed as though their eyes would follow me like I was in an episode of Scooby Doo. Tim treated me to a viewing of The Shining on Boxing Day and forever after I felt as though I was having drinks with specters in the enormous halls.
During my time at Dalkeith, I finished writing my No War record, and my old friend, Sacco, got in touch and asked me to do some show dates in Holland. When my time in the haunted palace ended, I flew to Amsterdam in January of 2006.
I had been a DJ in Prague and Berlin in the mid-90s but these would be my first European show dates as a singer-songwriter-pianist. My band was in San Francisco, so I performed solo shows, twinkling and bashing keys while I whispered or wailed. My shows were either speedy half-hour showcases or three-hour epics depending on what was required.
I played one gig behind a horseshoe-shaped bar, and another at a blues club at midnight opening for a band from Zimbabwe. I performed by the sea on a beautiful baby grand, and also at a modern hotel on a bar stool so tall I felt like a toddler.
That first short tour paved the way for another the same year in December. A month before, Sacco — who had now become my promoter, booking agent, and tour manager — suggested I learn some Dutch songs.
“But I don’t speak Dutch,“ I skeptically said during one of our tour-producing calls.
“You don’t need to,” Sacco casually reassured me. “I will help you translate the lyrics. You just make the words fit and rhyme.”
“Aaah, ok,” my thoughts stumbled. “I don’t know any Dutch songs.”
“I will make you a CD.”
It was a time before streaming, so I waited for my CD to arrive. When it did, I listened for songs that had a “hook”, the catchy parts of a song. I couldn’t understand the words and knew nothing about the artists singing and playing. It was literally all Dutch to me. I was looking for songs that could crossover to English and still capture an audience.
I decided on two songs: one by punk band Tröckener Kecks called Vergeet Mij Niet and another by Boudewijn de Groot entitled Avond.
“Good choices,” Sacco said when we did our next call. “Avond just took number one for best song in Holland on the Top 2000 last year.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“The Top 2000? You don’t know?” Sacco’s questions about my ignorance were always filled with gleeful surprise.
“No, man. We don’t have that here.”
“They count down the top 2000 songs in Holland every year on Radio 2 and they release the number one song on New Year’s Eve. It’s been Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen for years but Boudewijn took the prize for the first time two years ago.”
None of this made any impact on me. I was Dutch music illiterate. “Ok. Well, I like the song. I’ll see if I can learn the music.”
That December, Sacco and I arrived late for my gig at De Waag in Haarlem. I had performed late the previous night in Amersfoort. I was hoarse, tired, wet from the rain, and sweating under my winter coat when we sprinted across the square to get to the venue expecting a small crowd. Or maybe no one.
Inside, we could barely get in. The place was packed. We pried the door open and inside was a room filled with people quaffing beers. They were half drunk, wide-eyed, looked excited to see us, and impatient for me to get started.
I looked on the walls and there were numerous black and white photographs of past performers. Simon and Garfunkel were two of them. Boudewijn de Groot was another. It turned out this was Boudewijn’s home venue and stage — a place where he had cut his teeth before becoming one of the most successful and famous artists in The Netherlands. And I was about to perform his song in English for the first time by anyone.
But I didn’t know that.
I got on stage and said, “Sorry for being late. I’m Gentry Bronson from America.”
The crowd erupted in a series of cheers, yells, claps, and anxious desire for the music to get started. I hadn’t even had time to have a sip of my beer yet.
I launched into several originals of mine, which were mostly well-received. I also did covers of Tom Waits’ Xmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, Billy Joel’s Piano Man, and tried out the Tröckener Kecks tune. When I started in on the opening piano lines of Avond, the jovially inebriated audience began to rustle, acting like children waiting to open their presents.
By the time I reached the first chorus, I knew something unique was happening.
I sang the quiet first chorus,
“I believe, I believe, I believe, I believe in you and me”
and I heard voices singing with me, but in Dutch.
When I returned to a bigger and louder version of the chorus the second time around, the audience sang with me in both Dutch and English. Their voices became so loud that I pulled away from the mic and let them sing. The mixture of two languages blended and swirled into the sweaty pub swollen with beer-drunk audience members.
Sacco looked at me and smiled. The Dutch had embraced me.
Before my next tour the following Autumn, Sacco and I decided that I should record Avond. I worked with Bay Area musician Jesse Brewster at his home studio and then with engineer Scott Llamas at PopSmear studios, where I had recorded several albums already, and completed the song’s production there.
It was a highly tumultuous time in my personal life and I barely had the time or the headspace to put the music together. I added Jesse and my face to the cover of the single, and we released it on Sacco’s Zjelva Records label. Then Sacco suggested a last-minute video to accompany the song, so I asked filmmaker Courtney Angermeier to create an indie-style video for me.
I returned to Amsterdam just days after finishing the single and video.
In the time since my first short tour, I had written and recorded the atmospheric instrumental album Santa Fe Sky with multi-instrumentalist Dave Hoover. And I recorded and released my three-part indie rock album No War. I had toured throughout the U.S. several times and performed in California countless times both with backing bands and as a soloist.
There was a fire within me for this tour. My personal life was in the trash but my musical life felt combustible. I was free of my chaos in California and ready to prove something.
I arrived at Schiphol airport and Sacco took me out to a club to keep me awake as late as possible to get over jetlag. Staying up until 3:00am and sleeping until noon was part of my life as a musician, and we needed to keep it that way. Sacco helped, as he said, “Reset my biorhythms”.
The next day, to start my press schedule and promote the new single, Sacco had arranged for me to be on ATV5, a late afternoon talk show hosted by Dolly Bellefleur and her male co-host Johan.
Sacco was dressed in his finest orange soccer jacket and sneakers. I was wearing a yellow vintage button-up shirt, floppy black tie, and sharkskin jacket over ratty jeans. My feet were in flip-flops so I could remove them easily, get barefoot quickly, and have something to protect my feet after my performance. (My usual stage attire since I was known as the “Barefoot Piano Man”.)
We arrived and took an elevator to a dark, claustrophobic set, tight with lights and cameras, and then were whisked into the Green Room.
Wheeled along with us was a Yamaha P-80 digital piano. We had carried it with us for all European show dates. If there was no piano at the venue, we were prepared. For this appearance, we also had a Marshall guitar amplifier that was about the size of a toaster. When plugged in and bumped, it sounded like a clanging gong.
They were already interviewing their first guest: a dog trainer. I had no idea what anyone was saying because it was all in Dutch, so I had no concept of when the interview might be over.
Dolly was wearing a tight, robin’s egg blue miniskirt, giant high heels, and a six-inch high light blond wig that resembled Dolly Parton. Her face was intricately painted with elaborate make-up. Johan sat next to her wearing a gray blazer — a red-haired, Frisian-looking straight man to Dolly’s flamboyance.
They finished with the dog trainer and the stage crew immediately switched from Dutch to English as if both languages were native tongues. I knew this was for my benefit — the stupid American piano guy. Sacco and I were escorted onto the stage and I realized they had no piano. Then, a crew member came and placed the very heavy Yamaha P-80 keyboard directly on my lap. Apparently, they had no keyboard stand either.
The interview began with Dolly asking me in her husky, high-pitched voice, “So, Gentry Bronson, welcome! We are happy to have you on ATV5 today. You have recorded the famous Dutch song Avond by Boudewijn the Great?”
Careful to speak without much American swagger or slang, I replied, “I have, yes.”
“And how did you learn about this song? Do they have this in America? I would think not.”
I explained how I had first heard the song on a compilation, chose it without knowing its meaning, and continued, “My manager here, Sacco, suggested that I translate the song into English and I did with his help.”
At which point, Dolly and Johan began an extensive conversation with Sacco in Dutch while I sat between them. They went on for quite a while and I tried to act as though I knew what was being said.
Then, with a jolt, I heard Dolly say, “Yes, you can begin.”
“You want me to play?” I asked surprised.
“Yes, yes, please,” Johan returned.
With the digital piano weighing heavily on my lap, I began the opening notes of the song, balancing the keyboard with my legs. The crew had run the keys through the miniature Marshall, and I heard a CLANG as someone bumped the amp during my first few notes. The sound receded and I started to sing,
“You don’t need your coat on anymore…”
I had been mic’ed under my shirt so my voice came through loudly over the light strains of my piano playing. Dolly and Johan swayed and Sacco grinned. When I got to the chorus, Dolly began singing with me,
“I believe, I believe…”
My face was flush with lights and excitement and a feeling of strangeness. I felt like a child plopped onto a stage, giddy and nervous and rosy-cheeked. It was all over quickly.
They began to roll the credits while I finished the last chorus with Dolly.
Afterward, we were taken back to the Green Room where Dolly changed in front of us and thanked me profusely, saying, “You were wonderful! I will come see you perform during your tour.”
Dolly intended to be at De Waag when I played there again. It was the same evening that Boudewijn and his wife were in the audience to see me perform, and the venue was electric with true Dutch music royalty in the house.
Sadly, Dolly arrived too late for the show. Instead, knowing she had missed it, she went early to KHL, the venue in Amsterdam where I was performing later that same night, and left me a Dolly Bellefleur card.
On the back, she placed a puffy butterfly sticker and wrote a note in red ink that said,
It was very nice to meet you at AT5 Television. Break a leg today. I wished I could be at the Waag too but I have to perform somewhere else.
My musical love affair with the Dutch had only just begun.