(This post is only about music – for people not from Belgium, Luc de Vos, singer of Gorki, passed away yesterday at 52)
I am 15. I hear a song on the radio, and I don’t understand the lyrics. Why would you ask a piranha to devour you? Still, I’m intrigued. I’d only really gotten into music little by little. My earliest musical memory is hearing my parents’ record player playing ‘I want you’ by Bob Dylan. After that, it was my inexplicable arousal at seeing the Hey You the Rock Steady Crewvideo in 1983 when I was 7, getting the Top Gun soundtrack on cassette (my first ever music purchase) in 1986, and watching the video for ‘I want your sex’ by George Michael in 1987 over and over on my recording of Veronica’s “Countdown”. At my confirmation (12 years old), when kids typically get some kind of bigger gift they’ve been dreaming of for a long time, I still chose a computer instead of a stereo.
I am 16, I just had my birthday. I am doing a summer job at my family’s company (which processes animal fat) and I am staying with my grandparents in Bavegem. With the money from my birthday I bought a portable stereo CD/cassette player for the incredible amount of 6000 BEF (or 150 euro as the kids would call it these days). . I listen to nothing else for weeks on end. I can still hum the amazingly beautiful piano part that closes Mia from memory. It’s been my favorite song ever since.
I am 17, and learning the guitar. It turns out that Mia is quite complicated to get right, because of that perfect 3/4-5/4 tempo, or whatever you’d call it if you knew anything about music. It doesn’t help that I’m left-handed playing on a right-handed guitar, but I make the song my own. To this day though, I can still not play and sing it at the same time. There is something about the timing of how that third line starts before the music starts, where he signs ‘Mensen als ik’, that I just can’t figure out. It’s magic – it makes this song all the better.
I am 17, and Gorky is now Gorki, with completely new band members. I see them live for the first time, at ‘De Kring’ in Merelbeke, with my best friend Jeremy. I wish I had bought all the t-shirts that night – they had a different one for each of the new songs. The album sounds so different – parts of it recorded in Africa. I don’t listen to that album enough, but I still love playing Berejager on guitar, such a beautiful intro.
I am 17, and it’s my last year of boy scout before becoming a leader. I have a mini-JIN camp called JINTRO during the year, that ends with a party. I dance with a girl to Mia, and one minute into the dance she says, ‘no no, we’re not going to do a one-tile-dance for the rest of the night. Here’s how you do it’ and she teaches me two basic moves to make a slow dance more interesting. Thank you, Karlien, for changing my life.
I am 18, and we travel through Catalunya with the boy and girl scouts group I’m in, and a local Catalan group. This is one of the CD’s we brought with us as a sample of our own culture. The Catalans love it – they say it sounds like Bruce Springsteen. I can see where they’re coming from. At the end of the two weeks, he guitar player of their group nails down a really good version of Mia (without the words of course)
I am 18, and have my first serious girlfriend. Mia is a song that runs through our history together – we must have danced to it at every party that played it (she messaged me yesterday that she immediately thought of me when she heard the news… just like I did of her). Back then, parties still had blocks of 3 slow songs every one or two hours. I miss that tradition… The moves that Karlien taught me put me well ahead of the pack of my fellow young adult males, and that paid off generously in the young adult females agreeing to dance with me at every party. (The theory of compounded interest clearly put in practice, now that I think of it)
I am 19, and one of my fellow boy scout leaders gives me an old demo cassette of Gorky. Among other things, it contains a cover of the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, some of their songs that didn’t make their debut (but appeared on Boterhammen, like ‘Ik word oud’, or were turned into a b-side). It also contains the original version of Mia, as a fast-paced slurred-sung rocker. They made the right call slowing it down.
I am 21, and I have a radio show at a student radio I helped start up. I am too young to know how the world really works and just send out interview requests to managers and record labels for bands that I like. In those days, I got to interview my favorite band, The Afghan Whigs, as well as other bands like Everclear and The Sheila Divine. But we also managed to get Luc De Vos as a guest on our radio show, and Jeremy and I interviewed him inbetween songs for an hour. (That tape is at my parents’ place. I have an Excel sheet that tells me exactly which box it’s in, and I hope I can recover it next time I go to Belgium.) I tell him about that demo tape that I have, and he asks for a copy. A little after that, I bring him a copy of that practice tape, I put ‘Congregation’ by The Afghan Whigs on the other side (because I want one of my favorite bands to know another one of my favorite bands), and I go past his house to drop it off. (From the news report this weekend I hear he still lived in the same street, so I can only assume he was still living in the same house he’s lived for the last 17 years).
I am 22, and Luc De Vos plays solo at the university somewhere, in an auditorium. I think it was one of the first times he ever did that. He probably already read out a column he wrote. But I remember how amazing he was by himself, what beautiful versions of these songs that I knew so well he played, songs that usually they didn’t play live because they were the slower ones. ‘Arme Jongen’, I remember him playing it there like it was yesterday.
I am 26, and I see him at various festivals, always there to either play or enjoy the music. I see him backstage with his son, recently born. He is walking around with some kind of elastic band tied around his waist that keeps his kid from running away more than ten meters from him, and it is hilarious to see in the backstage area.
Time starts moving quicker as I grow up, become an adult, and graduate from college. More and more albums. Every album still contained at least one killer song. ‘Leve de Lente’ still gives me goosebumps when those guitars crash in. ‘Vaarwel Lieveling’ is possibly his most underrated song – I don’t think I’ve ever heard that one played live. ‘Ode an die freude’, ‘We zijn zo jong’, ‘Duitsland wint altijd’ – I love the sound of resignment he has in his voice, like a deep sigh put too music. That album came with a floppy disk (!) with the lyrics. ‘Het voorspel was moordend’, ‘Tijdbom’ – while the music came back to being a bit more convential, the lyrics got more hermetically sealed. I must admit that I slowly lost track – having moved to Barcelona at some point, it was much harder to catch them live of course. I know their first five albums the best, and while I still bought the others (having missed only one), none of them had the luxury of not having any other album in my collection to compete with like their debut album had. But there is no denying that when they were great, they were still amazing. A song like ‘Veronica komt naar je toe’ managed to pull together so many different things. The title was a recurring slogan of a Dutch channel that was popular among young people in Belgium, for lack of a Belgian alternative. Here’s a great song, with a great chorus, and his ability to sample just this one sentence to evoke a memory of youth every one of my generation remembers (while it evoked at the same time my personal memory of seeing ‘I want your sex’ on Veronica). And then he manages to evoke such a common feeling everyone has, where you are trying to grab that fleeting thing you were thinking just a second ago, straddling typically complicated-to-phrase words in Dutch with effortless ease – ‘Wat was het nu ook alweer/dat ik wou doen/het was iets belangrijks’ (or ‘What was it again/I wanted to do/it was something important). In the beginning, his lyrics were quirky in ideas, but fairly straightforward in their phrasing. Further on in their career, they experimented quite a bit musically, but especially the lyrics could get complicated, and with exceptional and inventive phrasing.
I’m 31, and I live in Barcelona, but I travel back to Belgium because Gorki is playing their debut album, Gorky. I wrote about that concert back then, but that memory is still strong. I can’t believe that was 7 years ago…
I always enjoyed reading his columns in Zone 09 whenever I was in my hometown, I thought he had a great gift for writing. I noticed just now he left behind quite a few more books than I had, so I started tracking those down. So many of my memories have his music attached to it. His was the first band that opened me up to a wider range of music, away from the mainstream (not everybody would agree I guess, but I never considered them mainstream. Their debut album certainly was different enough from whatever was considered mainstream at the time, and as often happens this debut was only widely recognized several albums into their career later, while at the same time those later albums never really got the same kind of traction.)
I loved his way of looking at the world, the way he described it in music, lyrics, writing, and interviews. Always with that cheeky look. Like, surprisingly it now turns out, so many of my generation, his music was intertwined with my growing up. Here’s a man I was hoping to live long and make much more music, and grow old playing hundreds of songs in bars and clubs, but it wasn’t to be. He set out to be a successful rock singer, whether that was tongue-in-cheek or not, and by all accounts he achieved what he set out to do. And everything he did, he did it for the best of reasons. He did it for ‘a fistful of bonnekes’…