Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Black Godfather in Amsterdam

While this story ends in Amsterdam, it starts in lower Manhattan. Which is rather ironic when you think of those Dutch settlers founding New Amsterdam only to be swallowed up by the American Dream.

My cousin Liam is one of those people who, when he asks, 'Have you ever heard So-and-so?' you pay close attention. Chances are your mind is about to be blown. This has happened on more than one occasion. This story concerns one in particular, but in the interest of credibility, I'll do a quick rundown of the music Liam has turned me onto over the years. (His brother Mike is no slouch in this department either, but we're usually too busy doing improv to bother with tunes...)

Late 1980's: Liam is living in Boston, I'm in college in Rhode Island. Liam's band is playing. I go to see him and I think I visited his apartment. I could be confusing/combining two different days, I'm not sure. He told me about this band Buffalo Tom and gave me a copy of their first (and to my mind without question best) album. This tip, which he passed on to his brother as well, has played out over the years into numerous adventures. I saw Buffalo Tom in England, for pete's sake!

Mid 1990's: After Boston, I went to France, Liam went to San Francisco, but then our paths crossed in NYC again. He'd moved back East and now we would be living in the same city. He and his girlfriend were apartment sitting in an hilarious upper West Side apartment with homo-erotic chess games, potholders, bed-posts, anything-you-could-shape-into-a-phallus, etc. We sat and celebrated their arrival in the city by ingesting various substances, legal and otherwise. Somehow Liam became aware that I'd never heard of Sweet. I can never remember if it is Sweet or The Sweet, but these were the English glam rockers who gave us 'Little Willy', 'Ballroom Blitz', and the one that blew my mind most that first night, 'Fox On The Run'. We rocked out to the impossible helium harmonies and giggled our asses off.

Those are just two examples to set the tone. Basically, when Liam said listen, I did. He called me on a Thursday or Friday and asked if I was free to go see some music at Chicago Blues, an old time blues club in the Village. I said yes. And thus begins the saga that ends with The Black Godfather in New Amsterdam.

Who is The Black Godfather you ask? And so did I as I met Liam at the club. We ordered beers and sat at a small table up against the wall with a sideways view of the small stage. I can't remember if there was an opening band, but we wouldn't have been paying too much attention because Liam would have been filling me in on what I was about to witness.

How he heard of Andre Williams, I don't recall. As Liam told it, Andre Williams was a blues singer from Chicago who'd had quite a following in the '50's but had dropped out of sight and was rumored to have lived on the streets. He was known for playing blue material, underground club type blues that was lewd in lyric and delivery. Somehow someone had rediscovered him and got him back performing again. The show we were about to see, a club date without fanfare, was his first appearance in New York in over 30 years.

The band came onstage. Guitar, bass, keyboard, horns (I think?), drums, back-up singers, the whole nine yards. The overall impression was of that great wedding band you saw once, the kind that brought honor and power to that genre, the kind of band that would leave you sweaty and spent if you gave them an inch. And that was before Andre took the stage.

How to describe him? Small in stature, thin and dapper, pencil moustache, immaculate suit. He proceeded to growl and moan, shout and holler, VENTILATE. Vulgar is too mild a word to describe the lyrical content. I've since bought several of the records he's put out since he began recording again, and they are filthy. Some illustrative titles...

Sling It, Bang It, And Give It Cab Fare Home
Let Me Put It In
Humpin' Bumpin' and Thumpin'
Jail Bait

These are the clean songs. His delivery reminded me of the character Willem Dafoe played in 'Wild at Heart', the David Lynch film with Laura Dern and Nic Cage. Dafoe basically sexually assaults Laura Dern but is so aggressive and carnal that she responds unwittingly with reciprocity. With Andre Williams, you know you are being molested, but he's so damn cool that you just lie back and let it happen.

Liam and I were transfixed and amazed. We constantly clinked our beer mugs after songs, we hurriedly reviewed each song the instant it was over before the onslaught began anew. We were witnessing something that was tied all the way back to chain gangs and folk songs, Paul Bunyan and John Henry, something that pre-dated the Beatles and the Europe impact on American music. At this point he was still calling himself 'Mr. Rhythm' which had been his moniker back in the '50's and '60's. He was the dirtiest old man you'd ever seen. But I'll bet he took a pretty young thing home with him that night, and who could blame him? Or her?

Suddenly it was over and we were outside in the cold. It might have been summer, but things in the club had been so hot that a New York August seemed glacial. Over the next couple weeks, Liam and I probably reminisced about the show, but new experiences were always around the corner and soon the show was part of the past.

Fast forward to early 2000. My marriage is falling apart. My oldest friend had fallen in love with a woman from The Hague, in the Netherlands. Their marriage was in the spring. We planned a trip to the city of Bruges and then we'd make our way to The Hague for 3 or 4 days to celebrate the marriage. My ex, the mother of my child and a good person, was hoping this trip would rekindle the dying embers of our union. But the romantic setting only brought into focus the gulf between us and how unbridgeable it seemed. By the time we got to Amsterdam, things were tense. To put it politely.

I was relieved to put my friend and his celebration at the center of my attention. I'd been asked to serve as an official witness, signing the union into legitimacy. Another old friend was to serve as the best man, giving the traditional speech. My great friend threw me for a loop by asking me to give a speech as well. This threw me into a frenzy of anxiety, probably exacerbated by The Netherlands' insistence on legalizing hashish and marijuana. To have my own marriage in such a precarious place, to know down in my gut that I would soon be dissolving this holiest of contracts...let's just say I freaked out.

But, before all that, something magical happened. A whole crew of us were wandering around Amsterdam. The wedding was 2 days away and the American crew had to try and wear Amsterdam out. We passed what looked like an old church, a huge gothic European structure that screamed history at you. It was a club. Who was playing that night? Andre Williams. I immediately insisted that ALL PLANS THAT HAD ALREADY BEEN MADE HAD TO BE CHANGED.

We all went to see The Black Godfather in Amsterdam. The primarily African-American wedding band had been replaced by 3 young white punks. The sound had morphed from a party band into a greasy bottle rocket of lust and resentment. Andre alone seemed unchanged, he bullied, he cajoled, he unzipped his fly so slowly that it was up at the beginning of a song and only completely open by the end. It was thrice as loud and relentless.

The group was a bit taken aback by this, the discrepancy between what I'd described and what they were subjected to, and there was the vague feeling that I'd been inappropriate. Like DeNiro inviting Cybil Shepard to the porno in 'Taxi Driver', I'd vouched for something that was so lascivious as to be criminal. Don't get me wrong, they danced, but the group wanted to leave before the show was done and they were more perplexed than entranced. I felt as if I'd bragged to strangers about my porn collection.

Later that night I could not sleep and slipped out of our hotel room to go get a coffee. I saw the red-light district across a canal and it no longer seemed like a tourist trap. It was a universe unto itself which mirrored the easy lust and un-self conscious libido of The Black Godfather and his oeuvre. Was that the best I could hope for? Should I slink across the cobblestone bridge and lose my identity in a staged physical encounter? I paid for my coffee with the strange coins and went back to my hotel.

Somewhere in Amsterdam Andre Williams disapproved.

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