Bettie Serveert: Last Night a Dutchman Saved My Life

Bettie ServeertIn August of 1992, I arrived at Tiny Private College in Nowhere, Wisconsin with a record collection built of cassettes. It was my prized possession — even if half of it was swill. But soon, I fell in with a group of similarly naïve know-it-alls, and together we began discovering, diving into, and discarding musical genres in a cycle that would last all year. The crew featured all the usual clichés. There was the smirking, neckbearded white guy who spent his freshman year ineffectively growing dreadlocks; a lime-green haired student of classical guitar who transformed his dorm room into a smoking parlor; and the fellow Chicago transplant who clung to her Naked Raygun leather jacket as if its folds and chains would protect her from the college’s impossibly staid surroundings. Together, we dove headlong into everything. There were forays into industrial and space-rock that led to an infamous run-in with Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge outside Metro in Chicago. Third-wave ska seemed cool for about a week. And the entire first winter was spent indoors, away from the skin-pealing wind whipping across Lake Michigan, listening to Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992, pretending to understand its tales of murder, moonshine, and hope. It was like kicking out the panels in an old farmhouse’s walls. Each time a plank was pulled up or punched out, shafts of light would shoot through the openings. The big, giant thing called MUSIC on the other side would come closer in to tune, but still would loom too large to fully understand. That first year of school, three albums helped me bring the farmhouse’s wall all the way down: Beat Happening’s You Turn Me On; Buffalo Tom’s Let Me Come Over; and Palomine, from Holland’s Bettie Serveert.

With Palomine, Bettie Serveert vocalist/guitarist Carol Van Dyk, guitarist Peter Visser, bassist Herman Bunskoeke, and drummer Berend Dubbe found themselves with a runaway hit. Their debut was a sparkling, deceptively simple indie rock record that shamelessly aped its influences (Velvet Underground, Sebadoh, Neil Young, Pretenders), yet survived through sheer, unguarded emotion. Van Dyk’s voice and lyrics were a blend of romantic naivety and jaded indifference. They suggested it was okay to pretend to be cool, even when late at night you were nothing but a softie. Visser’s raw guitar tones and squalls of Neil Young-style distortion helped define a sound that would define indie rock over the next decade. And Palomine‘s appearance on Matador Records, together with similarly epochal releases like Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted, ensured the New York label’s tastemaking status for years to come. In March of 1993, I didn’t understand any of that. But I DID know that I was the only one on my interminably boring college campus that owned this record with the pouting bobble-head puppy on the cover. It was selfish, but self-assuring at the same time. While the clowns in my dormitory bumped chests to “Them Bones,” I listened to Van Dyk. “Down under lock and key/There’s a Brain-Tag to every secret.”

Palomine‘s single “Tom Boy” gained some real exposure outside of college radio with a video on “120 Minutes” and a few brave spins on mainstream radio. To capitalize, Matador sent Bettie Serveert on a series of tours with alternative heavyweights of the day like Dinosaur Jr and Belly. Being relatively naïve, and still patting myself on the back for even owning the record in the first place, I managed to miss the band’s live show at least twice. I found out about their October 1993 Metro gig the morning of the show, standing 75 miles away in the dilapidated building that served as my tiny college’s student union. I still had time! But how would I get there? Quickly I reviewed my options. By this point, the classical guitar student had retreated, Kurtz-like, to the impenetrable confines of his smoking parlor. Neckbeard was not to be trusted. And the Naked Raygun girl was under the spell of an Alice in Chains fan with a lion’s mane of hair. Frantically, I cast about for a ride to the train station. The problem with keeping the genius of Palomine to myself became painfully clear when no one believed Bettie Serveert important enough to help me out.

That night, I climbed out onto the pile of misshapen cement hunks that stretched for over a half-mile of the school’s shoreline. The rubble was what remained of old US 41 — torn up and hauled away when the road was resurfaced. The debris had ended up here, strewn on the college’s beach to prevent its buildings from lurching into the lake. Every now and again tangled, rusty scabs of rebar twisted and spiraled out of jagged tiger traps in the rock; faded, chipped lane and road markings till adorned some of the chunks. I looked out across Lake Michigan, and let the cutting wind sting my eyes. Then I listened Buffalo Tom’s “Taillights Fade” about 200 times. “I feel so weak/On a losing streak/Watch my taillights fade to black.”

After Palomine, success for Bettie Serveert was scarce. Albums came and went, a tour supporting Counting Crows didn’t help matters, and eventually Matador dropped the band from its roster. Fragmentation followed, and despite my continued admiration of their first record, Bettie Serveert itself dropped off my radar.

Fast forward that cassette collection ten years. It’s spring 2003, and Bettie Serveert has returned. The band’s new album Log 22 re-accesses the sardonic lyricism and clear-eyed vocals of Palomine, with Visser finding space for his scratchy guitar lines between the songs’ perfectly arranged gaps. Touches of strings, horns and programming update the sound, but the vibe is still the same: “This is not a rehearsal, this is what we’ve been waiting for.” When the band announced a short tour to promote Log 22, my first thought was about Neckbeard. I wonder if he ever grew in those dreads?

Last Thursday, Bettie Serveert almost gave me a stomachache. Upon arriving at the Magic Stick for their show, my gut was wavering between two embarrassing feelings. In one corner was an idiotic sense of fluttering nervousness. In the other was an equally idiotic notion of jaded self-indulgence, developed over ten years spent inside the genre Palomine — my perceived secret indie rock decoder ring — had pointed the way to. But Peter Visser’s introductory notes to the album’s title track were rock and roll Maalox for my goofy fanboy flu. Googly-eyed, I made my way to the front of the stage like I haven’t done in years, shouldering past a dude-heavy crowd of types who likely felt the same emotional connection to the band as I did. After all, they all looked to be about my age. Watching me go, my pal Klein just shook his head. (Later, he’d tell me he used my story to illustrate his sensitivity to the foxy indie girl I found him chatting up at the back bar.)

After “Palomine,” Visser, Van Dyk, Bunskoeke, and new drummer “Jerome” delivered a set that concentrated heavily on material from Log 22. The live setting allowed Bunskoeke’s charming personality to shine through in a swaying dance behind his bass. Looser, faster arrangements gave Van Dyk’s clipped phrasing a heightened tone of cynical pride. She knew each minute variation, every slight difference of inflection, would be noted by the good-sized crowd, many of whom had hardwired each moment of the old songs into their brains over ten years of mix-tape making. Despite tuning issues, Visser’s SG produced the tones and textures that defined his sound so many years before, often employing a wah pedal in extended solos that played off the chords Van Dyk turned out on her Rickenbacker. An earnest, ragged glory version of “Kid’s Allright” was met with furious applause; “Tomboy” turned into a blues medley, with Van Dyk transforming herself into a Benelux torch singer. “Leg” closed the set. In many ways the quintessential Bettie Serveert track, the song begins as a gently-strummed, first-person lullaby, only to shift gears into an overdriven chorus complete with shrieking guitars, crashing drums, and Van Dyk’s lyrics, shot through with insecurity, yet chock full of bravado. “You won’t have me worried/I can still take care of myself somehow.”

After a brief, deserved encore and an impromptu autograph session that said even more about the kind of people who’d attended the show, Klein gave me the high sign, and we retreated to the downstairs bar. A few more shafts of light have pierced that old farmhouse wall since 1993. And that enormous, luminous light called MUSIC still doesn’t make any sense sometimes. But after a ten-year wait, it was satisfying to know that Bettie Serveert was at the very least a great live band, and at the most the creators of a record that saved my life a long time ago in Wisconsin.


7 thoughts on “Bettie Serveert: Last Night a Dutchman Saved My Life”

  1. I saw the Friday show at the Abbey and had an absolute great time. Right up near the stage. I think the only people having more fun were Bettie Serveert. We looked around the audience and noticed that about 90% of the crowd was in their 30s and up. Great time.

  2. Johnny and whomever else…..

    There is a great review of the Abbey show in the Chicago Reader this week. Check it out when it hits their website.

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