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Bettie and Me

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Bettie Serveert

at the Abbey Pub, April 4

Never trust a bohemian under 30--they'll skip town when the rent's due, borrow your car and forget where they parked it, accidentally ash on the carpet. Actually, we bohemians over 30 do that stuff too. But if we don't get more responsible as we get older, we do get more honest, some of us. Not honest enough to call ourselves bohemians (who wants to own up to that musty categorization, even if we do walk like a duck and talk like a duck?), but honest enough to grudgingly accept some consequences. The prevailing uncertainty--financial and emotional and (an icky word but someone's gotta say it) spiritual--that smells like freedom in your 20s grows stale over time, and most folks choose stability before it's too late. Others strike a lucky balance between their weird old life and an acceptable new routine. The rest of us wake up one morning and realize we're not slumming anymore--lookee me, I'm a bona fide poor person, still renting, no health insurance, trolling the sofa for nickels before I go grocery shopping.

Didn't seem to be many under-30s at the Abbey during Bettie Serveert's recent set. More than a few over-40s, though, including a couple of the folks onstage--singer Carol Van Dyk is 40 on the nose, the others hover thereabouts. Age has treated the Dutch band well, though guitarist Peter Visser's hairline continues to creep up his skull and bassist Herman Bunskoeke has a noticeable paunch. The former was laconically natty in dark horn-rims and a dark suit, the latter all grins and jokes, soul patched, in a silky shirt. They looked, in a word, bohemian, as did Van Dyk, whose shaggy, Cobain-like locks hid her eyes for most of the set. And so they are--dabbling in the visual arts, flitting between side projects, apartment hopping in Amsterdam, admitting in interviews to perennial restlessness and recurring pennilessness.

"We don't have much to show for life," Van Dyk sings on "Wide Eyed Fools," the opening track on the band's newest disc, Log 22. "Not a perfect home, not a perfect wife." That chorus swells with overwhelming conviction, but the verses that lead up to it seem deliberately unfocused. Visser's guitar lick scuttles away from a sole organ chord, a series of hi-hat taps is followed by an offbeat snare hit--the music seems to shrink from its inevitable anthemic fate. "Freaks like us know the ins and outs," Van Dyk continues. Then the confused structure of the verses kicks back in for the coda, where she mutters a monologue about depression. The song is the band's clearest statement of purpose since "Tom Boy," from their 1992 debut, Palomine, and it's just as defiant, though far more nuanced.

If you remember nothing else about Bettie Serveert, you remember Palomine. (So does the band, which named its label after the album and kicked off its Abbey show with the title track.) You probably remember it being better than it actually is, too: revisit it and you'll hear some great tunes adrift on a sea of jangle. Van Dyk (then going by van Dijk) let her lyrics degenerate from bemused to merely confused. In short, it was college rock just like R.E.M. had reckoned it--a broad outline of a worldview sketched with a vague phrase and an offhand guitar lick that required us to shade it in with our own assumptions. But as I creep from my early 30s into my early mid-30s, the more clearly defined the band's subsequent sketches seem to me--though I'm not sure whether their worldview has coalesced or my experience more automatically fills in the gaps.

Every generation spits up a cadre of leather-clad dinks aspiring to Sid Viciousdom, convinced that living on the edge requires a balanced diet of cheap narcotics, random violence, and bad sex. But genuine risk is something far more humdrum and unexpected and insidious, something that accrues with age. "We don't have a guitar tech 'cause we don't have the money," Van Dyk apologized when the band took uncomfortably long to tune. All you adult bohemians playing along at home: substitute your own secret bourgeois desire for "guitar tech."

I had a summer fling with Palomine when I was barely legal--sure, who didn't?--but I first bonded with Bettie Serveert in 1997. I was 27 and living in suburban New Jersey with no car, which is sort of like living on the moon without a rocket. Five days a week I walked a mile to a convenience store where I doled out cigarettes and lottery tickets from behind a thin protective shell of public cheeriness, then slunk back to my dad's house. On my days off I'd take the bus into Philadelphia and lose myself at the Tower listening stations, or I'd roam along South Street listening to the handful of cassettes that served as my tenuous contact with humanity: Pavement's Brighten the Corners, That Dog's Retreat From the Sun, the first Wu-Tang Clan record. At my most self-pitying, I imagined myself five, ten years later, wheeling a shopping cart crammed full of my stuff along Route 130 warbling Pavement lyrics, croaking, "What about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high?" as cars whizzed past and high school kids tossed Arby's bags at my head.

Bettie Serveert's Dust Bunnies was about sweeping up after the first phase of your adulthood, a chore I was actively putting off myself when I stumbled across the disc. The tone of its accusations and promises resonated with me. I'd crossed the country in a decrepit Chevette, spent two years in Seattle saying things I didn't mean to say and hurting people I didn't mean to hurt while they returned the favor, then retreated to Jersey to lick my wounds. "Stop making the most of what you say you think you haven't got," Van Dyk scolded one pal on "What Friends?" and if I didn't know exactly what she meant I understood the sentiment well enough.

The music had a heartiness I lacked. I was fragile, in a state I never want to return to. (The emotional state, I mean, not Jersey, though I'm in no hurry to go back there either.) I wanted to be as nonchalant about my own fuckuppery as Van Dyk and Visser sounded on "Sugar the Pill." "Isn't this great," Van Dyk sings, "We played it off the cuff / And what an escape / Before it got too rough," as Visser's country licks lazily circle the melody and then wander off, distracted. (When she concludes "Surviving is an awful lot," I'm still not sure if she means it's a big deal or a terrible fate. Probably both--that's what puns are for, avoiding the reductive insistence of concrete language.) When Visser's note-clotted rumble shot out of a drumroll like a spitball out of a straw on "Misery Galore," I craved that momentum.

Mostly I envied what I heard as an ability to live with uncertainty. Each song contained the impulses of doubt and arrogance at odds in any boho biosphere, by its nature a jerry-built life that requires a suspension of disbelief. An outsider could see the ink stain on your cords, smell the must of that Dumpster-dived couch, hear the tired cliches in your songs--just as the person Van Dyk sings to in "The Link" seems to. "You don't want to be here / And all you're ever gonna see here / Is a pallet full of broke-down tunes / In a silent room."

By 2000, when the band made another proper album (there was a collection of Velvet Underground covers in the interim), I'd escaped New Jersey again--bought a Greyhound ticket to Minneapolis and cobbled together a new provisional life in another safely deluded community. And from my new vantage point Private Suit, recorded with John Parish, sounded false. Parish, or perhaps the band itself in a moment of self-doubt, imposed strict production values, not just trimming the edges of Visser's woolly excursions but using the guitarist to play simple hooks. In effect the album reduced the band to Van Dyk's backup players. The resulting chamber pop was exact and professional and at times brilliant. But though Van Dyk sang "Anything can happen to me" as if she meant it, the closeness of the music denied that possibility.

But when Van Dyk sings about being "smack in the middle of ridiculous places" on the new record, it's believable because you can hear the ridiculous place the band has constructed around her--a carnival clatter of whistles and a staggering drumroll and Revolver guitar. Visser produced Log 22, and he predictably allows himself to straggle all over the place: guitar lines lose their way, approach the song from a difficult angle, glance haphazardly off the melody. He strolls up and down the scale like he's searching for a misplaced note. Uninvited horns clutter the mix, and a flute hovers irrelevantly atop "Captain of Maybe." Instrumental codas wander on so long you forget how the chorus went. Freed of the false sense of security Parish's chamber pop settings provided, Van Dyk once more allows her allusive lyrics to ramble too, and occasional giddiness is her reward.

Bands are like friends--when you stop leaving yourself open to what new ones have to offer, you stagnate. But sometimes you need some shared experience to refer back to, and that's when you risk wallowing in nostalgia--telling the same old stories, hearing the same old songs. Van Dyk's promise that "we're going to play an old song now" drew one of the loudest cheers of the night at the Abbey, as did the old songs themselves: "Kid's Allright" and "Tom Boy" and "Palomine." All sounded great, but their perspective sounded limited. The new song "De Diva" sounded much fresher: "If life is good, well, it's OK / Don't try to fix a thing that isn't broke."

If you haven't listened to Bettie Serveert since Palomine, though, Log 22 might well leave you cold. I like this band a lot, in case you haven't noticed, and they figure prominently in my personal mythology, so I find myself stuck between making a case for their continued significance and just letting you know how much they mean to me. Where I hear a band quietly dedicated to a life without guarantees, it's possible that, as the woman says, all you're ever gonna see here is a pallet full of broke-down tunes. The meandering detours and the occasional dud lyric are all part of an aesthetic I respond to. Our lives are full of filler, of verses that take too long to get to the chorus, of solos we aren't sure how to end. When I first heard Dust Bunnies, it persuaded me that the mess I'd made of my life was something worth piecing back together. Seeing Bettie Serveert again, in a performance that contained no unnecessary drama yet no false resolutions, reminded me that the mess is my life.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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