I’m pretty sure this one is down to Pete. I don’t think he made me a tape of Bettie Serveert’s music during the first years after we met — at least, I don’t have one floating around like the Antietam/Madder Rose tape that I all but wore out one winter — and I don’t think he loaned me a CD like the Shonen Knife and Amy Rigby albums that lived at my house for a couple of years. But the early ’90s were the time of the Great Catchup for me, and I can’t think how else I would have learned about Bettie Serveert’s great first album, Palomine, unless it was via Pete.
Pete arrived in my life unexpectedly one morning in 1990, walking in through a door at CBS Records and landing like an effusive grenade. I had just started working as a proofreader there — mostly checking liner notes to be sure that no assistant engineer’s name was misspelled in the ongoing conversion from vinyl to our glorious CD future — and as some anonymous VP had vacated their corner office, the corporate honchos decided to fill the space with a pair of low-level copy readers. Pete and I instantly started talking politics — I seem to remember we got started by discussing some ACT UP meetings he’d recently attended, though our discussions soon ranged far afield of that — and passing the time by reading copy out loud in silly voices, inventing pretend indie-rock band names (I particularly remember the mythical tour pairing Powerclown and Rainshovel, the former of which is now an actual clown-themed Iron Maiden tribute band, though the latter remains up for grabs), and trying and mostly failing to get the higher-ups to allow us to fix some of the album packaging’s more egregious errors — my favorite being the Robert Johnson complete collection that to this day contains a description of how Johnson’s “mother and brother-in-law attended his burial in a wooden coffin furnished by the county.”
And we talked music, incessantly. I introduced Pete to the Mekons. In exchange, he would introduce me to pretty much everything else.
Bettie Serveert were exactly the sort of band that seemed to be everywhere then: hailing from an unexpected part of the world (the Netherlands, though their lead singer Carol Van Dyk was born in Canada to Dutch and Indonesian parents, leaving her with an accent that is probably best described as singular), inspired by both stripped-down post-punk aesthetics and older rock traditions (guitarist Peter Visser was especially fond of, and adept at, Neil Young-esque guitar freakouts), and bearing an inexplicable name. (It translates as “Betty Serves,” and turned out to be from a photo caption of a tennis player, though to this day I’m still not sure I entirely get the joke.) It all came together in ways that felt both familiar and utterly new, something that seemed to be happening on a daily basis in rock music at the time. “Kid’s Allright” and “Leg,” in particular, remain for me two of the greatest guitar-rock songs of all time, singalong radio staples from an alternate universe.
And then, like many other bands of that era — or any era, I suppose — after their first great album, they sort of drifted off my radar. I remember hearing their followup, Lamprey, at a party (at Pete’s house, of course), and thinking it was fine enough but not groundbreaking, and then I didn’t get around to checking out their album after that. It was still a time in my life when I could dedicate myself to the relentless search for newness, and there were other bands out there to explore, especially seeing as I was still working my way through much of what I’d missed in the ’70s and ’80s.
I had almost forgotten about Bettie Serveert, in fact, when they unexpectedly showed up live on my radio on WFMU in early 2003, and it was … new. From the syncopated drum intro of “Given” to the whistles-and-power-chords explosion of “Smack” (which a couple of years later I discovered was accompanied by a hilarious video that for a while had my then-toddler son referring to Van Dyk as “Carol with the silly hair”) to the outsider anthem “Wide-Eyed Fools,” these were decidedly Bettie Serveert songs, but reinvented in new and surprising ways. Their then-new record, Log 22, quickly joined or even surpassed Palomine as my most-listened-to of their output; later that year, I slipped out from child-care duties for an evening to see them live for the first time, and was equally blown away by Van Dyk and Visser’s guitar interplay, as well as bassist Herman Bunskoeke‘s understated melodic counterpoint. (I completely forget who the drummer was on that tour; one constant in Bettie Serveert’s history has been that no drummer has lasted all that long.)
Had I now seen the error of my ways, and realized never to turn my back again on a band I’d once loved? Not quite — I did pick up those ’90s albums I’d missed, but I’m a couple behind again now, and haven’t seen them live in a few years. (It hasn’t helped that their American tours have become few and far between, though they still play semi-regularly in Europe.) But in the modern age it’s easier to keep tabs on bands, so I follow them on Facebook, reading their (often in inscrutable Dutch) posts about shows and band members’ birthdays, and make sure to check in every once in a while to see what they’re up to. There’s no telling when genius will strike unexpectedly, and I can’t depend on Pete for everything.