At the Center of Rebellion: the Life and Music of Armand

Yesterday, 19 November 2015, was the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor organizer and troubadour, Joel Emanuel Hagglund, aka Joe Hill.  I discovered when I woke up this morning and looked at my phone that it was also the day that my dear friend, Herman George van Loenhout, better known simply as Armand, died at the age of 69.

I had one last Joe Hill-related gig last night, one of scores of Joe Hill-related gigs I’ve done since early in 2015.  I had only been in the green room behind the stage at the Alberta Rose Theater in northeast Portland when a member of the local band, General Strike, slowly entered the room.  He was walking with difficulty, using a walker to stay upright.  He was one of three musicians in the room who did not walk with ease anymore.  Observing this fairly obvious fact, he joked in an exaggeratedly old-sounding voice, “is this the infirmary?”

Musicians often die young.  It’s often a very public death.  They usually keep on performing long after they should have stopped, long after they lost the ability to sing on pitch or to sustain a note, long after they couldn’t really play their instrument anymore, as they struggle with one illness or another, on and off the stage.  They often keep performing not out of vanity, but out of necessity, since most musicians are poor – especially the professional ones.

As any self-aware professional musician will tell you, the most likely way for a musician to die is behind the wheel, or in a plane – Buddy Holly, John Denver, Stan Rogers.  Then there are the many who die at the peak of their careers while in their twenties because the combination of the fame and the drugs and alcohol was too much for them – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Gram Parsons, Amy Winehouse.

Many others who are not quite so inclined toward self-destruction die in their fifties due to too many years of the very exhausting combination of life on the road combined with too much drugs and alcohol over the years.  I think of Jerry Garcia, and my dear friend and long-time touring partner, Alistair Hulett.

Armand died too young, but for some reason it seems relevant to point out that he didn’t drink, and his drugs of choice were of the psychedelic variety.  The tobacco he mixed with his hashish did not do his lungs any favors, to be sure.  But the drugs never got in the way of his spell-binding performances, except to the extent that they were part of the act.

If you look on the web you will find almost nothing in English about Armand.  I would have wanted to write something about him anyway, but this fact compels me to do so that much more.

An hour ago, the English-language Wikipedia entry on Armand was just this:

“Herman George van Loenhout (born 10 April 1946 in Eindhoven, died 19 November 2015), better known as Armand, was a Dutch protest singer.  He was known as ‘the Dutch Bob Dylan.’ His greatest hit song was ‘Ben ik te min’ (‘Am I not worthy?’). Armand came to the fore during the hippie generation and was an advocate of cannabis.”

Now there’s one more paragraph that has very recently been added, I just noticed.  It talks of the “reviving” of his music career after 2011.  Media types love to refer to things like that, but really, although he did get some major press attention in the past several years due to various artistic collaborations he was involved with, his career didn’t need reviving.  He’s been a successful professional musician since the early 1960’s, and his career was doing fine before and after 2011.

I last saw him a few weeks ago in the hospital in Eindhoven, the city in the Netherlands where he lived, where he grew up.  There are many people who knew him far better than I, and many, many others who know his music far better than I.  There has never been an English-subtitled video made for any of his songs as far as I know.  No documentaries about him with subtitles that I’ve ever found.  He was an entirely Dutch phenomenon.  And in the Dutch-speaking world, Armand was and is a household name, across the generations.

Armand was often caricatured, and was widely both loved and ridiculed, sometimes by the same people.  He came to be the one person who more or less represented the spirit of the 1960’s in the Netherlands, so depending on where you stand in the culture wars, either you loved him, or he made you feel very uncomfortable.  For many, especially for people of his generation, he was a constant reminder of something you weren’t — or had once been, but had later rejected.

What a difference fifteen years can make.  Fifteen years ago, when I met Armand, he was not yet old, and I was not yet middle-aged.  I was 33 and he was 54.  In other words, I was one of those people who still nominally qualified as a member of “the youth.”  The anti-capitalist movement was thriving throughout Europe, North America and elsewhere at the time, and Armand was hungry to be a part of this phenomenon.

But lest people get the wrong idea, let me clarify what I mean by that.  Armand wanted to be at the center of the action, not because he was seeking more fame, but because that’s who he was.  If he had been trying to get more famous, he would have sung in English or French (both major languages which he spoke with complete fluency).  Aside from covering some old American folk songs and the odd Bob Dylan song (which he did brilliantly), he wrote and sang in Dutch – thus essentially limiting his potential mass appeal to the Netherlands and part of Belgium.

Armand’s influence on society was easy to ascertain.  Mention the man by name, and Dutch or Flemish people will often laugh immediately.  But mention instead the title to one of his well-known songs such as “ Ben ik te min,” and the tears will well up in their eyes, especially if they’re men of a similar age.  Armand’s words spoke to the very essence of what it meant to be a young person in a relatively conservative, stiff, Protestant society who wanted, needed to break out of that restrictive mold and discover an entirely different value system, where love and laughter were infinitely more important than things like money, social status or driving a fancy car.

Today many of us take for granted the cultural victories of the Sixties generation, the overcoming of so many taboos and forms of internalized repression that so many more people suffered from before the Sixties began to make it OK to be an effeminate man, a masculine woman, a free lover, an artist.  OK to not give a shit what your neighbors think, to reject careerism in favor of living a full life.  OK to reject patriotism and embrace multicultural internationalism.

But for those who were rejecting the repressive aspects of the old society back then, for those who in the Netherlands were known as the Provos, like Armand, it was all much more challenging, much more cutting-edge than many younger people today imagine.  People like Armand were not just caricatured back then – they were actively hated, and regularly beaten by police, arrested, imprisoned.

I hope those out there who know more about Armand and more about the Netherlands than I will forgive me if I get anything wrong here – I don’t read Dutch and I’m not inclined to verify facts even if I did.  (Never trust a songwriter for that sort of thing.  We’re all naturally prone to exaggeration.)  But I’ll tell you a little more about the man.

Armand was born on 10 April, 1946, less than a year after the end of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  As a child, he lived right near the Philips Electronics factory, and had chronic lung problems of the sort that seem to me to be the direct result of industrial poisoning.  The first of many times he was hospitalized with pneumonia was at the age of seven.  The doctors at the time didn’t think he’d make it very far into adulthood.

He was, as far as I gather, one of those small, weak boys that develops a great sense of humor in order to survive childhood.  He was only a teenager when he was hanging out on the docks, I think in Antwerp, with sailors from somewhere else, I think it was Jamaica, as I recall him recounting to me, and he first discovered marijuana, years before most white people in Europe or North America had done so.

Along with so many others at the time, he also discovered rock and roll, and in so many ways these things – drugs and rock and roll, and sexual liberation – were not just ways of rejecting the repressed, walking-dead society of the dominant culture in the traumatized 1950’s.  Not just rebelling in order to embrace a more sensible, more free understanding of the glories that life has to offer us.  Not just a rejection of status, wealth, and consumerism.  But also an active embracing of other cultures, and an active rejection of empire, colonialism, racism and xenophobia.

I never once visited Armand without him recounting a story about an experience he had hanging out with a friend from Turkey, Morocco, Jamaica or some other place.  Yes, the stories usually related to smoking hash.  Yes, this kind of thing can be easily caricatured.  But for Armand’s generation especially, this embracing of other cultures was a real act of rebellion as well as discovery.  Learning that there is such wisdom to be found in the lives, lifestyles, and philosophies of people outside of the Netherlands, outside of the often-stifling West.

Armand was a multi-lingual person who embraced not only the drugs of the Others, but their languages, their intellectuals, and their music.  He became a musician in the mold of so many others who were discovering the rest of the world at the time, discovering improvisation, seventh chords, syncopation, electricity and the like.  He excelled at all of it, and his excellence was even recognized by the record companies and radio stations, which began to bring into every household in the Netherlands the songs this man wrote — though his songs were very controversial, and many of them were not played, and were censored in one form or another at the time.

Although Armand later came to represent what they might call the Drug Culture in the mainstream press of the past few decades, you need look no further than the covers of his albums to see how engaged he was with international politics.  On one of them you will find the widely-viewed, very disturbing photo of a Vietminh soldier being summarily executed by a US-backed South Vietnamese soldier.

The form of rebellion that Armand most represented was a rebellion of values and lifestyle.  Underpinning this rebellion is the idea that if you have a society full of people who are too busy having a good time enjoying the finer things in life, there might not be anyone left to do things like join the Army, run the banks, collect taxes, etc.  But he was never far from what we might call the more confrontational forms of rebellion.

One of Armand’s best friends was a guy I met at a protest in Germany in 2000, a fellow resident of Eindhoven named Antwan.  Antwan was best known at the time for being a very active participant in a struggle to save the village of Ruigoord from destruction by the ever-expanding industrial ports of western Amsterdam.  Antwan spent weeks living in a tunnel beneath a road, in which he was almost buried alive by being run over by a bulldozer.  Much of the port is now a massive Starbucks bean-roasting and distribution plant.  Though the surrounding farmland was lost in the struggle, due to the efforts of people like Antwan, the village of Ruigoord itself was saved.

When I met Antwan, he told me about Ruigoord and about his friend Armand.  Soon after, next time I was in the Netherlands, I visited Antwan, and together we went to Armand’s house, where I met him and his long-time partner, Marrit.

They were both dressed like psychedelic hippie Dutch peasants.  Marrit still wears wooden shoes, as she always did back then.  Armand’s English was so good, you wouldn’t necessarily guess he was Dutch.  You could tell he was from somewhere else, but he spoke English with the kind of vocabulary that would have sounded very colloquial if you were hanging out in Greenwich Village in 1968.  Marrit, by contrast, with her wooden shoes and braided hair, spoke with a perfect Dutch accent, like the kind of Dutch accent an actor would imitate in a movie if she were trying to sound unmistakably Dutch.

That first conversation was one of many other similar ones – long, intense, moving erratically from the topic of cannabis to civil disobedience to the history of the Ottoman Empire.  I had never heard of this phenomenon known as a chillum, but I became intimately familiar with this ridiculous method of smoking hash and tobacco together through a wet cloth.  Sort of like putting ice in a bong, except it’s a pipe instead of a bong, and a wet cloth instead of ice.  Partially because of his exhibitionist chillum-smoking habits, along with his habit of writing songs with frequent references to cannabis, LSD, and other things like that, he became known in the Dutch press as Holland’s “national smokestack.”

As far as I could tell as a non-Dutch speaker, Armand would allow himself to be put into the role of the Sixties Throwback in the Dutch media regularly, only to regularly break out of the box they put him into, demonstrating again and again his eloquence, his musicianship, and his wit.  At his shows, his audiences were laughing uproariously about every thirty seconds.  Unfortunately not me, since I don’t speak Dutch, although whenever I was in the audience he’d throw in a couple more English songs than usual for my benefit.

Although he’s a thousand times better-known in the Netherlands than I am, Armand would do gigs with me in squats and punk social centers in Holland as a double-bill.  When I sang, he sat in the front row and listened avidly to every word.  Soon after I wrote my song, “The Commons,” I sang it at a gig in the Netherlands, and Armand translated it into Dutch and made his Dutch version of the song a standard part of his performances after that.

We discovered we shared a birthday in common, and every April 10 since then, his would generally be the first birthday greeting of the day for me.  This is due to the time difference, of course, since most of North America would still be sleeping when the Europeans were starting their day.  And also because it’s easy to remember a friend’s birthday when it’s the same as yours.

Four years ago we celebrated our birthday together, going to the Efteling theme park in Holland.  Kind of like Disneyland, except way cooler, way cheaper, and way more Dutch.  (And smaller.)

It was just after Armand’s “revival” that the new second paragraph of his English Wikipedia entry refers to was happening.  He had been on a hiphop-oriented TV show popular among the youth, and he came to the amusement park prepared for what he apparently knew would happen.  In his knapsack was not only a day’s supply of pre-rolled joints, but also a stack of color photographs of himself for him to sign for fans.

As soon as we entered the park, he was pretty much swarmed by children.  The adults all knew him, too, of course, but they mostly maintained more of Dutch reserve about the situation, not wanting to bother him.  The kids didn’t give a shit though, and they all gathered around him, asking him if his orange hair was real (“real hair, but not the original color”), and asking for his autograph.  At every ride we went on, he had to stop for a couple minutes to talk to the star-struck worker running the ride.  And everywhere we went, we smoked joints, which might seem completely outrageous to many readers, but for Armand, in Holland, was completely anticipated behavior which failed to raise a single eyebrow.

Marrit was with us, and my wife and child as well, and all the rides which looked too sickening for me, Reiko or Marrit to deal with, Armand was up for, so he and Leila were the only ones in our group to survive that swinging pirate ship thing.  Why the fuck anyone would want to experience sea-sickness if they’re not on a ship without a choice in the matter is beyond me, but there’s obviously a market for it, otherwise Efteling would go out of business, along with Disneyland.

He was one of those rare people who read every mass email I ever sent out as if it was a personal message to him.  One of my best boosters, he would write me frequent emails to tell me how a song I had just posted had moved him to tears.  Last February he wrote with great excitement to tell me that he was doing an album with a popular Dutch band called the Kik.  It was to be an album of all Armand songs, chosen by the Kik, and one of the dozen songs they chose was Armand’s translation of “The Commons.”  (“You’re in the phone book!” he wrote me excitedly once it was clear that this song was going on the album.)

They sang that song and others on TV and radio stations and at shows for large audiences throughout the Netherlands last summer.  Armand definitely didn’t fizzle out, no question – he went out on a strong note.  He and the Kik did twenty shows last summer.  (Which in the Dutch context means playing in every city in the country, plus some other towns.)

I was passing near Eindhoven in September and I dropped by his apartment for a visit.  He had just gotten some very bad news about the state of his lungs from the hospital.  He was clearly short of breath.  He said that over the summer on the tour he was often so weak that he made sure he was always using a really sturdy mike stand, so he could hang on it when he needed to, if he was having trouble standing.  Somehow, though, as any listener could tell you, he still delivered great renditions of his songs, even in that condition.  He was always at his best when he was on stage – the stage revived him, no doubt, every time (as it will often do).

The next time I saw him was a couple weeks later when I was coming back through Eindhoven for another visit.  This time he was in the hospital, with his seventh bout of pneumonia since he was a kid.  He was very frail, weak, getting oxygen through a tube.  I had long ago noticed how small he was, though not until I knew him for years.  Beneath his usually multi-layered, multi-colored hippie outfit, you wouldn’t be able to tell how little he was unless you hugged him hard, and our physical contact usually involved something more like a pat on the back than a real American hug.

I was pretty sure at the time that this would be the last time I would see him.  Some of his friends said he had been really sick before and had pulled through, and I hoped they were right, but it was hard to imagine this tiny little sack of skin and bones could survive much longer, despite his intense love of life.  It was probably the love of life that had sustained him far beyond when most people would have given up, I’m sure.

I’m not going to try to wrap this up with some kind of effort to summarize the significance of this beautiful man.  There are no summaries.  Life is way too big for that kind of thing.  I’ll just leave you with one of Armand’s favorite poems, one by the English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy, published in 1873.  (In an email from a few months ago, he quoted the poem and raved about how good it was, telling me about how he had just recited it at a gig.)

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers,

And sitting by desolate streams;—

World-losers and world-forsakers,

On whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers

Of the world for ever, it seems.

David Rovics is a frequently-touring singer/songwriter and political pundit based out of Portland, Oregon.  His website is