LISTEN! I’ve never been one for subtlety, so I’m just going to spit this right out (I’ll try not to spray) – WTF happened to the Amsterdam I knew and when did it lose its mojo??
When I arrived in the spring of 1980, before the sharp, spiky-studded, dragon’s tail-end of punk morphed into the softer swish of New Wave romanticism, Amsterdam had thrust its peroxide blond quiff above the clouds of miasmatic marijuana still lingering from its post-hippie years; emerging as a vibrant, cutting-edge Euro city, sparkling with fierce energy.
On 30 April ’80 (Koninginnedag / Queen’s Day), mass protests against the coronation of Queen Beatrix – instigated by squatter’s groups (Kraakbeweging) but supported by students, workers, anarchists and left-wing radicals of all shades – rocked the streets; reverberating from the Kinkerstraat & Bilderdijkstraat over to Waterlooplein, then back across the BlauwBrug to the Dam and Rokin. >10,000 police were deployed to quell the riots and over 600 people were injured!
Now, I’m not suggesting I miss the mass riots – although, even the most passive of pacifists might admit they can be cathartic, or even a force for change – but I do wonder what’s happened to Amsterdam to make a repeat of events on that scale totally unthinkable today? Has worship for the false gods of globalisation & tourism torn out a piece of its beating heart? Have the cold frosts of austerity and decades of bluster from centre-right coalitions thrown an icy-wet blanket of conformity over its once radical soul?
Back then, a sizeable portion of the population lived on the hard edges of society, rather than in its soft centre. Across the city many thousands of young people lived in squats (an odd twist on Prudhom’s “La propriété, c’est le vol !” slogan?) and former working-class areas like the Stadsliedenbuurt & Indische buurt buzzed with a new wave of social integration and activism; fuelled by increasing numbers of “buitenlanders” (foreigners) attracted by its magnetic energy and sense of radical social mobility. (Ex-) Hippies, Punks, Rasta’s, Gay’s & other bohemian tribes lived side by side with students, locals and every shade of “allochtonen”, in a madcap, kaleidoscopic mingling of the masses. You almost got a sense that the lunatic fringes had finally taken over.
In my own case, I no longer felt at home in Thatcher’s London and was busy contemplating my navel – and my future – at a “Kraakpand” (NOT a crack-house, I hasten to add!) on the Barentzstraat, sharing a floor (often literally) with a group of street musicians – refugees from the Embassy Club/ Bloomsbury squat scene, which later burgeoned the New Romantic movement. Even today, the memory of singing an acapella version of Anarchy In The UK outside Centraal Station with The Bikini Machine, can cause me to blush profusely!
My arrival in Amsterdam also coincided with the opening in June 1980 of Mazzo, which effectively became my second home during the hours of darkness. – Mazzo could legitimately lay claim to being one of THE great punk / new wave dance clubs of the 80’s, rivalling those in Berlin, London & New York. I honestly reckon I spent more cumulative hours there than in my own flat (Property Notice: I was the only person I knew who had a job and eventually ran out of excuses for squatting).
Having said that, I must admit that I wasn’t always 100% faithful to my nubile, night-time muse, Ms Mazzo. I even left her frequently for another club love, following legendary dance DJ Eddy De Clercq* (the coolest Belgian in history) from De Brakke Grond to his short-lived but long-lamented, pioneering club De Koer (which sadly closed its doors in 1983) and later through the Pep Club at Paradiso, to the even more legendary RoXY.
Eddy later went on to put the hip in hip-hop and almost single-handedly taught the Dutch how to dance.
However, despite a plethora of other night-time attractions, which later included Vizz, iT and 36 op de Schaal van Richter – not to mention almost weekly visits to the Paradiso and/or Melkweg, depending on who was on – the fact that Mazzo was on the way home and open until +/- 5 AM meant that, even when I’d been unfaithful, I usually ended up dropping by to apologise for my absence (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!). Throughout those years, my wardrobe consisted of more black than your average parish priest – with the occasional concession of a pair of lime or turquoise coloured socks; that emphasised my fleet footwork on the dancefloor, particularly under fluorescent lighting (LOL @ myself).
In passing, you may want to note that, in order to finance my night-life pursuits I found a job – originally intended more as pocket-money than a career – working for the yankee dollar at Time-Life which, along with fellow publisher Elsevier, offered many an English-speaking-but-hardly-a-word-of-Dutch-mumbling ex-Pat fool useful employment, saving many (but not all) from a life of total debauchery.
It never ceases to amaze me just how diverse the workforce was at Time-Life in those days: From bearded ex-hippies, to scions of triple-barrel named Dutch aristocracy, to an American lady that – as a girl – played Violet Beauregarde in the original Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (I kid you not!); to a young man who’d later clone (kluun?) himself into a prominent member of the Dutch litterati (Hi Ray!) In today’s employment market, I doubt if 10% of that workforce would’ve gotten past the first round of any recruitment search, and an equal number would only consider setting up a LinkedIn profile if they thought it had something to do with sausages.
Perhaps my memory has been clouded by nostalgia and decades of passive smoking (I never inhaled, your honour!) or warped by some of the other stuff I did (5th amendment!); but I don’t think the kids today – I have 2, both in their 20’s – and regularly interrogate them on such topics, under a bare light bulb, after spiking their drinks with sodium pentothal – have anywhere near the scale and sheer diversity of entertainment on offer as in 80’s and 90’s.
During that time, I reckon I must have seen literally hundreds of different acts – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Bowie, Nick Cave… The Fall (at the Melkweg) … Prince at the Paradiso (as early as ’81)… The Smiths at the Meervaart… Siouxsie & The Banshees at the Paradiso during a thunderstorm (with lightning flashing on the stained-glass windows!) … Miles Davis at the Concertgebouw – well, mostly Miles Davis’s back TBH (one for you Jazz fiends) … Grandmaster Flash & The Furious …. 5 pages later … (are Ad Infinitum a band?).
Also, the sheer diversity of cultural life was astounding. When was the last time you saw an avantgarde French performance art group (Urban Jazz?) swinging from wires from the roofs of De Nieuwe Kerk, playing wild, atonal saxophone riffs at full volume? Or, rubbed shoulders with a bizarre piece of living art like Fabiola in the coffee shop at the Stedelijk? Or, watched a German experimental rock group (Einsturzende Neubauten) with instruments made of scrap metal and building tools at the (long since demolished) old prison off the Weteringschans; with the audience joining in and adding to the soundscape by kicking at doors, rattling cages and banging the iron bars?
I’ve no doubt many of you who’ve had the stamina to get this far (for which I thank you) are thinking something along the lines of – “Yeah, but surely there’s just as much going on nowadays in Amsterdam? – He’s just too old / out of touch”. Sure, I get that, but from my recollection, even though there were also separate “scenes” back then, there was also much more crossover and intermingling between the various youth “tribes”. Everything -including night-life – was much more fluid and far less compartmentalised than it is today (as opposed to much more mental).
(So, IF (big if!) my theory is correct and Amsterdam is much less cutting-edge and far more homogenised and safer than it was in my (hey-)day, what would the reasons for that be? Let me throw some random thoughts – some of them fully deserving to be cut to ribbons – at the idea, and let’s see if some of them stick.
The drugs: Back then, the main party drugs of choice were Cocaine – often cut (whether the user knew it or not) with amphetamine (Speed) … Poppers (alkyl nitrates) … LSD (acid) was still used, albeit sparingly. Dope has always been around, but IMHO is no less of a problem than cigarette use. Crack cocaine came later. Ecstasy even later. As a result, I reckon far more people then were constantly wired. Thankfully, heroin-use started to die out (along with many of its users) gradually through the 80’s and into the 90’s. Nobody, with the possible exception of some ancient drug baron in The Golden Triangle, regrets its demise: Any drug which turns people into sly, mean, selfish low lives has zero redeeming qualities; no matter how “hip” it may have been in rock n roll and other circles. In my mind, I always associate the sad death of Dutch rock star & artist Herman Brood ( Pictured above outside Mazzo in 1990 , by Gerard Wessel) – after he “bungee jumped without the elastic” (his words) to his death from the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton on 11 July 2001 – as heralding the death knell of any hint of hipness of heroin in Holland.
Nowadays, the drugs are (relatively) safer – “designer” drugs with more chemical compounds than exist on the periodic table. Also, the average youth of today is 10 x more savvy about drug use than they were in my day. Gambling with drugs is dangerous but (generally speaking) fewer people are out of their minds and Holland is apparently the safest country in the world to buy them. – With apologies to anyone offended by my tongue-in-cheek approach to such a deadly serious topic.
The I-Phone & Social Media: As absurd as it may seem, I can’t help but feel that the ever-shorter attention span, obsession with constant news – whether real, fake, or obscurely niche – and the often meaningless, token online “like” communication of half of the western world, may be part of the problem. – Most young people are simply too busy with their own lives to take things seriously enough to get off their phones and their arses and take to the streets.
Global Politics: The leader of the western world is a ginger buffoon, megalomaniac and asshole (“*”) reminiscent of a villain from the pages of the dystopian sci-fi novels of Kurt Vonnegut Jnr. Russia is run by an ex-spy who does what he likes and seems immune from any pressure from the rest of the world. China is a 1 party-state with the largest population on the planet, who seem quite happy to have no political voice, as long as they continue to see their income grow. Is it therefore any wonder that the youth of such a small country as Holland feel powerless to effect any change and seem unwilling to take up any cause which does not impact them directly?
Dutch politics: Self-serving ex-yuppies have taken over from their predecessors (the boring old farts) and oh, oh, do they feel so smug about it. The relative stability of the economy and general national wellbeing means that only the poorest of the poor feel any pain. The rest couldn’t care a fuck. Dutch society has turned beige and flabby. Today, the student population is almost indistinguishable from the rest of the population and there are fewer political activists than Instagram “celebrities”. There are more tourists coming to Amsterdam than ever before, but what they’re seeing now is a postcard-plastic version of the city. The real city is fading away before our very eyes.
So, is any of this likely to change? Not unless more people start caring more. If the youth of today don’t feel strongly enough to take to the streets to protest about Trump, what would incite them into action? If even something as critical to their survival as global warming can’t shake the young people of Amsterdam out of their inertia & apathy in sufficient numbers to take to the streets, then I fear there’s probably no going back.
Maybe there’s a new global youth movement around the corner which will have as much influence on future generations as the flower-power movement did in the 60’s and punk in the late 70’s, but I wouldn’t bank on it, as youth tribes themselves almost seem to be a thing of the past.
Yes. Some people do care, but not enough. Sure, some people do still get angry, but they’re most often daft old buggers like myself, ranting away in stream of consciousness fashion about things that make them angry. What angers me most – in addition to all of the above – is not being able to finish off an article with a cogent argument and meaningful, convincing conclusion. So, people like me also make me angry, as my political impotence is also part of the problem. And – if you live in Amsterdam and are reading this – You! Yes YOU! – Reading this on your phone or laptop, but caring more about the latest trend in coffee culture than any real issues; whilst the vibrancy which made this city what it is, fades to grey conformity and sinks beneath the river IJ under the combined weight of tourism and apathy.
Perhaps that explains why MOKUM is Dead?
- *NB: Anyone who’s interested in, or was involved in, the Amsterdam dance club scene of the 80’s & 90s should read Eddy De Clercq’ (aka as The Godfather of Netherlands Dance & Professor Party) ‘s biography – Let The Night Never End: –
Laat de nacht nooit eindigen – Uitgeverij Bas Lubberhuizen