Bluefinger

Catastrophic Theatre stages a rock opera redemption.

"There was no band then, only two farmer boys, he and me," Van Dijk says over the phone from The Netherlands. "And he had a dream: to do something with music and to go to America, because in America there is the roots of rock and roll. And we said, 'Okay, let's do it.'"

As with so many Dutch, Van Dijk's English is very good, even if he sometimes struggles to find the precise phrase he's looking for. The Dutch often lilt upwards on words we don't, and the effect sometimes comes across that Van Dijk is asking several questions in one declaratory sentence.

"And everything happened?" he continues. "It all came true. The only thing different is there was a bottom line."

Black Francis sings near the statue of Herman Brood in Brood's hometown of Zwolle. Natives of Zwolle are called Bluefingers.
Marco Peelen
Black Francis sings near the statue of Herman Brood in Brood's hometown of Zwolle. Natives of Zwolle are called Bluefingers.
Having already written a song about Brood's death called "Angels Come to Comfort You," Black Francis thought that the winged holy guardian he later found at Brood's grave was just a little eerie.
Fraijman
Having already written a song about Brood's death called "Angels Come to Comfort You," Black Francis thought that the winged holy guardian he later found at Brood's grave was just a little eerie.

By 1979, Brood had conquered Holland. The road there had not been easy: He had been in and out of several bands, not to mention prison, where he was sent for peddling LSD, but by 1976 he had formed the Wild Romance, his most famous band. In 1978, they released Shpritsz, Brood's most enduringly successful album. Taking its title from the German street slang term for a syringe,  Shpritsz featured the three songs for which Brood would be fleetingly known in the U.S., "Rock and Roll Junkie," "Dope Sucks" and "Saturday Night," the last of which would eventually crack, just barely, the Billboard Top 40.

In the summer and fall of 1979, RCA thought the time was ripe for the Wild Romance to storm America. There would be an extended tour and a recording session, and at the end, in what seemed a mere formality, Brood would be anointed a new star at a showcase in New York City's Bottom Line. Herman Brood was going to be the new Mick Jagger.

For a time, it was all going according to plan. "We were a national breakout all over America," Van Dijk remembers. "We had club gigs in places like L.A. (at the Whiskey A Go Go), where we sold out three times. It was all over neon lights, everywhere we went 'Herman Brood Welcome' at every hotel. It was great — very, very big success."
_____________________

But just as Napoleon's army marched on its stomach, the Wild Romance's tour marched on booze and high-grade Dutch speed. As Van Dijk puts it in a Zen-like koan, "The drugs were not important. They just had to be there."

At heart a shy man, Brood said he drank to be more outgoing and he took speed to both balance the booze and inspire himself creatively. And it couldn't be just any old bathtub biker crank, or the trucker speed that almost drove Johnny Cash over the edge in the early '60s — it had to be the premium-type of stuff "Heisenberg" from Breaking Bad would cook up. If he didn't have it, Brood would drink anyway and simply take the stage as a garden-variety drunkard.

"American speed didn't work for Herman, those little pills, mother's little helpers as the Stones called them, or bombitas or whatever, it didn't work," Van Dijk says. "But we took a lot of speed to America. By 'we,' I mean I did. I hid it in amplifiers and mixers." He thought he had brought enough for a year.

It was a few days before the all-important gig at the Bottom Line. Everybody was going to be there: All the hotshots who would make or break the rest of his career. If, and only if, Brood completely bombed would this show be anything other than the final stage in his coronation. 

Van Dijk can't recall if he was in Boston or Washington on that terrible day when Brood casually informed him in Dutch that he was almost out of "backbone" — their code word for speed. "Herman, what is happening?" Van Dijk demanded.

Brood, who could never keep a secret, spilled the beans. He told Van Dijk he had been freely sharing his drugs with all comers — roadies and crew, the Kinks, anybody who asked. "Everybody was sniffing, licking, eating this speed, because it was so, so, so very good," Van Dijk remembers. "I always said, 'A dead horse is rising from this speed.'"

And it was almost gone. The blood drained from Van Dijk's face. Unless there was some kind of emergency re-up, Brood would face them all as shit-faced as Shane MacGowan on a bad night.

What to do? Van Dijk knew Brood could not perform well without his drugs, and the stuff available in America was no substitute. There was no other choice. Van Dijk would go back to Holland and get more. And while he was there, since there was also the recording session coming up, he'd stock up big time. He says he purchased a truly enormous amount.

He made it through customs but was dismayed when he finally opened the bag in a motel room. "Empty! Empty! Empty! No lock was broken, anything," Van Dijk wails, aghast again all these years later. "At that time we had no speed and we had to go to New York."

He theorizes now that the tour's drivers had ripped off the stash. Brood had talked too much about the trove that was on its way, and now it was gone. Van Dijk had risked decades in federal prison an ocean from home, not once but twice, and all for naught.

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