Now, in the summer of 2012, Van het Groenewoud (pictured) is inviting us all to join him in Brussels on 11 July for Flemish Community Day, with which he is now inextricably associated, his songs for years part of Flemish cultural heritage.
For sure, it will be a hectic day for the singer and songwriter, now 62. In the afternoon, he will play at Flagey with the Brussels Philharmonic. In the evening, he will sing his biggest hits for a major crowd on the Grote Markt, surrounded by colleagues such as Helmut Lotti, Hannelore Bedert and Flip Kowlier.
And even later that night, Van het Groenewoud will show up for a guest appearance on the roof of the Beursschouwburg, where local band Tommigun will update his 1984 soundtrack for the cult movie Brussels By Night. Prominent Flemish authors will read aloud the stories they’ve invented around key figures in his songs.
The song master is curious how others will recycle his work. What will award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Gerda Dendooven or novelist Christophe Vekeman make of his classics “Twee Meisjes” (Two Girls) and “De Middenstandsblues” (The Retailer’s Blues)? Take the first one, about two teenage girls reading fashion magazines and watching boys at the beach. It’s plain, simple and even without rhyme, but the Flemish audience has taken a keen liking to it. Every year it tops the lists of all-time Belgian favourites compiled by radio listeners. “I’m a big fan of the written word,” van het Groenewoud says, “and I am particularly fond of the idea that the authors will do their own thing with it.”
In fact, he has never had any problem letting go of his songs. “I write and sing them, but then the fantasy of the listener takes over, and you’re rid of them,” he tells me. “Mick Jagger once said in an interview that he met a guy who told him he understood all his lyrics, but in the end he was wrong about almost everything!” Instead of being annoyed, the Rolling Stones frontman found it amusing. “I took over that attitude, which is far better than continuously feeling indignant and misunderstood.”
Van het Groenewoud never consciously tried to be an ambassador for Flanders, but he became one in any case. Often his lyrics – sometimes identifiable, other times daring, frequently playful – tell you something about the nature of the people. One might almost forget that his parents were Dutch. To avoid military service, they moved in the late 1940s from Amsterdam to Brussels, where his father started to perform as Nico Gomez and became the leader of a Latin-inspired big band.
That’s were all the muziekjes in his head come from, which he refers to in his hit “Cha Cha Cha”, a fine statement against musical homogeny. All through his career, Van het Groenewoud maintained a preference for different styles, from intimate and melancholic to funky and danceable. Van het Groenewoud released his first solo album in 1973. His first bit hit “Meisjes” (Girls) was on the 1977 classic album Nooit meer drinken (Never Drink Again). Its line “Meisjes, ze komen zelden klaar, meneer” (“Girls, they seldom come, sir”) is still a favourite live.
You can hear the despair of an underappreciated artist, meanwhile, in “Je Veux de l’Amour” (I Want Love, 1980); ironically this song forced his breakthrough in The Netherlands. Later, the gospel parody “Liefde Voor Muziek” (Love for Music, 1991) would be his only number-one song. But it wasn’t necessarily through the charts that Van het Groenewoud made a big impact on the native-language music scene. It’s his spirited performances that have shown younger musicians the way.
In fact, supporting him at the Grote Markt on 11 July are two big fans, the young talent Senne Guns en Het Zesde Metaal, the band of singersongwriter Wannes Cappelle. The appreciation is mutual. “Wannes writes great lyrics, and I’m not telling you a secret when I say Senne’s “Goudvis” (Goldfish) is already a classic,” says Van het Groenewoud, who also appreciates that, on this special occasion, stages across Brussels are reserved for Flemish artists. “If only to keep a certain balance,” he explains, “because Flemish musicians would ultimately forget to profile themselves. They’re not so chauvinistic.”
He admits, though, that “it’s a pity I won’t be sharing the stage with some French-speaking artists. I invited Stromae and Adamo, but they had already other commitments”.
Van het Groenewoud thinks that we “live in a very permissive society” with regard to other people’s nationalism. He smiles. “One moment we may be thinking that this is the best place on earth, the other moment we joke about that same statement and don’t take ourselves too seriously. It all comes down to our individuality, I think. History teaches us why we became such individualists. Through all these foreign occupations, the Fleming became a real artist in surviving. Somewhat stubborn … One day you’re disapproving about that, the next day you think it’s charming.”
His last album De laatste rit (The Last Ride, 2011) was a striking example of this survival. Though he was always more a live than a charts artist, the album quickly went gold. “As an artist, it’s your job to prove you’re still relevant, over and over again,” he says. Van het Groenewoud is still an eager showman: After Flemish Community Day, you can see him at the Gentse Feesten and a bunch of other summer festivals. But at 62, he admits, he’s spending more time in preparation. “I feel more comfortable that way,” he says. I don’t like the stress of being doubtful. I want to be dreamy on stage and have the freedom to go beneath my maximum level. It makes me sound more natural.”
Flagey 15.00; Grote Markt 20.00
On 11 July, 1302, the militias of the Flemish cities and municipalities, which consisted mainly of infantry, craftsmen and farmers, defeated an army of French knights on the Groeningekouter in Kortrijk. On the battlefield, hundreds of golden spurs, worn by the French, were recovered. The battle prevented a final annexation of the former county of Flanders by the French kingdom and became a symbol of resistance to foreign domination.
But it was only in the course of the 19th century that
people named it the Battle of the Golden Spurs, partially
thanks to the romanticised version of the battle in the
book Hendrik Conscience’s book The Lion of Flanders.
It’s not only the Flemish movement or political
parties that meet to celebrate the day. Since 2002, the
government of Flanders has handed out “party cheques”
to those organising a street or neighbourhood party and
hang out the yellow-and-black Flemish flag sporting the