The Imp of Groeningen – a cautionary tale

I don’t remember much about Groeningen. I remember that several buildings still had cannonballs lodged in their walls, dating back to god knows when. My wife recalls that we all ate pancakes on a boat. The year was probably 1985 but might have been the next one (we did over 120 gigs in those two years so excuse the lack of precision). And that’s about it: apart from the baby.

Christ, I’ll never forget the baby.

It was meant to be an open-air festival but the summer rain was lashing down in the northern Netherlands so the organisers decided, at the last moment, to shift the event to an enormous sports hall. In proportion to the venue, the stage was also enormous. The drum-kit, logically enough, was at the back. My three colleagues were at the front. The distance between us, it seemed to me, was approximately the size of Saskatchewan.

The main reason it seemed this way was because I was seriously stoned – I mean, really quite seriously indeed. It wasn’t the first time I’d gone onstage after a couple of pulls on a joint, though it turned out to be the last. A bit of ‘loosener-upper’ spliff before a show was pretty much de rigueur in the mid 80’s Jazz Butcher Conspiracy. Failure to participate may not have been a sackable offence but neither was it an attitude to be encouraged.

This, however, was The Netherlands. What our hippie hosts bestowed upon us in a well-intended gesture of pre-show hospitality was in a different league from the stuff that we were used to scoring back home.

In addition, we’d been smoking it for some time. Due to the last-minute change of venue, the schedule was running late. We had time to kill and no other way of killing it occurred to us.

It was only when we were finally summoned to work that it dawned upon me how mind-numbingly mary-janed I was. The simple act of getting to my feet was a serious challenge. The journey from the dressing room to the stage was a marathon across what seemed to be a bouncy castle. Somehow, finally, I found myself sitting on the drum-stool, feeling both bewildered and extremely nervous.

Soundchecks at small European festivals in the ‘80s were generally both short and chaotic. Pressure of time meant that this one was unsurpassed in its brevity. Check the lines; make a pretence of asking what the singer and lead guitarist want in their monitors; ignore the drummer, he’s most likely deaf as a post anyway. Off you go, lads – one, two, three, four…

So not only did the distance between myself and the others feel like Saskatchewan, but I could hear them about as clearly as if they’d been in…um…Manitoba. And I mean the other end of Manitoba, not the one that borders Saskatchewan.

Panic started to set in. Sensing, rather than hearing Pat’s count-ins, I simply started playing when I thought it was about the right moment. I doubt that it ever was. I just told myself to hold a straight beat, no breaks, no fancy stuff, no nothing. Let’s just please get this over with. As all I could hear was my own drums, finding the pitch for a vocal harmony was pretty much impossible and I soon stopped trying – an uncharacteristically sensible decision.

Repeating the mantra ‘just hold the beat’ to myself, I was starting to think that maybe, just maybe, I could get through this without actually spontaneously combusting, or whatever it is that drummers do in such circumstances.

Then came the baby.

I guess it wasn’t actually a baby, strictly speaking. ‘Toddler’ is probably more accurate (the finer points of distinction concerning early infancy are not really my forte). Anyway, it wastoddling, and toddling straight towards me. It seem to want to join the band onstage and its stupid, wicked hippie parents (who were probably just as stoned as me) had cheerily complied. Wisely, it didn’t spend much time hanging out with the lead singer; what it had its nasty, beady little eyes on was the excitement of the drumkit. With increasing horror, I tracked its slow but relentlessly determined approach across the acres of stage.

Forget ‘baby’ or ‘toddler’: on reflection, I think that the nature of the beast is best captured by the word ‘imp’ – in the truly satanic sense, that is. With its idiot progenitors smiling, clapping and urging it on, it successfully negotiated the ascent of the drum-riser.

My panic level was shooting up by now. In desperation I looked around for a member of the stage crew who might (hope against hope) be clear-headed enough to see that this was a crisis. Assistance came there none. I tried to pull myself together as I realised that I was going to have to handle this alone. By this point, my dope paranoia had bestowed upon the creature an unmistakably demonic appearance. Summoning my inner Van Helsing, I tried to look the miniscule monster straight in the eyes. “Go away!”, I said, as firmly as possible. No – actually I didn’t say that. I screamed it. Bear in mind, I was still thrashing out The Jazz Butcher Meets Count Dracula or some such ditty, and praying inwardly that the rest of the band were playing the same song.

It stared back at me with a blood-freezing grin. I repeated the command several times, each time more desperately high-pitched than the last. I wished I knew the Dutch for ‘go away,’ or indeed for ‘piss off.’ I considered holding my sticks aloft in the form of a crucifix but somewhere in my addled brain I was still a slave to the ‘hold the beat’ mantra.

The next unwelcome development was its increased fascination with the hi-hat. The next song, The Human Jungle, had a busy hi-hat part and it occurred to me that, if it trapped its tiny fingers in a closing hat, the whole terrifying incident might come to an abrupt and welcome end. But it was far too canny for that: it managed to slap at the cymbals just enough to screw up the rhythm but not enough to hurt itself. Truly diabolical.

Then the imp managed to get hold of one of my spare drumsticks. At the sight of that, my soul slowly elevated above my sweat-drenched body as I watched it take over role of JBC drummer. It might well have made a better job of it than I was.

The set seemed to go on forever until, at long last, from somewhere across the rolling plains, Pat was introducing the last song, Zombie Love – “My baby’s been down under the ground…” I started to feel faint.

I’ve no memory of how the whole traumatic episode ended. Possibly Pat or Max could cast some light upon it but I doubt it, seeing as they were on the other side of Canada at the time. When I dream about it (as I do with alarming frequency), that’s the point where I always wake up – in a cold sweat, needless to say. I seem to have buried the dénouement deep in my subconscious and it’s probably best if it stays there. Maybe the thing transformed itself into a bat or a banshee or a bolt of lightning and skipped off through a black-magic wormhole into another dimension. Maybe one of the roadies finally woke up and manhandled it away (not too gently, I hope). Maybe it just got bored and toddled off. Anyway, eventually it was all over – both the baby assault and the gig. I don’t know whether we did an encore. I doubt it.

Back in the dressing room I doused myself in cold water, poured coffee into my terror-tightened throat and sat quietly trembling in a corner. I vowed that I would never again smoke pot before playing live. And I never have – because I know that if I ever do, the evil imp-child of Groeningen will still be waiting for me.

Owen Jones, August 2020

For more on The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, please click here
• For Pride Comes Before The Fall, also by Owen Jones, please click here
• For more on Owen’s current band, Shakespeare and the Bible, please click here

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