Chapter 23

A High in the Low Countries

When we disembarked from the car ferry at Hoek van Holland, Eric was there to meet us. Eric from the Circo Do booking agency, that is. As Xero got to know Dutch Eric and came to appreciate his generosity and his sense of humour, he reckoned that we should stipulate in contracts that all of our agents should be called Eric as, in his experience, people of that name were invariably good eggs.

Dutch Eric had long unkempt, almost dreadlocked dark brown hair and a highly infectious bellicose laugh. When we arrived in Amsterdam he very kindly moved out of his apartment and stayed with his girlfriend Karen so that we could use his place as a base. The three musicians stayed there, while I stayed in the canal-side converted warehouse of an old Dutch friend I'd met years before in a Nepalese Monastery.

Each day, the four of us would meet up and go around the corner to Dam Square in the heart of the city to busk. Gene had a child's drum set covered in super hero stickers. Louis played the electric bass through an antique home made amplifier powered by a car battery. He pushed the whole ensemble along in a battered old pram. Xero played his saxophone without amplification and I bottled for them. I wandered around the sizable, appreciative audiences flashing my most genial smile and collecting their dues, which were - more often than not - quite substantial.

Or they were until they encountered the Shuffle Demons, a group of four streetniks from Toronto. Together with a drummer, this quartet played alto, tenor and baritone saxophones with great panache. A bit too well really. When they met, both bands competed head on for the same prime busking patch in the city, slap bang in Dam Square. The Works were unused to such hot competition making a dent in their takings. A stare-off ensued, to try and psych out the opposition. Xero, Louis and Gene were at first a tad wary, but once they heard an "oot" and an "aboot" they realised that the accents were not American but Canadian. They relaxed their guard and formed a good humoured alliance with these fellow guerrilla musicians.

The crowds that gathered were always an interesting mix: locals and tourists, young and old, all races, male and female. Everyone, it seemed, loved their show. First thing every morning, the liberal laws of the Netherlands were manna from heaven for foreign visitors such as the four of us. The coffees and cakes at the cafes that we frequented could, quite legally, be augmented with hashish or grass from Thailand, Morocco, Kashmir or Lebanon. Consequently, like most English visitors, we spent most of our time in Amsterdam completely off our faces. The locals who inhabited the squat on Singel where I was staying, having been brought up in such an open-minded climate, themselves refrained and looked down their noses at the tourists' excesses, tut-tutting to each other.


In the evenings, Eric had set up a wide variety of gigs. The Works were at their very punkiest when they played a tiny squatters' bar called "de Muur". They also performed their "funky set" for fashionable yuppies in trendy night clubs. But, most exciting of all, Circo Do had booked them to play at the "BIMHUIS". This was a hall run by the Bond of Improvising Musicians and represented a career high point for all three of them. All of their heroes had previously played there and to be able to do so meant that they had achieved some measure of success.

call in at the BIMHUIS in Amsterdam

But, as Sod's Law would have it, the "plumbing" of Xero's Selmer saxophone played up and ruined "Eric's Window", usually one of the pieces de resistance of their set. At first, when the bass and drums kept aimlessly meandering along with the intro and nothing was coming from Xero, I thought he was having a panic-stricken crisis of confidence. I myself had often had a recurring dream - more of a nightmare really - of being a musician in the spotlight centre stage, the crowd paid-up and waiting, and my having completely forgotten how to play and being struck embarrassingly dumb.

I looked at the Jazz afficianadoes around me in the auditorium and wondered what they would make of this "exciting", "innovative" trio from the North of England if all that emanated from our Main Man was bleeps and screeches and flat, half played themes.  Louis and Gene bravely persevered, ever the ultimate professional Musicians. They went right on through all of the many twists and turns and rising crescendoes of "Eric's Window", but minus the saxophone's parts, so that they weren't really crescendoes at all. Rather they were slow agonising build-ups to, well, not very much really, hard as the two of them sweated.

All the while Xero skulked around frowning, stage left, frantically fiddling with his instrument and cursing that his usually faithful saxophone should let him down, right here, right now, in the bloody BIMHUIS for fuck's sake.  During the enforced break to "check the plumbing", he can be heard running through several quick scales and expressing amazement that the "bloody thing is fine now. There's nowt wrong wi'it!"

When the three of them did return for the second set, they had an energy and enthusiasm...dare I say a vengeance, that must have been seen fairly rarely in the BIMHUIS. When the Shuffle Demons got up and jammed with The Works for several extremely explosive encores, what had threatened to turn into a disaster had instead become a crowning glory.

Although the sound quality is fairly crappy, we've managed to rescue three belting tunes  from the cassette deck attached to the mixing desk. Due to the technical tribulations, the set went on longer than the only C-90 cassette that was handy so the collaboration with the Shuffle Demons went unrecorded, but it will live on forever in the minds of those who were there.

Here are three great versions of tunes from when the band at the Bimhuis.

Dearly Beloved

Out of the in door

Shove it!

The Shuffle Demons remember their meeting with Slingsby & Co thus:

I remember Xero Slingsby from a breezy summer day in Amsterdam. We had just blown into A'dam and were busking on the Dam Square, a perfect spot, we thought. Xero and his lads checked us out for a tune or two and then came up and showed us what 'Amsterdam Rules' were all about. 'You lot almost finished? ' he said, 'We got a set to do today too, you know..' The 'you lot' in question were 4 maurauding buskers from Toronto called the Shuffle Demons. Freshly attired in a colourful African wardrobe from Paris, we had 3 saxes and a kids drum kit for portability and were wailing away on Dam Square, trying to fend off the amplified folk singers, hordes of pigeons and begging junkies so that we could play a set. We begrudgingly did another tune, rotting that we'd only just got started, but these English lads looked like they meant business... and we'd heard about the soccer hooligans....Moments after our last note they were set up and began honking out 'Shove It' for the newly assembled crowd. We stood in awe of the power of Matthew, Louis and Gene, the most kick ass trio we'd ever heard on the street...or almost anywhere!

That chance encounter started a fast friendship that carried on through our short Dutch tenure that summer of 1985. Xero Slingsby and the Works were in town to do a gig at the Bimhuis, so we followed them there, and got more than we bargained for. The show was a sonic stew of tank commander throat mics, sirens, effects and some really great earthy, organic, #@*%!ed up sax playing, not to mention a great rhythm section, upside down bass player and all. We were blown away by the boys at Bimhuis and sat in for a couple of tunes with much enthusiasm.

We hung out a bit more in Amsterdam, doing a few street jams, and getting off on each others playing. We promised to send each other records and Matthew sent me his album which I religiously played on my college jazz program.

The Shuffle Demons:
Demon Rich Underhill
Demon Stich Wynston
Demon Dave Parker
Demon Mike Murley

The show at the BIMHUIS was indeed a revelation: lots of wild solos, telepathic jamming and an affectionate response from the comfortably seated and - it has to be said - polo-neck-jumpered, goatee-bearded audience.

That night, after the usual argument as to who got the sofa, who got Eric's bed and who ended up on the floor, and after Xero's nightly call to Sally, they all drifted off to sleep very pleased with life indeed.

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