P.F. Thomése //
To strive for a grandiose, amazing life, to be (or become) someone that actually matters, those are the central and recurring themes in the work of P.F. Thomése. The fact that he’s a successful author, ranking among the best the Netherlands has to offer, and that his work has been translated in over a dozen languages, would suggest that Thomése has succeeded in his aspirations. But, Thomése has never changed his tune: his most recent work, De Weldoener (The Benefactor), features a composer, having obviously failed in life and work, going all out for one last, desperate attempt to realize his ambitions.
The search for something bigger, chasing unfulfilled dreams, is the driving force behind Greatest Hits as well. It’s probably Thomése’s most beloved work; a collection of travel stories that features a lot of country music. Thomése was often accompanied on his travels by his friend J. Kessels, who grew to become one of the most famous side-kicks in Dutch literature. Thomése himself has always somewhat made fun of (and at the same time fuelled) the popularity of Greatest Hits, J. Kessels, and their adventures together and has recently taken it to a next level in J.Kessels: the novel, “a verbal remake of a B-movie, that reads like a Toyota Kamikaze in the fast lane”.
Of course, a mild form of literary stardom doesn’t really match the idea of two regular guys chasing certain undefined dreams in the deserts of Nevada, rolling down highway 50 (nicknamed ‘the loneliest highway’ for its total absence of any signs of civilization for hundreds of miles). Fame and achievement means that too much reality comes walking in. It’s not fulfillment that keeps you going, so much as the dreaming about it. This might also be the explanation why Thomése, and J.Kessels, love country music so much. “My heart always longed for sadness. The certainty that things will not get any better, appealed to me from the very beginning. […] To sit still and being told things are going the wrong way, just when you thought everything was alright, that’s pretty much what it boils down to for me.” And that’s what a lot of country music is about as well.
In particular, the stories that compile the Deep South & Far West section of Greatest Hits are an ode to all those young deceased, no longer famous or not yet famous artists that often call Texas home (Thomése claims that J. Kessels is particularly fond of artists that boast at least one of those qualities). They travel to the grave of Hank Williams; visit Nashville while knowing you actually have to go to Austin, where they indeed went, ‘looking for the heart of Saturday night’. But what they found on their trips doesn’t always completely meet their expectations (or rather, dreams). Hank Williams’ grave for instance turned out to be some sort of mausoleum while they felt a simple grey stone would suit ‘the loneliest man’ better.
There is however one story where reality does, somehow, match the image. And that’s because the subject embodies striving for something big in combination with love for the unfulfilled: Townes van Zandt. Steve Earle said: “Townes van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that”. The point is Van Zandt never got the acclaim he really deserved. Big names like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris covered his songs, but his own versions never made it to the top of the charts. When he was young Van Zandt turned his back on his wealthy family and chose a reclusive life, produced some astonishing material and died on the 1st of January 1997 in a remote cabin in Texas. No wonder, he is one of J. Kessels favorites. Then one day, Townes van Zandt ends up in Emmen, The Netherlands, of all places.
The theme of chasing unfulfilled dreams is, of course, always linked to ‘girls’. According to his books, Thomése has never excelled in that particular field. In Greatest Hits we learn that soul music once embodied his “darkest desires”. Nor, Thomése claims, should we underestimate Richard Wagner, “The Elvis of the Alps”, “the sex composer of the 19th century”, when it comes to (unfulfilled) longings. But James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’ really messed up his young soul and none of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ could ever repair that damage, or so we are told. All this notwithstanding he still goes to a soul concert at the Paradiso, Amsterdam, with a woman he’d like to have had in ‘These Arms of Mine’ when he was young. He ends up (of course) without her (some other prick took her home), but with the consolation of the late Solomon Burke’s address, who was sure Thomése had some black heritage, if his frizzy hair is anything to go by.
The biggest problem with soul music, for Thomése, is the fact that no woman seems to be able to resist the love of a real soul man. “Only Percy Sledge had bad luck every now and then.” That’s probably why he’s one of Thomése’s favorite soul artists. He’s still trying…
text by Pieter Wybenga / photo by Ariana