The highlight of my childhood summers was an annual trip with my Mom and sister to the tiny town of Dry Tavern in southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal country. There, my grandmother’s house would overflow with aunts, uncles, and cousins who had gathered for a laid-back family reunion. I looked forward to that week in August like it was Christmas for a lot of reasons, a prime one being the chance to hang out with my Aunt Barbara while she spun records from her vast collection. We would sit in what had been my grandfather’s radio and television repair shop, and amidst the skeletons of old console TVs and shelves full of vacuum tubes, we would listen to albums for hours on end. Barbara’s musical tastes were wide ranging and seemed far too sophisticated and exotic for such a rural part of the country. She introduced me to Suzi Quatro, Patsy Cline, The Ramones, and a strange Dutch band called Focus. I still remember being transfixed when she set the needle down on the opening track of Focus’s Moving Waves album. My sheltered ears had never heard anything like the frenzied guitar riffing, maniacal yodeling, and superhuman flute playing of “Hocus Pocus” (that’s right, “Hocus Pocus” by Focus). And after that came an even bigger surprise when the rest of the album became a heady blend of jazz and classically influenced instrumental music that was even less like anything I had ever heard.
I quickly became a huge Focus fan, listening to everything I could get my adolescent hands on. Their songs combined the sweetest plaintive melodies, a subversive sense of humor, and virtuosic musicianship. Their music felt intimately familiar to me, as if I already knew their songs – it became the background radiation of my brain.
Focus was never a band that played the fame game very well. Their uncompromising musical style wasn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience in the first place, and they had a penchant for naming both albums and songs “Focus N”, where N was a number between 1 and 10. Turnover in the band was so great that their Wikipedia page resorts to showing a large color-coded chart of the comings and goings of 22 different musicians, and even with that the band took numerous multi-year breaks. On top of all this, they were virtually unknown in the US, so I had no one to share my passion with. Being a young Focus fan was tough.
All of which is to say that I never dreamed I would get to see the band live, and certainly not as they approached their 50th anniversary. But amazingly, they were playing in Southampton while CB and I were in Oxford, so at the end of a day spent in the company of ancients, we headed south to see the merely old.
After a kebab dinner in Southampton’s high street, we managed to get lost walking to the venue and eventually made it just as Thijs van Leer, the band’s founder, driving force, and one constant presence, was playing the first haunting notes of Focus I.
Throughout most of the show, van Leer sat perched behind his Hammond organ looking out at the crowd like a slightly demented Captain Kangaroo as he scowled, laughed at the ceiling, hit himself on the head, and stuck out his tongue. Every once in a while, he would come to the front of the stage for a flute solo.
Drummer Pierre van der Linden was the other old-timer and his energy and precision, especially during his 10 minute solo, belied his 71 years. I hope I can do anything half as well when I’m that age. Relative newcomers Menno Gootjes on guitar and bassist Udo Pannekeet rounded out the group.
After the show, I wandered over to the merch table hoping for a t-shirt, but they only had size small (a little odd considering the band’s fan base is primarily older, larger men). Disappointed, I noticed a new 3 disc Thijs van Leer solo album and saw the man himself shuffling over to greet fans, so I bought the album and asked him to sign it. He did and graciously posed for a selfie with me. The album was £30, or about $40, and van Leer apologized for the price, saying in his Dutch accented English, “I know it’s a bit dear”. More than a little star-struck, I stammered, “Oh, no problem” and from the line of fans behind me I heard, “He’s American, he can afford it!”
It’s a long way from Dry Tavern to Southampton, but I’m glad I made the journey. The music of Focus still appeals to me at an almost genetic level, and because of those long-ago happy summer days, it means even more to me now.