Howie Krishna Says Amsterdam Still Rules!


The Supperclub’s host-with-the-most offers the best seasonal message possible: stop whining and ‘go to the light and be happy!’

By Steve Korver, 22-12-2004, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly

 

howie_by_sophie_mornerHowie is a warm, witty and welcoming Jewish-American boy who is known to embrace such distinct identities as Howie Krishna and The Safe Sex Pope. I  run into him under the pretext of getting his professional views on the state of clubbing in this, the clubbing capital. He’s been hosting in the city’s clubs for around 10 years now, and if he doesn’t know, then indeed all is not right with this crazy, mixed up world.

Ol’ time religion was already in the air when I entered Howie’s home in a former Catholic school. He was busy putting the finishing touches to his darkroom-hungry pope outfit, complete with blinking lights and a silicone cast of a huge fucking cock. He was preparing the costume for the evening show at the Paradiso for the World Aids Night Love Dance.

‘I’m going to dangle all sorts of condoms from this baby and wave to everyone from the highest balcony,’ Howie tells me, appendage wobbling in hand. ‘I will bare a message of safety that will remind people that real love is never dangerous.’

Once upon a time…
So how is a Jewish pope made? Well it all began on a winter’s night very much like the one on which I am writing, when a star appeared over America. ‘I was born on February 12, 1950 on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday,’ says Howie. ‘You know, the guy who freed the slaves. I was a nice Jewish boy who ended up with a nice Jewish boy job.’

In fact, Howie became a child development specialist and set up shop in various places across what he calls ‘Safe America’ — one assumes that’s anywhere where gays aren’t treated like shit — before settling down in Provincetown Massachusetts, where he treated and cared for severely handicapped babies. He also got involved with the Unitarian Universalist Church. ‘You know what they say about Unitarians; they’re the ones who burn question marks into people’s lawns.’

In 1992, he was asked to present research on HIV and child development at the first International Aids Conference in New York City. But since HIV-positive people weren’t allowed into the USA, the organisers had to change the location at the last minute to Amsterdam. Lucky Howie. Lucky Amsterdam. He decided to take off the whole summer so he could also ttend the Olympics in Barcelona.

‘I also wanted to have lots and lots of safe sex while generally enjoying the non-ghettoised vibes of both Amsterdam and its darkrooms,’ Howie says. ‘But mostly I wanted to be invisible for a while and enjoy the fruits that only anonymity can bring. In many ways I didn’t really exist anymore, and there was certainly not much to leave behind in the States after that holocaust called AIDS.’

When Howie first came to town, then, he was feeling really open for anything that might happen. ‘I’d have probably gone home with a serial killer if one had come up to me and just said “Hi.”’ He gave his conference paper on the morning he arrived, ate space cake in the afternoon, and went later to the Roxy’s Hard Night expecting complete debauchery. Instead he met the man who would deliver him ‘a lifetime of domestic bliss and marriage.’

(The fact that his future husband was an established Bekende Nederlander, by the way, is irrelevant to both Howie and this story. As Howie says: ‘I’m just happy he has a job.’)

Almost immediately, Howie exchanged his hotel room for the squat where his future hubby lived. ‘It was real liberating to just go for it. Dump the fear, shut up the ego, get rid of the judgement, rewrite the script and just go for it. I felt like a gift was being presented and I couldn’t refuse. Yes, it felt like Christmas. I finally stood with my palms open ready to receive. And to think all I had to do was shut up and say thank you. I also realised that we are sometimes given gifts that are never fully opened. And this city was one of those gifts.’

This gets him onto a theme that is apparently fairly common these days among pessimists: the claim that ‘this city ain’t the same’, etc, etc. ‘OK, today there’re a lot less squats and less money around. But here are just as many parties if you look for them and it’s still sweeter than almost anywhere else on the planet. Besides, everywhere else they’re still debating abortion, gay marriage and mixed babies and all that. Here it’s all just a done deal. Sure some people might find me disgusting but at least I can sue them if they do something about it. Thank god for hate-crime legislation.’

Dam sweet hom
After that pleasant summer, Howie returned to Provincetown and spent a few months tying up loose ends before returning. With his boyfriend as sponsor, dealing with the foreign police was a relative snap. He even got a free coupon to learn Dutch. And through fellow squatters he quickly scored a job. The next couple of years he spent working in the kitchen at the then über-happening West Pacific at the Westergasfabriek.

‘After that I got one of the jobs I’m proudest of in my life,’ he tells me, warming to his tale. In short, he became a toilet lady at the legendary Roxy club. ‘Who knew you could make money from piss? I’d already done that whole define-yourself-through-your-job-thing. Now I just wanted to BE.’

‘Being’ for Howie meant introducing such industry innovations as the Pissenkaart — ’10 haalen, 7 betaalen’ — and evolving into a local legend thanks to a rapier wit and an even sassier dress sense.

Even the police hoped to take advantage of his talents. ‘Years ago during that whole drug crackdown, when they were closing all those places like Mazzo because, oh my god what a shock, people were actually taking drugs, the police tried to recruit toilet ladies in the war against hard drugs. During one of their workshops, I told them that I wasn’t a drug enforcement agent. I’m a landlord. I just rent a space to people for a certain amount of time. I’m not going to search anyone and I am certainly not going to follow anyone into the toilet. If you really want me to look for drugs then I want a drug poodle!’

Unfortunately, the police weren’t visionary enough to embrace a powerful image, and not to mention the potentially highly lucrative spin-off industries that could be built on it: that of Howie and his Drug-Busting Poodle. The cops’ loss was the Supperclub’s gain. Howie became one of their favoured faces behind the door.

I’d been hoping to use the Supperclub’s evolution, from ‘artistic’ chaos to ‘professional’ enterprise, as a metaphor for how Amsterdam has changed in the past decade. But Howie is quick to put me in my place.

‘The city hasn’t changed,’ he says. ‘People have. Don’t blame this sweet and innocent city for your own troubles! In fact, there are just as many parties as before, if you actually look for them. OK, there’s no pill-testing at parties anymore — that’s something that has changed — but that’s more about Amsterdam trying to become like Europe. But what’s Europe? Amsterdam may have been more of an isolated island in the past, but it’s still totally happening.’

I agree with Howie. I’m the one who’s changed. I admit to Howie that I’m one of those who don’t upholster the town plaid as much as they used to. He responds with a message that doesn’t exactly fill me with seasonal cheer. ‘Yes. People change. That’s natural. But the scary thing is that it means that you’re aging.’

Thus the still-kinetic fifty-something host’s advice to the already decomposing thirty-something writer. But he tries to cheer me up again: ‘Aging, like partying, is a learned behaviour. You need practice to get good at it.’

Yes, it’s practise, practise, practise…

‘Moving here when I was 42 saved my life,’ Howie continues. ‘I started here fresh without history and without bad press. At first I knew no one here who had died from AIDS. There was no sadness because there were no houses that I could walk by that belonged to friends who had died. And that was very nice for a change. Really, travel is the ultimate way to avoid a midlife crisis. Do you want to stay young? Then travel. It’s too bad travel is wasted on the young because if I wasn’t in a happy relationship, I’d be desperate to get out. Be young again in India or somewhere. Find some more tension to feed off and be forced to wake up…’

On the job
What is his job these days at the Supperclub, then? He’s ‘a host’ he says. ‘My job is to make sure everyone is relaxed and to break down the expectations of people who are nervous, or who confuse being hip and happening with being chic and arrogant. I just check to see if you’re happy and up for it. My role is to say: welcome and now go towards the light and be happy. If you don’t want to be happy then just stay away. I can guarantee one thing. Grumpy. People. Will. Not. Get. In.’

The Supperclub, he says, is about the relationships between the guests and the staff. Everyone participates in the experience. ‘We provide a lot of the ingredients, but it’s up to you whether you want to bake matzo or krentenbol.’

Am I starting to smell an all-inclusive seasonal message coming from the kitchen?

‘I also check reservations, arrange seating and return to my medical roots as a nurse fighting on the front line of that other drug war: the one against too much space cake,’ Howie continues. ‘It amazes me how hard soft drugs can be for some people. But I’m still learning. A while back I got into big trouble with a German lady who asked where the ladies’ room was and I answered “uni-sex, uni-sex.” Well, we have uni-sex bathrooms at the Supperclub. But she mis-heard me and started screaming: “How dare you? How dare you say:  ’You need sex?’ What do you mean, I need sex?”’

But in general, Howie speaks very glowingly of cross-cultural relations. ‘In the old days I used humour, but when there’s no shared first language you have to find other ways to communicate. I can be bitchy and horrible in English but in Dutch I just don’t have the nuances you need to be truly cruel. The other day, I almost got run over by a speeding car but I managed to catch up on my bike at the next stoplight. I started to scream: “Je…bent…een…onzettende…” – and then I couldn’t think of the right word, so I just yelled “douche bag”… But in general two different languages can be a real diplomatic boost to any long-term relationship. And who wants to go out with themselves anyway? Would you ask yourself out for a date?’

Hey, we’re talking about you, Howie.

He admits that he went through a difficult period when the Supperclub changed ownership a few years back. ‘It was extremely stressful. But it was inevitable. Supperclub wasn’t just an artists’ hangout, it had to support itself. And that meant wine had to be bought and toilets cleaned. Maybe we just took it too seriously back in those “good old days”. It was all fun and romantic, but it was just fun. It’s not as if masterpieces were being created every night at the old Supperclub.’

As he puts it: green mashed potatoes are fun but they aren’t the heights of artistic expression. ‘The old Supperclub days were wild and crazy, but every party ends,’ Howie says. ‘In today’s economic climate it’s difficult to have a creative platform that’s self-supporting. One of the things I always loved the most about this city is its free-flowing creativity. But at some point we could no longer live the millionaire’s life on one euro.’

Artists have to develop more business sense, Howie believes. The days of patrons and popes supporting the arts are over. Gertrude Stein is long dead…

Family values
A certain sense of family permeates the whole Supperclub experience — a vibe that can only be accentuated by the fact that everyone’s in bed together. Certainly the employees feel part of a larger family and this attitude has been extended to their upcoming New Year’s Eve party. Instead of asking a party promoter, they’ve decided to organise this year’s in-house. Is there any extra seasonal cheer being planned?

‘It’s not a heavy trip, just laidback fun,’ says Howie. ‘It’ll be about freedom and respect. Is that inclusive enough for you? Guests will get a party bag with mask, fan, name-tag and all that goodness. You’ll also get me, Host Howie, a Howie Krishna lounge with Yoga instruction, a Salon Social, clean uni-sex — or should I say u-need-sex — toilets, an attitude-free coat-check, an early DJ-free area with environmental sounds ‘n’ images.’

‘The door people will also not  treat you like a criminals,’  adds Howie. ‘There’ll be no negative vibes, no foreign police, no Madonna. Well OK, Madonna can come. But she has to buy her own ticket.’

The only rule for the New Year party will be that party-goers show enthusiasm. (Oh, and the usual one: don’t be rude.) ‘If you want be nude, be nude,’ Howie says, a glint coming to his eye. ‘Or wear a tux. Just come and express yourself. Matza. Krentenbol. Pick your own dish. Wearing your own skin might be an excellent start to creating your own happy new year.’


Photography by Sophie Mörner

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