According to a radio documentary I just heard on German public radio, a little boy was born in rural Germany 50 years ago on August 12. Flash forward to 1967. Heintje (a Dutch diminutive: "our little Henry"), for that is his name, loves to entertain the guests in his parent's restaurant with his versions of hit tunes. He loved to sing. His voice itself was, you could say, a penetrating falsetto. But "spine-cracking metallic falsetto" comes closer.
Heintje wants to perform on the national star-search show Der goldene Schuss ("The Golden Shot"). His father, bemused, tells him he's really got no chance. People aren't interested in the bathetically sentimental songs about Mommy that Heintje sings. They're into those crazy Beatles, and those decidedly unwholesome Rolling Stones. Surely some pale German imitation of these bands will win the contest. But he lets Heintje perform anyway, wary of crushing the young boy's dreams.
So Heintje performs his bathetically sentimental ode to a Mother's love, titled simply "Mommy", on Der goldene Schuss. The lyrics are so ghastly that I refuse to translate them into English. It could lead to a diplomatic incident.
So who wins the show: Heintje, with his voice like a colony of enraged wasps stinging the listener's eardrum into pulp, or some more modern "beat" performer?
Dear reader, do I even have to tell you? If you are German, or if you know the tastes of a certain sector of German society, you know already. Heintje wins, hands-down. He then records an entire album, and receives payment in the form of a pony. His records eventually make him a millionaire; the second-best selling recording artist in Germany -- right after the Beatles. Then follows the usual child-star story; complete with a serious brush with the law. (No, not drugs, something to do, oddly enough, with a videocassette-pirating scheme).
The Heintje phenomenon eventually becomes impossible even for Germany's stuffiest newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) to ignore. The paper usually maintains a dignified silence toward anything that has to do with popular culture in Germany, which is confined to the tabloid ghetto. The FAZ, in 1970, eventually describes Heintje thus: "People just love him. His voice spans three octaves, he can really belt it out and bring a song to life. He sings utter garbage, but he knows how to draw his audience in." After the reunification of East and West Germany, Heintje even enjoys yet another "mini-boom," caused by older East Germans using their new-found capitalist freedom to treat themselves to his innocent, eardrum-torturing melodies.
So, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, here's to Heintje, and here's to the fact that nobody in the English-speaking world will ever have to hear him sing!