For twenty years Chuck Deely was a welcome fixture on Grote Markstraat in The Hague. The Detroit-born busker arrived in the city in 1996 after extensive travels through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and his native USA . In 1973, drafted into the army, Chuck found himself in Germany, not Vietnam, to his own relief. A wandering life followed, playing the guitar in various bands, none of them really famous. But Chuck was a good singer and guitar player, with a high-pitched raspy voice in the style of Bob Dylan, whose Like a Rolling Stone was one of his signature tunes.
When he got into trouble with the Spanish immigration authorities, while busking in Tenerife, he moved to the Netherlands and started busking in the streets of The Hague, essentially, as he said himself, “to pay the rent”.
For a few years there was no rent to pay. Chuck had fallen on hard times – hard, even in comparison to his earlier status as a musician living off the proceeds of busking – and spent two years living rough, on the streets, addicted to heroin and cocaine. But he managed to pull himself up by the bootstraps, found an apartment, kicked his heroin habit and kept busking. He never claimed welfare and always paid his own way. He had a fixed routine, starting at The Hague’s Central Station around 7:00 a.m. and playing the shopping precincts around Grote Marktstraat until he had earned enough money for the day.
His regular spot in front of archetypal Dutch department store Hema gave him his nickname, the ‘Hema Singer’. He was well-loved by the shoppers, and, uncharacteristically, the shopkeepers of The Hague. When in 2008 a policeman fined him for ‘busking without a permit’, a spontaneous collection to pay the fine was organized by the businesses around the spot where he had been playing. The mayor of The Hague at the time reacted by awarding Chuck a lifetime permit to busk in the streets of The Hague. This stood him in good stead when some years later the city was inundated with Eastern European scammers who pestered shoppers with atonal musical offerings, aggressively asking for money. A blanket ban on busking was enacted, but Chuck, his lifetime permit in hand, could continue playing.
As he said: “I hope they perceive me as a musician, and not as a beggar.” He need not have worried. He had become an iconic part of downtown The Hague. Several documentaries were made about him, and he played with the Residentie Orkest (the The Hague Philharmonic) on two occasions. But despite a handful of television performances, he never made it off the streets.
In late 2016, he was felled by the flu. Feeling compelled to head out into the winter cold to make a buck to pay for his upkeep, he fell seriously ill while performing outside. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died on January 9th, 2017. He was cremated and his ashes were returned to Detroit to be buried in the family grave. He had not been back there since 1985. His death caused a great outpouring of grief in The Hague, complete with a very well-attended commemorative tribute. In the years after his death, he was honored in The Hague with a statuette, a mural and an annual music festival named for him.
For more details about Chuck Deely, read issue 35 of Dutch the magazine.
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