Friday, December 31, 2004


So what am I doing for New Year's Eve, or Silvester, as it's known here?

Same thing I always do, but it's not what many of my neighbors will be doing.

There are three basic activities Germans engage in this evening, all usually accompanied by the obvious activity of drinking. But there are rites, like anywhere else, and some of them are a bit strange.

Take Bleigiessen, for instance. This is perhaps the weirdest Silvester ritual I've come across, and a clear link to Germany's pre-Christian past. You buy a little kit which consists of some small ingots of lead, a little steel pan, and a book, and gather around a candle flame and a bowl with water in it. Each person then melts a block of lead in the pan, and dumps the molten lead into the water. It sizzles as it hits, and solidifies. You then fish it out and try to determine what it looks like. Once you've decided, look it up in the book, and it'll tell you your fortune for the coming year. I remember doing this at a party one year and getting a peacock, which was quite positive, but I can't remember what it meant, nor whether or not the prophecy came true.

Then there's Fondue. This one really eludes me. It's set up like the kind of cheese fondue you may be familiar with, but instead of cheese, what you're melting in your pot is Biskin, a vegetable shortening not unlike Crisco. You have small cubes of pork and beef which you fix on your fondue fork, and you fry them in the hot fat until they're done, then dip them in any one of a number of mayonnaise-y sauces: curry, tzatziki, and so on. There's bread nearby to soak up the grease, and white wine, often sweet. I did this one year with a foodie crowd I hung with (who've all moved on) and I guess I was so mystified I guess I mostly stuck with the wine (which wasn't sweet, thank heavens), because I don't remember much about the part except being mystified as to why this was such a treat. I asked around the other day, and found that others use broth and vegetables, which sounds much better, or else do the Swiss cheese-and-kirsch thing, which also sounds better, but is, like, Swiss. Some prefer to do a raclette, which is French Swiss, and also good: you have a raclette setup which melts raclette cheese in a little heated container, and you dip stuff you cook on top of the raclette into the cheese.

And then there's fireworks. For a society which has by and large repudiated violence, this is pretty damn amazing. True, I used to buy fireworks in Texas for New Year's, and some of my neighbors and I had what we called the West 9 1/2 Street Pyrotechnics Society, but we stuck to display fireworks, some of which were pretty elaborate, like the pagoda which spun on an axis, spewing multicolored sparks until it burned to the center, at which point it would go pop! pop! pop! and two more stories would appear.

Here, though, it's rockets and bombs, mostly bombs. The bombs are divided into Böller (which means ceremonial cannons) and Knaller (which essentially means firecrackers), and they're serious: it's not at all unusual to see six-inch firecrackers, and there's one bomb which is basically a four-inch square package of gunpowder. This year, the local police tried an ad campaign with two posters. One shows a girl with a hearing aid, the other a guy showing his hand, with two bandaged stumps of fingers. "I used to think Knaller were fun," they say. But these kids look way too square to make the average Berlin kid look twice at them, and both pictures look vaguely fake. I can attest to what happens when one goes off next to your ear, though, because it happened to me one year -- the year I was going to the party where the Bleigiessen happened, in fact. Some kids had tossed it out a window, specifically at me, and I'm very, very lucky that it went off too far away to do any damage. Or maybe I just have leathery eardrums from years of going to rock shows. That was some party: the host's idiot cousin was up from Bavaria, and it was an unseasonably warm night. Nobody ever figured out why, but he went outside and shot off a teargas gun, the gas, naturally, coming in the open window into the crowd that was dancing inside. We all poured outside, coughing and sneezing and crying, and I noted wryly to the host that I'd lived through the Sixties without this happening, but had to go to a party to get my dose. Later that evening, we went out front at midnight and listened to the bombs going off. The host shrugged and said "You know, Sarajevo is only 300 km away," and walked back inside.

The bombing's already started, at 2:40 in the afternoon, and it's not even dark yet. It will get much, much worse later on. My first year here, I was watching a video I'd rented and at midnight it got so loud I couldn't hear the soundtrack for the bombing. It made me wonder how the little old ladies in my building felt, since some of them had undoubtedly been here in the last days of the War, when the house-to-house fighting of the Russians must have sounded like this. Given that this invasion was combined with an epidemic of rape which continued for some time, this must have brought back horrid memories for some. Tomorrow, the sidewalks will be an inch deep in fireworks tatters: I'll try to get out and photograph them, although, with the rain that's already started, they'll look a lot like dog-turds by then. (Although maybe it won't be so bad this year: someone told me yesterday that given the dire economic circumstances here sales seem to be way down.)

There'll also be evidence of advanced idiocy on the part of people who've finished a bottle of champagne (actually a pallid German imitation of it called Sekt, a name which originated at one of Berlin's oldest restaurants, Lutter & Wegner, which I have to admit is a pretty damn good place, although their Sekt is nothing to write home about) and then tossed in some fireworks. As oenophiles reading this know, champagne (and, yes, Sekt) matures in the bottle, and, since it fizzes, produces gas which produces pressure. Thus, the bottles are a good deal thicker than regular wine bottles, so the shards are a lot more dangerous. Torstr., a few yards from my house, is the major driveway to Charité Hospital, and all night long, the sounds of bombs will be mixed with the sirens of ambulances ferrying patients to Charité. I would think this is a once-a-year opportunity for microsurgeons to practice their finger-attaching skills.

So what will I be doing tonight if I won't be eating grease, melting lead, or blowing myself up?

I'll be continuing an old tradition my pal Bob Merlis came up with. Bob used to be VP in charge of publicity (okay, "Artist Relations") at Warner Bros. Records in L.A. (okay, Burbank), and his job was to throw press parties, show up at showcases for Warners artists, and so on. He was at a gig several times a week most weeks. Since he was one of the few people in the company who actually listened to music and saw shows (ie, he wasn't a lawyer or an accountant, like most of his co-workers), some of the others looked up to him as a hip savant (which, sure, he is, but much hipper than they were giving him credit for). New Year's would come along, and they'd ask him "Hey, Bob, what are you doing tonight?" expecting to be given the secret location of the hippest gig in L.A.

"I'm staying home and listening to music by dead people," he'd say. When they finished registering shock, he'd explain. "Dead people have more great musicians than living people, and no way I'm going to get to see them as part of my job. Dead people include Duke Ellington, and Bach, and Buddy Holly. They're not playing the Roxy or the Troubador anytime soon. I hope." As with much from the oracular Mr. Merlis, I took this to heart. I've had wonderful evenings with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Dolphy, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus and Bill Evans and other people of the non-living persuasion.

Tonight's, though, is going to be a bit different. This year saw the passing of one of the most influential music personalities who never picked up an instrument, John Peel of the BBC. Few Americans ever got to feel his full impact, but in Britain, and wherever the BBC World Service reached -- and here in Berlin, where he did a show especially for the divided city, knowing it would be heard across the Wall -- his espousal of unfamiliar, difficult, and obscure music, which often became more familiar, easier to listen to, and popular as a result, was unparallelled by any other disc jockey. He had a list of 50 songs called John Peel's Festive Fifty, which he broadcast each year, and he eventually made a master Festive Fifty compiled from each of the annual ones. Someone I know posted the recordings from the master list briefly as a tribute to Peel, and I downloaded them and burned them to three CDs, so tonight I will raise a glass of something to the great John Peel, and listen to them all in sequence from Joy Division's "Atmosphere" to Pavement's "Here."

I can't think of a better way to start a new year. Thanks, John. And Bob. And to all the readers out there, I wish you a gute Rutsch -- a "good slide," as they say here -- into the new year.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Over the next few days, I'm going to be re-editing a few of these pieces, although you won't know it. What I'm going to be doing is re-jigging the hot links on the books and records I've mentioned since I made my deal with Amazon. The book links will now be directed to Powell's Books and the records to Barnes & Noble.

The reason for this is the recent revelation that Amazon was, for reasons known only to itself, a heavy contributor to the Bush campaign. I find this upsetting, and yet I think that it's only fair to put my money where my mouth is. And for reasons of customs and import duty, I still have to do my online purchasing from Amazon UK, where I still maintain a want-list. Still, I understand that the various Amazon "stores" have a certain amount of autonomy.

Meanwhile, our hard-working technical crew (aka Jon, who also takes part in a fantastic blog which just won a major award, WorldChanging, which I commend to your attention), is busily re-jiggering the design and technical underpinnings, including Trackback capability, maybe. Whatever that is.

According to the statistics, there are fewer than 200 of you out there reading this stuff, but that's no reason to slack off. I've enjoyed this exercise so far (for those of you who weren't aware, 99% of these entries are written, edited, and posted in 60 minutes or less), and I'm looking forward to continuing it in the new year.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Christmas Card

I figured it'd be nice to post a Christmas card from Berlin, and although this wasn't taken today, it's got all the right elements: dirty snow, an ugly Communist modular apartment house on the left, decaying buildings on the right, a guy with a (probably) counterfeit bit of hip-hop wear, and, rising in the distance, the golden-filigreed dome of the Neue Synagogue. If I were to blow up the building across the alley from mine and stick my head out the window just so, this is the view I'd be seeing, more or less. As it is, since I head down that street (Tucholskystr., for those of you following on the map, the big street in front being Torstr.) almost every day to catch the S-Bahn or walk to Unter den Linden or Alexanderplatz, I see it often enough.

Look out the window of wherever it is you are today and ask yourself, "Am I better off?" Answer: probably. After all, you can't smell this photo.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Actual Heartwarming Berlin Christmas Story

This really happened last night. I have a witness.

My friend the dancer is writing a novel about a dance troupe. An American dance troupe, although she's never been to America. Because of this, she pumps me for details about various things and I'm happy to give her the answers if I have them. Recently, unsurprisingly enough, it's been about how Americans celebrate Christmas. She's writing an important scene which happens at Christmas dinner, and she was really unclear about how that's done in the U.S.

Here, all the action is on the evening of the 24th. The room with the tree is sealed off from the kids, and the presents are laid beneath it, and when it gets dark, the tree is lit, the family gathers by the tree to sing Christmas songs, and then they open the packages. Dinner consists of frankfurters (Wiener Würstchen) and potato salad: easily made. Tomorrow, they'll have a big goose dinner.

So I explained that there's usually a big dinner on the 25th, and that the presents and all happen in the morning, Santa Claus having come the night before. (Santa Claus here is Weihnachtsmann, and he happens on the 6th, St. Nicholas' Day). What do they eat? She asked, and I said, oh, various things, but often it's a turkey with stuffing and all the traditional side-dishes. "Oh, you know something? I don't think I've ever had a turkey."

Well, I missed Thanksgiving this year, so I offered to buy a turkey if we could cook it at her house, and I could invite a couple of Americans who'd also missed Thanksgiving. "Great idea! Learn through doing!" So Monday we went to Rogaki, a venerable Berlin insitution best known for having the best fish selection in town (this is a city that doesn't eat much fish), but also has a notable butcher. We ordered a four-kilo French turkey, never frozen, to be delivered on Thursday, yesterday. She works as a psychiatric social worker at a crisis center for suicidal teenagers, and was working Wednesday night, so the idea was she'd pick it up in the morning on her way back from work, I'd pack various things into a suitcase, come over about 3, and start cooking. She'd invite her friend Heike, who was celebrating not having to be a teacher for the next month as the kids take their winter holiday, and I invited my friend Blaise Lawless, a painter with the best name in art, and my friend Natalie, a half-German, half-American neighbor of mine who's been a co-consipirator in numerous ventures I've undertaken here. Natalie brought green beans, and Blaise had two cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce flown in with a couple of neighbors who were in America at the time.

The meal was an amazing success: I'd never cooked a turkey before, let alone stuffing, and I was extremely nervous: this was a big and expensive piece of meat, and I've had some nasty turkey in my day, as I'm sure a lot of you have. Stuffing was a total mystery. Anyway, suffice it to say that the Joy of Cooking came through with flying colors, so well that I'm terrified of ever doing this again. It was perfect, and we sat around the kitchen for hours, stoned on tryptophan, the sedative that's a natural component of turkey meat, talking and groaning from the starch overload.

At about 12:15, though, practical matters had to be dealt with: the subway stops running sometime between 12 and 1 in this city, and Natalie and I had to get back up here, while Blaise only had a couple of stops to go. So we said our good-byes, I packed my stuff (and a nice chunk of breast-meat which will become turkey enchiladas later in the week), and Blaise, Natalie, and I left.

We walked down the street to the Platz der Luftbrücke subway stop, noticing the nice lights adorning Tempelhof Airport, which is in the process of being shut down (or so they say), and then going underground. A train came in just as we got there, and as we were running to catch it, Natalie noticed it was only going two stops, ending at Hallesches Tor. "Damn," she said, "I wonder if this is the last train." Well, if it is, I told her, we can take a cab. I'd been paid, I had some dough in my pocket, and I was feeling too good to douse my groove with a nightmare trip on one of Berlin's night buses.

Blaise got off to transfer at Mehringdamm, the next station, so he missed everything that follows. Natalie and I talked, speculating on what to do (there wouldn't be any cabs at Hallesches Tor, she said, but I disagreed), and then sat back, realizing we'd just have to do what we had to do. There was a young Japanese woman across from us, and, next to me, a large black guy.

"Hallesches Tor: Endstation. Alle aussteigen, bitte," the PA said when we pulled into the station, and, as it had requested, we all got out. Natalie and I were standing by the black guy, and another guy, short, with his hair in sort of a samurai topknot was also standing there. Suddenly the black guy gestured at someone who was still on the train, telling them to get off. The Japanese girl tumbled out, and Natalie told her in German that this was the last station, but she'd noticed that there was another train going to Kurt-Schumacher-Platz in seven minutes.

The Japanese girl looked dazed. "Uhhh, anyone here speak English?" she said. We laughed, and Natalie repeated what she'd said in English. "Oh, thanks," the Japanese girl said. "I'm Japanese, but I've been living in America for ten years. I also speak Spanish." The black guy smiled, and said "I speak English, too." He had an accent. "And I also speak Spanish."

Where are you from? I asked him. "Trinidad and Tobago." Ah, I said, that would explain the Spanish. "Yes, we are near to Venezuela, so there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people." At this point, the short guy, who'd been hanging at the periphery of our group, spoke up. "I speak English, too," he said, with a slight accent, "and I'm half-Japanese and half-Brazilian. I also speak Spanish." We all laughed, and the train came in the station.

We all wound up facing each other, except the black guy chose to sit on a flip-down seat in the very back of the car. He was a big guy, and needed the space. We kept on talking, and the Japanese girl said she was going to Friedrichstr., so we told her that was the one before where we got off, so we'd tell her when we got there. The Brazilian-Japanese guy was chattering on about how there were loads of Japanese in Sao Paolo, where he was from, and that his mother was Japanese and his father Brazilian, but he'd been born here in Berlin. The black guy asked me where I was from in the States, and I told him I'd last lived in Texas. "Ah, I lived in Galveston and Pasadena," he said. Oil business, I ventured. That'd be the common factor linking Trinidad, Galveston, and even Venezuela. "You're right," he said.

"Hey," the Brazilian guy said, "come over here and sit with us. Don't be so far away." Trinidad didn't seem to know what to make of this somehow, but the Japanese girl joined in the request, and he got up and slid in with them. He was still trying to figure Natalie out, though, and he asked her if she was my sister. She laughed at that one and explained that she'd been born in Berkeley, California but her parents had divorced and her mother had brought her back here to live near her family when Natalie was 12. Trinidad smiled a big smile that showed off his gold tooth. "Man, we got all kinds here," he said. A real United Nations in one subway car, I agreed.

"I'm just amazed at how beautiful Berlin is," the Japanese girl said, and the rest of us sort of gawped. "No, really: yesterday I was at the Christmas market, the one that's all fenced in in that beautiful square, and it just smelled so nice and it was so friendly feeling!" "Oh," said Natalie, "the Gendarmenmarkt." "Yeah, that's the one. And I'm going to spend Christmas in Copenhagen. I met a girl in the hostel, and she invited me up to have Christmas with her family." Turned out she'd worked at a job in Seattle to save up for this trip, and when she went back, she was going to get two jobs and then head to South America, a prospect which lit the Brazilian guy up.

Trinidad was now extremely amused by all of this. "Man, we got a whole buncha homies here! Everyone someone else's homie! Man, this really feels like Christmas now!" And we had a good laugh about that.

The train pulled into Friedrichstr., and the Japanese girl and the Brazilian guy stood to get out. "Merry Christmas!" they sang as they walked out the door. Trinidad and Natalie and I exchanged a bit more chatter in the extra minute it took us to get to our stop at Oranienburger Tor, and as we left, we shook his hand. "Merry Christmas," he said with genuine warmth, and we returned the sentiment. I was so disoriented that when the elevator out of the station stopped, I thought we'd taken the wrong exit (I wasn't going to risk the steps with my heavy suitcase full of cooking stuff). Natalie quickly corrected me (I was looking the wrong way down Friedrichstr., duhh), and then she said "Did this really happen?"

But it really happened. I have a witness.

Could Be Worse

December 22, the shortest day of the year. It's 3:30 and I'm on a train to the hospital.

My friend Kevin, in an almost stereotypical act of Middle-Age Crazy, decided some weeks ago to ditch the bicycle which features so greatly in his legend (he pursued his wife-to-be from Philadelphia to California on bicycle one summer when he was in college, since she was determined to make the trip on bike herself before moving back to Germany) in favor of something with a motor. In this case, a Vespa.

I'm still hazy on the details, but apparently he neglected to check the condition of the tires (or even properly learn how to ride it), and a tire blew, depositing him and scooter in traffic. The scooter was totalled, but Kevin survived with a broken leg and foot.

He went to the hospital, they stuck a pin in him somewhere, and they sent him home. It's not like this is a Really Difficult Operation, after all. Told him to stay off of his foot. So far, this is a sad, but unexceptional story, and if it's somewhat fuzzy in its details, it mirrors Kevin's fuzziness on the occasions we've spoken. They have good drugs here.

A couple of days later, complications set in. He went back to the hospital. There was an infection around where they'd inserted the pin. He'd have to be cut open, the infection controlled, and then he'd have to be sewn up again. He was in for a few days, minimum. They operated, and it was inconclusive. A few more days.

Then he got some awful news: his father, who'd been ailing for some time, had died in Philadelphia. He asked the doctors, and they said he wasn't going to be able to go to the hospital cafeteria, let alone Philadelphia, so he had to miss the funeral. He called his brother in Prague to find out what he was planning to do, and found his brother in shock at having just discovered his wife had left him.

You know how they say it's your Christian duty to visit the sick and afflicted? I'm no Christian, but a Satanist would feel sorry for this guy.

So this is why I found myself on the Ring S-Bahn on my way to the Westend station to walk to the Red Cross Center Hospital there. He seemed okay for someone having just come out of his third surgery when I talked to him on the phone, and I got the distinct impression he'd welcome a visitor.

And we rounded the bend towards Westend just as the sun was going down at 3:40. The Red Cross Center is a walled village of brick buildings built, I would guess, at the end of the 19th Century, each building intended to house a separate specialty, each with its own tower. The sun was golden, but the buildings themselves, the parts that show over the wall from afar, were in shadow. Only the top of each tower was showing, drenched in gold, making it look like a Burmese temple complex. The sky was blue, and far above the Center, dual contrails streamed from a jet, looking icy in the frigid air.

"I'm glad to see you," Kevin said, lounging in his hospital bed, his foot held rigid in a sort of box, covered with a cloth. A drip was feeding antibiotics into his arm, and he was clearly miserable. "Man, it could be worse," he said as his roommate donned some sweat pants and grabbed a couple of crutches and a box of cigarettes to head to the smoking room. "That guy had a motorcycle accident in September and he still doesn't know when he's going home. I got nothing to do here but watch TV and read. I've gone through a whole stack of books." I eyed the stack, which had some titles I'd wanted to read, and told him I'd happily take some off of his hands. I'm sort of short of reading matter these days.

We talked, and his cell phone rang a couple of times. One time it was his wife. "Hey, grab me some stuff before you head over," he told her. "Rent me a porno! I'm bored!" I thought, but didn't say, that a tap-dancing movie would be pretty pornographic in his condition. The nurse came in to take the drip off. He asked her exactly what his condition was, and she told him he was not to move his foot for 24 hours. If he had to pee, he had to pee in a bottle. If he had to take a crap, he had to do it in a pan. "Man," he said after she left, "that is the pits. I can't even go to that bathroom over there," and gestured to the door to the room's john.

After an hour or so, we were still talking when the door opened and his wife, her sister, and his youngest son came in. It was after 5, and I still had to go half-way across the city to get back home, so I started making my apologies and wishing him well. As I was putting on my coat, though, I remembered about the books. "Hey, Kevin, let me take some books off your hands," I said.

"Yeah," he said. "Let me see what I've got here," and he turned gingerly towards the stack. "Okay, I can let you have this one. It's pretty good. Someone brought it to me when they heard I was here." And he handed me a novel by someone named Paolo Coelho, an author I've never heard of.

It's title was Veronika Decides to Die. If that doesn't sum up Berlin, and Berliners, I don't know what does.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Baby, It's Coaled Outside

According to the folks at, it's currently 34 degrees Fahrenheit, but it "feels like 28." I'll say: I'm just back not only from the store, but from trying to buy a fuse that'll make my halogen floor lamp work again (no luck: the place closes at 6pm, it says on the door, and that means 5:55, which my radio-satellite-set watch said it was), and I'll tell you: it's cold out there. Not as bad as it's going to be, but the sidewalks are now slick with ice, so you have to watch your step, and there's a thin dusting of snow when I get up in the morning.

And as I walked to the store, I noticed at first a whiff of woodsmoke in the air. So appropriate, and going nicely with a couple of icy-looking cirrus clouds and the half-moon in the otherwise clear sky, I was thinking, when I drew myself up. Wait. That means a coal oven.

I still have trouble wrapping my brain around what the Germans call Kohlenheizung. It was weird when I first saw it in 1988, and it's downright bizarre that it's still going on sixteen years later. Because in the country which engineers the BMW and the Mercedes, where companies like Siemens build some nice high-tech products, and appliances by Braun make my kitchen hum, there are still buildings where people buy two tons of coal at the beginning of the winter to feed to ceramic tile-clad ovens in their living rooms and bedrooms, because that's how they heat their houses.

What's ultra-weird is when you run into a young German -- and there are plenty of them -- who'll tell you that it's healthier. Look, I've had coal heating, and it's at least as healthy for you as a pack and a half a day. Here's the drill:

First, you have your stack of brown-coal briquettes handy. Gotta have them. Then, you make sure the oven's been swept out, and that you've dumped the ashes into a metal bucket, because there's always a little clinker in there ready to start trouble. So you wad up some newspaper, light it, and then throw in some wood. Broken-up vegetable cartons are always good, and that's what people look for. If you're fancy, the guy who sells you the coal will sell you some shingle-looking stuff, but Berliners are thrifty (and poor) and can be seen behind vegetable markets or prowling building sites looking for good tinder. Anyway, once the wood is good and lit up, you throw in your coal, and close the door. Now go wash the black off of your hands in your unheated bathroom or your unheated kitchen. Yeah, it's cold back there where you just set the fire, but the design of the oven is such that eventually that inner wall will get good and hot and radiate outwards to the ceramic tiles, which disperse heat at a given rate, so you may be good for as many as eight hours. But it's not like you're going to just be able to go in there and throw some more coal in and keep it going. Nope: you have to let the fire die down, sweep out the ashes, and start over again, unless there's a bit of coal still going, in which case you may be able to get away with a bit of kindling and some briquettes and not have to wait so long. Oh, and the ash-bucket? You have to take that outside and dump it in the metal garbage bin. Has to be the metal one, because the plastic ones burn. And when you dump it, that yellow, powdery ash just goes everywhere. Like up your nose. Just like it gets into your furniture, your rug, your clothes.

I had an apartment, the one before the one I live in now, that had two coal ovens. One used briquettes, and that was my bedroom, athough there was a dining table at the other end of it, and the other used what's called Steinkohle, hard coal, which comes in little rocks and is much, much cleaner. Guess which kind Germany and Poland produces. But guess which one is harder to get going. Adding to this was the fact that I couldn't call the coal guy and have him deliver me a ton or two, as is usual, because the neighbors in this building, most of whom were subhuman, had wrenched the door off of the assigned coal bin in the basement, presumably so they could steal coal in a previous winter. This meant that every day I had to schlep up Brüsseler Str. to the tiny, dank, dark hole in the wall where the Coal Lady was, mostly to take orders for tons, and buy 35 kilos of coal. Every. Day. And 70 kilos on Saturday afternoon. And I had to pull it down the street, four blocks to my crappy apartment.

So you know why the day I found myself standing in the doorway while the 80-year-old psychotic who owned the building stood there with her lawyer screaming that she was charging me with arson and going to call the Kripo (short for Kriminalpolizei) and see to it I was jailed and deported (it's a long story, but someone -- not me, since I hadn't slept there that night -- had dumped a klinker in the plastic bin, which was now slumped over like a defeated dinosaur in the yard, and naturally it had to be my fault), the only two demands in my head when I headed to Zoo Station to buy the next day's Berliner Morgenpost at exactly 8 pm when it came off the presses that night so I could beat the other people to the apartments in the classifieds were: 1) Not this neighborhood (which, for the record, is called Wedding); 2) Central heat. Non-negotiable.

Of course, central heat would also mean that there wouldn't be the primitive water heaters where you pump water into a boiler and then turn on the electricity and then drain it out (which resulted in exactly 180 seconds' worth of hot water in the unheated shower room with the window rusted open -- did I mention that this was the coldest winter since Stalingrad? -- forcing me to become the fastest showerer I know), and it might even mean a gas stove (no such luck).

But that was nearly eight years ago. It's almost a cliche that Germany is the second-greenest country in Europe, next only to Holland in its adherence to environmental cleanliness. So why, I'd like to know, are there still people burning coal for heat? Why is this medieval heating system still going on? If I walk out now, two hours after I smelled that woodsmoke, there'd be another smell in the air, rather like burned coffee. That's the smell of Braunkohl Briketten, the smell of what I believe is a violation of the EU's environmental regulations. Why is this still happening?

Still: not my problem. It's light, not heat, I have to worry about tonight -- the night before the darkest day of the year. And that's only a problem because of the fact, which I've long become accustomed to, that the people around me don't want to work.

But that's another rant, for another day.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Making A Living

So the other day the phone rang, and there was a voice on the other end I hadn't heard in ages.

"Hi, Ed? This is Richard Posner." Wow. Richard Posner first brought himself to my attention back in 1999, when I was doing cultural reportage for the Wall Street Journal. He had a project he wanted to tell me about, a politically-themed piece in which the swastika -- a glyph which is totally banned in Germany, to the extent of anthropology museums not even displaying Indian artifacts where, reversed, it's a sun symbol -- was doubled over on itself, the resultant spaces filled in with various colors, and rendered in herbs and broken glass. He was a veteran of such political public art, and had had commissions from libraries and other public institutions in the U.S. and had somehow wound up in Germany, so he had decided to see if he could figure out a way to do this piece right in the hottest location possible.

Now, as I wrote a few days ago, The Burden Of History compels people making memorials here to be very grim and blatant, and I already had a story to bear this out. A guy I knew when I was working at the radio station was an artist (among other things), and at one point the Federal government here was looking for art to put up in places where the Wall had been. Now, as anyone who's been here knows, there wasn't a single Wall, but, rather, two walls, between which was a No Man's Land, which was made impassable by any number of means: trip-wires attached to automatic firing devices, vicious patrol dogs and vicious patrol humans, all sorts of things.

Well, this guy had found a place where the hazard was gargantuan amounts of pesticide, enough that you'd get incredibly ill. (Would this work? Who knows: the DDR had a very bizarre sense of things, as evidenced by the thousands of jars of cotton pads containing samples of sweat the secret police had gotten while interrogating people, some of which are on view at the Runde Ecke Museum in Leipzig). Anyway, he knew where this patch was, and his proposal was to plant corn there. Corn has an ability to suck things out of the soil, and of course none of the corn grown on this site would be eaten by humans or animals. But it was his color-scheme which killed the project: he wanted to plant the corn in rows of black (actually blue, but it's really dark blue), red, and gold, just like the German flag. There was so much resonance to this, so much fine symbolism, that I was really taken aback by the idea. I thought it was brilliant. Whoever was doing the commissioning went ballistic and firmly and thoroughly rejected the idea.

Needless to say, Posner kept running into walls. Even though, in the finished design, no swastika (it's called Hakenkreuz here, or "broken cross") could be discerned even if you worked real hard, the very idea that it was a design element produced anger and fear. I can't remember the whole rigamarole he went through, but it took months and months and months. Finally, he got a location, way down in Köpenick, on the very fringes of the city, at the site of a now-vanished synagogue, right by a clubhouse for what appeared to be young nazis. He got the broken glass from the local public transportation system, and I can't even remember if the plants went in or not (hey, it was five years ago, and I haven't re-read the story I did). And, after the installation went down, he got a teaching gig in Chicago, and that was the last I heard of him.

Until the other night. It turns out that he was having an opening Friday night, and not only was it an opening, it was at the Barbara Blickensdorff Gallery, one of my favorite local galleries. She's friends with a couple of people I know, and in fact my friends Fred and Dominica, when they lived here, had a couple of pieces they'd bought from her. (She also represents some guy named David Hockney for Germany). She consistently finds extremely interesting artists, and although it had never occurred to me, she and Richard Posner were a great match. One thing she does each year is to find a wall somewhere in Berlin and mount a piece by one of her artists. The first one I was aware of was a field of placidly munching day-glo-colored cows which were lit with black light at night, covering the entire four-story wall of a building on Kollwitzstr. in Prenzlauer Berg, done by Sergei Alexander Dott. Kinda gets your attention. (You can see this at her not-very-well designed website if you click on "Projects," and then "KUHUUNST," and then "Pictures." I recommend it!) The thought that she and Posner might do one of these public projects is a natch.

It turned out that Posner was sharing this show with another artist, but his room was the one where everyone was standing around and reading the captions and giggling. The show is called GWOTBOTS, and he's made a few dozen robots for the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Actually, what he did, he told me, was make a junk-dealer "an offer he couldn't refuse" for a bunch of small plastic toys, and then, as post-election therapy, took a whole bunch of plastic binding strips and strapped toy cars to superhero dolls, animals to airplanes, soldiers to other soldiers, and invented names for each piece to satirize or comment on the current political situation. (Or, as the invitation has it: "Richard Posner a crafstman hunched over a kitchen table full of detritus in a dimly lit hinterhof atelier, abracadabra flotsam and jetsam into a plastic toy vehicle, one at a time, by hand.") There's a mordant, bittersweet humor to the pieces, and I'll be going back again when the crush of opening-night folks isn't present to look a little more closely at them. Meanwhile, Richard, who's found himself stuck in Berlin since a couple of years ago, has invited me up to dinner on Wednesday, after which we'll play German Monopoly (the board is Munich, but it really should be Berlin) with a couple of his friends.

Then, last night, the dancer got me to go hear a piano player in the bar of the swanky Steigenberger Hotel. His name is Joe, and he's married to a friend of hers from whom she earns a bit of money babysitting their new daughter Lulu. Joe's been here since he arrived with a musical that has become infamous in Berlin: Shakespeare Rock and Roll, which left a trail of bad debts all the way to the Swiss border, where its perpetrator was caught just in time. ("I saw to it my boys got paid," Joe said). Joe is an accomplished jazz pianist, but that's no way to pay the rent here, so he alternates hotel gigs, with going out every other year with the horrific middle-of-the-road German performer James Last. Last, it develops, is a real down-to-earth type, and makes sure his band is filled with some of the finest jazz musicians around: it's work, it pays extraordinarily well, and so the money might as well go to the right folks.

Joe was singing -- and I mean singing -- "Georgia On My Mind" when we got there, and he managed to settle in comfortably with all the material he did, not carbon-copying the original singers, necessarily, but inhabiting the space they created with the original song. If that meant Elton John or Billy Joel, fine. If it meant someone more interesting to my ears, like Ray Charles, even better. But the problem last night was that the audience was Teflon: nothing was sticking. Joining us at our table between his short sets, Joe was a bit frustrated, but it's the week before Christmas, and people just aren't going out. He even has a small crowd who come out just for him, and if fate hands you the fortune to be staying at one of Berlin's better hotels (except the Adlon -- but then I never recommend anyone stay there), check the bar with the piano and see if there's a guy with totally white hair (he's got a medium case of albinism) playing with soul. That'll be Joe, from Philly, doing what he does.

Both Richard and Joe have settled here because they married German women and have families. Both are making a living here as best they can. Both are American, and both are, like me, pretty much sure they prefer living in Europe. No big moral here, no great metaphor. Just two guys on two successive nights in two completely different ends of town.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Another Article

Only this time it's a bit more accurate: a New York Times piece on clubhopping in Berlin, with the emphasis correctly on Friedrichshain, which is where the young, poor, and bohemian fled when the folks from Bonn started buying and modernizing apartment buildings in Prenzlauer Berg, whence they'd fled after Mitte got unaffordable for much the same reason. I did a bar-crawl down Simon-Dach-Str. about five years ago for the Time Out Berlin guidebook, and found it really nice, with a varied selection of bars, but it's really not too easy to get to from my house (or, rather, my house isn't that easy to get back to from there), so I haven't been back in a long time.

Given the extreme change the neighborhood takes as it heads down to the river and Ostbahnhof, it's easy to forget that that part, too, is Friedrichshain, since there's at least one four-star hotel there, but Maria, the club that started in a dumpy building (now demolished) on one side of Ostbahnhof, is there on the shore, right near the East Side Gallery, the long stretch of Wall with all the paintings on it. Simon-Dach-Str. is further in, and there it's much more apparent what the article says: you won't see the hard-core old Ossis mixing with the new, international crowd. That's potentially a recipe for conflict, in my experience, and it's a tricky one to work out: There's still a lot of resentment among some of these people, and they can't like it when they see miniskirted Japanese girls and black-clad art fiends drinking in some of the well art-directed clubs and bars in their old 'hood. In Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, the solution has largely been to push those people to the margins of the districts, which works for a while: they'll go, because they're ageing and unemployed. But most of their kids don't mix with the new crowd, either, and that's where the tinderbox is.

I'm getting too old to go clubbing, and, more important, so are most of my friends, who are the ones who used to drag me to these places -- not that I needed much dragging. I'm very happy to see the article mention that there are still illegal clubs happening in Friedrichshain, and come spring or summer, I might very well see if any of my friends knows where some of them are, since the air of improvisation that hangs around the best of them is one of the few cool things about this city.

Anyway, if you're contemplating a visit, it might not be the worst idea to print this one out and keep it in your Time Out Guide for reference. Even if you wait until the Berlinale, those addresses should still be good.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Sauerkraut: The Antidote?

I want to thank all the readers who sent me the link to this article (and I have, except for Joe, whose spam filter hates me). U.S. expatriate hipsters plugging into the buzz of Berlin does, indeed, sound very exciting, and I guess these folks know a lot more about the city than I do because they're miraculously able to find exciting music, fascinating galleries, and art-deco cafes. Of course, one of these experts has been here a whole four months, so I guess she knows what she's talking about.

Anyway, it's a hilarious article, by a clueless reporter desperate to fill some space, and it's making the rounds of the expat community as I write, which must explain the chuckling noises I keep hearing.

Three Markets

When we last saw our hero, he was ascending the steps of the Hausvogteiplatz subway station with his friend the dancer, on his way to the Weihnachtsmarkt in the Gendarmemarkt with her, only to get distracted by the monument to the garment district at the top of the stairs.

Which only took a moment, because as many of you know, there's no power as strong as a woman determined to shop. So we headed off on a side-street, and in a block or so, the Gendarmenmarkt came into view. This Weihnachtsmarkt is unique in my experience, because it costs money to get in. I figured there must be some pretty good stuff in there if they relieve you of a Euro before you can even spend money on what's on offer, not to mention the fact that the whole thing is surrounded by a chain-link fence with decorative plastic blocking the view.

So we surrendered our tickets to a guy dressed as -- what else? -- a Gendarme, and went in. The first thing she wanted was a cup of Glühwein, which was fine with me: I'll gladly watch someone else drink it, while I stand there and smell the odor, but I'm damned if I'm going to touch the stuff. Earlier, I'd passed a huge container of empty bottles of the stuff (you don't think they mull it on the premises, do you?) and noted the ingredients: wine, sugar, cinnamon. Jeez, not very sophisticated.

The more we wandered, the more it became apparent that this wasn't all that special. Outright schlock was missing, but other than that, it was the usual suspects. There were a couple of interesting stands: one, indoors, promised jewelry made from fosslized mammoths, which I found curious; another offered candy bonbons in all manner of the odd herbal flavors Germans like, such as sage and woodruff. One was labelled "breast bonbons," but didn't taste like breasts: they were concocted from a mixture supposed to clear congestion.

About the only notable thing in the Gendarmenmarkt market was the food. There was lots of it, provided by a very upscale selection of restaurants and shops: Lutter & Wegner, Trader Vic's (yup, Berlin now has a Trader Vic's), and Vau, for instance. All I can say is, if I want to eat at any of those places, at those prices, I'm damn sure going to do it indoors.

Some of my friend's desire to buy was sated by a four-Euro block of nougat with hazelnuts, a sort of very uptown version of Nutella, I guess (my local supermarket is currently offering a two-kilo jar of Nutella), but after the same overpriced Stollens appeared for the third time, we realized how small this place was, so we headed towards Unter den Linden and the market at the Opernpalais next to the City Opera. I have sort of a sentimental attachment to this one, since it's the first one I ever attended, and was the source of the Erzgebirge Rauchermännchen I used to buy for a friend's kid each year. It's still got that East German flair, to some extent, but it's become somewhat less proletarian over the years. There's a coach service this year which sells rides in a yellow-painted stagecoach between Christmas markets, and so the smell of horseshit greeted us, combined with the odor of grilling sausages at the sausage stand that's been here every year. A good place to stop, but I was still fixated on the sausages I'd already bought from the Thuringian lady earlier, which would turn into red beans and rice later, so I was determined not to sabotage my appetite.

The Opernpalais market has more, and smaller, stands than the Gendarmenmarkt, with a huge range of stuff, all of which has in common that it's affordable and overpriced for what it is. There are a couple of notable places to stop: a Swiss spice company sets up here each year, and they're famous for the high quality of their goods. My friend was very impressed with the Thuringian lady's sausage selection, and bought herself a big piece of Presskopf, which you probably call headcheese (or, in Ohio, souse). As she negotiated the sale, I watched the other woman at the stand, a grandmotherly sort, smear lard on pieces of bread: mmmm, Schmalzbrot! Yes, people here really do eat that. If it makes you feel any better, this is Griebenschmalz, with little bits of toasted cracking in it. Okay, I didn't think that'd make you feel better.

But mostly it was the same old stuff: decorations, winter clothing, wooden toys, and the sort of gimmicks you always wind up sorry you bought, like salt crystals with candles in the middle. Here, you could not only get Glühwein, but also a drink called Feuerzungebowle ("fire-tongue bowl," approximately), which smelled exactly like Glühwein, but was, I was told, connected to a film in which a beloved actor played a 19th Century chemistry student who specialized in blowing up his lab experiments. The film was even playing on a TV at one stand. I must admit, I was getting Christmas fatigue by the time we finished this part up, but there was a third market to go to, and it was just down the street.

This one was set up in front of the Palast der Republik, the former government building of the DDR, right on the banks of the Spree River. The Palast's future is in some question, since it occupies some of the same land as the old Hohenzollern Palace, which the city has voted to rebuild, but for which, of course, it lacks funds. The Palast was supposedly too infested with asbestos to keep up, but someone did an analysis of the ICC, the big conference center in the far west of the city (where PopKomm was this year) and discovered it had exactly the same amount of asbestos, so the city de-asbestified both of them. The Palast remains, and recently hosted an exhibition of the Xian pottery warriors.

Anyway, the Christmas market there is more like a carnival, with really hard-core carnies operating rides and ring-toss, lottery, and other games. There was a Wild Mouse ride, which I hadn't seen since the one at Rye Playland in New York killed a bunch of people in my youth. Lots of lights, lots of drunken guys with suspiciously short hair, lots of Peruvians selling crafts (interesting: why Peruvians?), and the smell of burnt-sugar almonds everywhere. (I don't know what it is about burnt-sugar almonds. When I went to Oktoberfest in Munich years ago, I expected lots of salty snacks, but it was the almonds that people went for. Maybe I'm crazy, but they don't seem like something I'd want with my beer).

A nice way of seeing the differences between these three markets was the stage each of them had. In the Gendarmenmarkt, a brass quartet was tootling Christmas music as we walked in, and was soon replaced by a magician. He had a kid up on the stage and was bantering with him while holding a rope, but unfortunately he wasn't going to garotte or hang the kid, so I lost interest. The Opernpalais had a Bavarian gentleman on stage with a zither when we got there, playing the "Third Man Theme," which is apparently the only piece of music that machine can play. From the comments he was making to the audience, I gather he was also not feeling any pain. At the Palast, a guy dressed as Santa Claus (excuse me, Weihnachtsmann) and another in a top-hat were forcing a bunch of volunteer kids to sing some song about snow, and once they got going, a bunch of fake snow blew out of a duct somewhere, much to the annoyance of some of the kids, who kept brushing it off their clothes. When they finished singing, nobody clapped. Since I figure most of the people in front of the stage were the kids' parents, I see a thriving psychiatric practice in the making.

The insane wattage of the Palast carnival lights notwithstanding, I noticed it was quite dark, but it was only 4:45. Still, it was time to call it a day; lurking around these things, subliminally on guard for pickpockets, is exhausting, so we walked down Unter den Linden towards Friedrichstrasse station and our respective homes. It was good to have a native along to clarify some of this stuff, like the Feuerzungebowle and the posters for a show featuring Frau Holle, a fairy tale that, unlike many German fairy tales, never got translated into American culture. She lives in the heavens and in the winter, she shakes out her bedding, the feathers falling as snow. And, although it was damn cold, it appears that so far this year Frau Holle's asleep at the switch. Fine with me; it'll come. I can wait.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Three Mirrors

My friend the dancer wanted to hit the Weihnachtsmarkt in the Gendarmenmarkt, the plaza not far from my house that is considered Karl Friedrich Schinkel's neo-Classic masterpiece -- and it is, when it's not dookied up by an outdoor stage or a Christmas market -- and so, after thinking about what was where, I agreed to meet her mid-afternoon Friday in the subway station at Hausvogteiplatz. (If your German is as rudimentary as mine is, you may wonder what kind of egg a Hausvogtei is, but it's apparently a plural of Hausvogt, a word that's not in my dictionary, but seems to mean "house steward.") I'd discovered Hausvogteiplatz when I had to go to the Handelsbank, the grim building where one exchanges Deutsche Marks for Euros -- a business that's still going strong -- and had admired its expansiveness and the lovely clock, set in the middle of a stylized sun on the Berolinahaus building there.

I also decided to walk, despite it being the coldest day of this part of the year so far, if for no other reason than getting there by public transport would take almost as long as walking. The hike took me through another Christmas market, at the Unter den Linden Opera, and, because I always overestimate how long it takes to get places on foot here, being early, I scoped it out. I was in luck! A stand was selling sausages from Thuringia, including the garlic ones which make a perfect substitute for Cajun garlic sausages. (Not as good as my old pal Kermit Lejeune makes in Eunice, but then, what is?) I bought a bunch of them, and visions of red beans and rice at the end of this cold day started dancing in my head.

Arriving at Hausvogteiplatz, I discovered something I'd never noticed before which may have gone up since the last time I was there: three tall double-sided mirrors, arranged in an equilateral triangle, set apart, but leaning in towards one another. From the outside, they reflected the lovely open space of the plaza, but inside, in front of each mirror, a caption was set in the ground. Interested, I stepped inside, and noticed that the captions told of the days when Hausvogteiplatz was the center of Berlin's clothing industry until the Jews who owned the majority of the businesses were forced to give them up for "Aryanization," and then sent off to the camps. The captions were short, and terse, and every time you looked up from them you were confronted with a reflection of yourself.

Besides feeling glad I'd been given this information (which I think is also available on a sign over in one corner, with photos -- I have to go back and check), I also felt annoyed. Berlin is the center of many horrors committed in the past, not just the genocide of the Nazis, but also the unimaginably brutal campaign of rape and destruction waged by the Russian victors at the war's end, and I don't contest that these should be memorialized so that people don't forget. But I also think that for this process to be effective, it has to be managed well.

The DDR was the worst with this: their memorial inscriptions hector unmercifully, thanks to the regime's inbuilt notion that the fascists who took the country over were from somewhere other than the territories which formed the Russian zone. Thus, it was "fascists," not "Germans" (or, heaven forbid, "German fascists") who had perpetrated the crimes against humanity. The West Germans settled for being chilling: the signpost outside the Wittenbergplatz station shows the names of the camps, with the numbers of people killed substituting for miles. By the time Germany unified, though, at least one monument got it absolutely right. Not far from the Gendarmenmarkt is Bebelplatz, which is across Unter den Linden from Humboldt University and the former central city library. Students from the former raided the latter in 1933, piled the books up in the plaza, and set them afire. (Interestingly, I just read a first-person account of this from a Jewish intellectual who was there, and apparently it was one of those grey, soggy Berlin days, even though it was early May. The SS had one hell of a time getting the books lit, and keeping them going was pretty much impossible. They managed to get something of a blaze going for the cameras, but after the propaganda had been shot, the fire quickly fizzled out.) At any rate, the metal sign haranguing fascists attached to the Kommode, the lovely Baroque building on Bebelplatz, that the DDR had put up was to be replaced, and an artist named Micha Ullmann figured out the perfect monument: he dug out a good-sized room under the plaza, right in its center, and then furnished it, top to bottom, with bookshelves, painted them white, and sealed the room. A thick glass window was placed flush with the ground, and through it, you can see the empty, white shelves, which are lit up. A very small plaque nearby mentions what the monument is, who made it, and a second one has a quote from a German philosopher that says "When pepole start burning books, they wind up burning people not too long afterwards."

It's quiet, it's appropriate, and not a single person I've shown it to has failed to be silenced by its eloquence. In other words, it's everything Hausvogteiplatz's three mirrors isn't. (It's currently off-limits due to the fact that the city is, for some unknown reason, building a mammoth parking garage under Bebelplatz, but it may be seeable again in the spring).

The dancer's train was right on time, and we decided to head straight to the Gendarmenmarkt. As we climbed the stairs out of the station, I noticed that each one had the name of a Jewish businessman who'd worked in Hausvogteiplatz in the 1930s, so I pointed this out to my friend, and then directed her to the mirrors. "But how can you object to this?" she asked. I told her I thought the mirrors were a bit much. "But this is necessary." She paused. "Of course, the people who actually need to see this never will."

Yes, there's that, too.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Flash! Pow!

Early this year, I got an e-mail from a woman named Kim Cooper asking if she could reprint something of mine from the 1970s in a book she and her co-author David Smay were compiling. Having recently seen an article of mine from 1971 and been horrified by its sheer ineptitude, I asked her for a copy of what they were planning to reprint, and she sent it, I read it again, wasn't appalled, and said "sure, go ahead."

Anyway, yesterday the book arrived, and, like any good egomaniac, I headed straight to the index to look up my name. It appeared, not once, but five times! (Pages 11, 63, 110, 159, and 209 for those of you impatient to know). Dutifully, I checked each one, and each was a review from Flash magazine. I remembered Flash very well; it was a formative experience in my life and career.

Just...not this Flash.

Right! As I was reminded turning the pages, Mark Shipper was one of the sharpest young writers on popular music in L.A. in the '70s, the guy who resurrected the Sonics, however legally, and introduced me to the wild and dangerous world of Northwestern garage bands. (As I said when I did a piece on the Sonics on Fresh Air, "Forget whether you'd let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone; you really don't want her marrying a Sonic.") He also wrote a book called Paperback Writer, which was an "alternate history" of the Beatles, which I recommend. And yeah, he'd had a magazine called Flash, which he'd done after we'd done ours.

Some years before Shipper cranked up his Gestetner (or whatever he used; he was pretty graphics-smart, so it was probably much higher quality than that), I had worked at Rolling Stone along with a number of other fine folk. We (well, mostly they: I was only the record review editor) did a bunch of stories which resulted in the magazine getting a Columbia Journalism Award, which would have been great, but we'd all been fired by then (and by "we" I mean "they," too).

A number of the fired folks had just gone back down the street from 625 3rd St. to 746 Brannan, where the magazine had started (in a moveable type print-shop, no less: kids, ask your grandparents), to join an "alternative fashion magazine" called Rags which had been started by a woman with the eminently appropriate name of Mary Peacock. In fact, as Rolling Stone fired us one by one, we all seemed to find a place there, and it was as their music editor that I was sitting in their offices, admiring a story in that day's New York Times that said something like "Rags is the fastest-growing magazine in the history of American magazine publishing" when the business manager walked out of his office to announce that the magazine was closing because the cash-flow wasn't flowing fast enough.

This left a bunch of very disappointed and talented people without anything to do, and, given that we (and I mean they) knew we'd given birth to two superb magazines, we didn't see why we couldn't start one ourselves and make it the magazine of our dreams. Lord knows the talent was there, the enthusiasm was there, the knowledge of who we were writing to was why not?

Meetings were had, talk was talked, and ideas were hatched. John Burks (today the head of the journalism department at San Francisco State University) was the editor (he had to be: he'd left Newsweek to work at Rolling Stone, which made him acceptable in the eyes of Straight People), and Jon Carroll (who has been writing a wonderful column for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years) was also on board. We had a name (Flash), we had tons of stuff we'd written for the first issue, we had a business plan, we had a mass-mail guru ready to mail out flyers, but...we didn't have a cover story.

"Wait, I think I can get an interview with Groucho Marx," Carroll said. He's still alive? the rest of us said. "Oh, sure!" Well, fine: that would be a real coup. And so Jon made the appropriate calls and learned that Groucho would happily submit to an interview if Jon bought him lunch at the Brown Derby. Off went Mr. Carroll to Los Angeles.

A few days later, he was back. How'd it go? we all wanted to know. "Oh, it went great. He seemed very happy to have someone paying attention to him. I think he's lonely. I got some great quotes. Here..." and Jon fiddled through his notes "he said 'I think the only hope for this country is the assassination of Richard Nixon.'" There was a pause. Groucho was cool!

With our cover story in hand, we lost no time producing what's known in the trade as a dummy, a fake magazine that you produce to show people what it would look like if you could get financing. Only our dummy had full stories in it so the prospective investors would see what a stunning bunch of talent came with this project. In fact, we made two dummies, because we thought the first cover wasn't very good, so we did a second one with just Groucho's photo (by Robert Altman -- no, not that Robert Altman). He looks like a sly old man, and the moustache is real instead of painted on. The cigar, of course, was real.

We didn't distribute many Flash dummies, because they were reserved for people who were seriously interested. And this is where I learned my lesson. I knew someone with lots of money, and I gave him one of our dummies. He really liked the articles, but he said something that has stuck with me ever since -- and which I offer to anyone else who thinks he or she has a great idea for a magazine. "I will invest a serious amount of money in this," he said, "if you or anyone else on the staff can complete this sentence to my satisfaction: 'Flash is the magazine of _________.'"

That let the air out of the balloon. In our excitement to give ourselves jobs, to turn the world on to what we thought was cool, to ferret out the stuff we loved, we forgot to have a concept. And advertisers need a concept. So do investors, because they know that without advertisers you're sunk. And we were sunk.

But not before we got the best publicity money can't buy.

It seems that somehow a copy of our dummy got into the hands of the Secret Service, and, as you may be aware, one of the jobs the Secret Service has is to investigate threats against the life of the President. And Groucho Marx had made such a threat. Not seriously, but...there it was, in print. So he got a visit. And he called up the New York Times and told them he'd had a visit. And they, in turn, made it into a front-page item (below the fold, but front page). And (after the jump -- don't you just love these journalism in-words?) there was a nice reference to our magazine project.

All of us went on to other things, even Groucho, who found his career resurrected, and had a one-man show on Broadway and a couple of records come out of the affair. And I've tried to start magazines since then, and I've never forgotten that unfinished sentence.


All of which is preface to saying that I'm really looking forward to reading this book, which, I should have mentioned, is called Lost In The Grooves, and is described as a "guide to the music you missed," which, just glancing through it, it certainly is. In fact, I believe that in a day or two, an order button for it may appear by those Rose & Briar ones over on the right, for all you offbeat music fans.

Meanwhile, as I wrote this, I realized that I've referred to Kim Cooper as a woman, and yet I'm not sure, so my apologies if Kim is a man, or (hey, s/he's in California) awaiting gender reassignment. Whatever, here's hoping you don't get a visit from the Secret Service. Or you do, if you think it'll help you sell books!


Late-breaking news: Ms. Cooper has confirmed gender. I feel less nervous now.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Random Encounters

As usual, the New Yorker cover on their Nov. 8 issue nailed a complicated issue with a great drawing, "Missed Connections," by Adrian Tomine. A young woman sits on the subway, looking up from a book with a distinctive cover, glances into the adjacent subway car (which, of course, we immediately know is headed the other direction) straight into the eyes of a young man, who's also just looked up and seems a bit surprised, reading the same book.

Just about all of us have had this experience, I'd bet, and it's an intense one. Also a futile one: what's the chance these two will ever see each other again? And, if they do, by some miracle, that they'll turn out to have anything at all in common? One thing I've always wanted to do is answer about 25 of the ads one sees in the personals -- most personals sections have given them their own section by now -- that say, for instance "ORNETTE COLEMAN show. You were outside after show and dropped your hair clip. Guy in suit (me) picked it up for you. How about a drink and more Jazz?" (an actual ad appearing in this week's Austin Chronicle in their "Shot In The Dark" section). I'd offer anonymity in exchange for a continuing, confidential, narrative of how the situation turned out, if, indeed, an answer was ever received. Gay, straight, intellectual curiosity, drunken misadventure...the whole spectrum of these situations, which I've been seeing ever since I started noticing them in the Village Voice decades ago, when I was a teenager.

The reason this is on my mind is twofold. The first is that someone on the Casa Grande East Yahoo! group my friend Stewart Wise runs came upon a cache of photos from the punk days in Austin, which we were all a part of. They were among the effects of a guy named Robbie Jacks, a big, gentle, gay guy much addicted to the theater who died suddenly in August, 2001, at the age of 41. Robbie was a man of many talents, and many acquaintances, who portrayed Leatherface in the fourth Texas Chainsaw Massacre film (and recorded its "love theme," a song called "Der Einziger Weg," with Debby Harry), and wrote a punk musical called Boy Problems which later evolved into a band. Someone on the Casa Grande list posted a photograph of a party, and over in the corner there's me, drinking a beer, and my girlfriend of the time. Somehow, the person who posted the photo managed to post its whole webpage, which, like all the others, bears the caption "Can you identify these people? Do you know the date this photo was taken? Do you know the photographer?" and bore a link to e-mail the people who are curating the photos.

Well, naturally, I got curious and went to the website and started clicking on the thumbnails, and my past started roaring back at me. Everything is posted pretty much just as it must have come out of the shoeboxes or whatever storage Jacks used, so there's no order to any of it, but, as the guy who was the local daily's music columnist/reviewer/reporter from 1979 to 1984, and who moved in most of the circles Jacks did, I figured I should poke around and see who I could identify, and contact the curators with any info I could come up with.

As it turned out, it wasn't so much the people I could identify as the ones I couldn't but who looked disturbingly familiar who began to haunt me. The women, in particular; this was a period of my life when I was incredibly screwed up about relations with the opposite sex, as a major subset of being screwed up about just about everything in general, and my life was a series of obsessions and fears, crushes that I was afraid to act on, and all of a sudden, here were a bunch of them, in poorly-lit Polaroids, all hanging out, drinking, smoking dope, doing silly things, all caught by the unsparing camera of Mr. Robert Jacks. I found I could only take a page or two of thumbnails at a time, and given that there are forty pages of thumbnails, it looks like I'm in for a long memory trip if I continue to check this project out. And, given that I feel a little responsibility as someone who documented the scene in words as Robbie was documenting it in his pictures, I think I will. But the psychic turmoil of seeing faces I couldn't identify, but with whom I'd had some sort of emotional or social connection twenty or more years ago, definitely stirred something up. It's still stirring, too: I'm having odd, but not unpleasant dreams, the result, I think, of finally laying some ghosts to rest. Thank you, Robbie, from beyond the grave.

I think.

The second reason is, I had exactly such an encounter yesterday, and, with all the stuff Robbie's photos have returned to me, it's just a bit eerie. I was at the supermarket, vainly trying to put a meal together (folks, you've been out of butter for five days now: don't you think you can do better than that?), and, walking away from one empty shelf towards the next thing on my list, I realized I'd forgotten something back where I'd just come from, so I turned around and almost collided with a woman who had been just behind me. She was quite interesting-looking, not exactly pretty, but with an air of self-assurance that's rare enough in this society, and she smiled at my quick choreography when I stepped out of her way.

When I finally had as much as I was going to find, which is not to say when I had gotten what I wanted, I walked over to find the shortest checkout line. Germans love standing in lines, apparently, but I just wanted to get back home. The woman in front of me looked familiar, and I noted her purchases: a package of generic spaghetti, a package of generic ravioli, a can of tomatoes, and a small bunch of bananas. As I laid my stuff down on the conveyor belt, she turned around and sort of gazed over my shoulder, but obviously she saw me, too, and recognized me. She turned back to the stuff she'd put down and pulled out her change purse, then checked the price on the sticker on the bananas. Boy, I knew this scenario; I've been living it long enough, although things have gotten enough better that I'm not walking around keeping a running total and feeling the coins in my pocket.

It was a sort of uncomfortable situation. There was something going on, I'm fairly certain, but my language skills aren't up to banter, and my innate reticence held me back. At any rate, with that little, it didn't take her long to pay for her food, pack it into her rucksack, and leave. I'll never see her again, I'm fairly sure, but for some reason the whole thing shook me slightly, and remained in my head this morning.

Guess I should head over to Robbie's photos and see what else comes out of the twenty-year-old murk.

Saturday, December 04, 2004


The good mood was too good to last. Two encounters today made me realize I'm still in Berlin.

The first was with my landlord's mother, who lives across the hall. She is a singularly unpleasant woman, and I've always tried to minimize my contact with her. During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, she would stop me and want to talk about it. Well, not "talk" about it: harangue me about it. I'd always wind up getting punched with her index finger as she said, over and over again "Denk an die Kinder!" -- "Think of the children!"

When I first moved into this place eight years ago, it was under construction. Mr. and Mrs. B, with weekend help from their son (who is, on paper, my landlord, and who would drive in from suburban Dusseldorf) would work on the place, renovating it, day in and day out. You'd never know what they'd be doing next: at one point they rented some kind of mini-elevator which lifted one person off the ground and propelled them upwards along a track. I forget what this was for, but I had a visitor from the States staying with me who referred to them as "the flying Bs."

Everything went horribly wrong with Ma B. two years ago. Her husband died of liver cancer, and she began to shuttle between here and Dusseldorf, staying here a few weeks until one of the family came to get her. She was insufferably nosy, and one day she appeared at my door, said "May I come in?" and walked right past me into the house. Now, in America, this wouldn't be such a big deal, but in fact here it's illegal. I caught her in the kitchen, her hands raised to the heavens, crying "Fuuuurchtbaaaarr! FUUUUURCHTbarrrr!" ("Terrible!"), her voice raising a note with each repetition. "You have rats! You have insects! You are dirty! You must understand: everyone should spend two hours a day cleaning! I'm going to tell my son and he's going to throw you out."

Well, this was something I knew a little bit about, having moved here from a house that did have rats and mice. If there's vermin, it's the city's responsibility to inform the landlord when tenants complain, and it's the landlord's duty to get rid of it. I didn't then, don't now, and have never had anything like that here. In fact, the rats at my old place were the only ones except for a few out in the wild or in subway tunnels that I've ever seen here. As for insects, sure: I had moths and the occasional spider. This is because in the summer, the windows are open and don't have screens. Moths do come in. Mostly, they die, but some don't, or lay eggs before they do. It's a pretty minor problem next to the Texas roaches, I'll tell you. But, technically, I'll plead guilty to insects and arachnids.

I'll also admit the house wasn't in very good shape that day. I was working pretty heavily in those days, and was often gone for days at a time. I considered a cleaning lady -- lord knows there are enough of them available around here, thanks to the unemployment situation -- but felt funny about hiring one. So no, the house wasn't all that clean on that day.

Naturally, the landlord was alarmed, and I wound up writing him a letter saying his mother had pushed her way into the apartment without my permission, and that she had grossly exaggerated what she'd seen. He mentioned it to her, and she stopped talking to me. Literally. Sometimes we'll open our front doors at the same time, and she'll screw up her fact into a rictus and turn her back until I leave.

Well, today I made the mistake of being nice to her. She was coming from the other building, I was coming back from Friedrichstr., and I unlocked the front door and held it for her. She got two steps up the stairs and whirled around. "You lied to my son! You lied to him! I asked if I could come into your apartment and you said yes, but when you wrote my son a letter you said you didn't! You lied to him." She repeated this five times, blocking the stairs, and was taking a breath for a sixth time when another tenant came down the stairs and found he was blocked, too. She turned to talk to him and I squeezed by them. Two years she's been holding this in.

I didn't even ask her about the flowerpot with the herbs growing in it she stole from the back yard last week, just as I was going to take it in. Fuck it; I'm not going to play.

But being shrieked at for twenty mintues when you're trying to get inside and warm up has its affect, so I didn't start thinking about tomorrow's dinner until it was after 4, which is always dangerous on a Saturday, because a lot of businesses still observe the old 4pm closing time. The German Work Ethic, you know. Anyway, I finally decided on a big Italian soup, because a friend is coming over, and I love to cook for others. Plus, this should leave me with leftovers, always a consideration. So I hauled out my favorite big Italian soup recipe (in Patricia Wells' Trattoria Cooking) and went through it. Fortunately, nearly everything I didn't already have could be bought at the inevitably-depleted supermarket on a Saturday afternoon, but there was one "exotic" ingredient: pancetta, the unsmoked bacon Italians love to flavor sauces and stocks. Still: no problem, because there's an Italian deli run by real Italians over on Ackerstr., down the block from the supermarket. I'd have to go there first because they close early on Saturdays, but at least I wouldn't have to go to Alexanderplatz, which is the nearest place I know I can get it.

A few weeks ago, I'd been foiled, but this time the lights were on, there were people in there, and the sign in front was illuminated. I walked in, and all three employees wheeled around to stare at me. "Closed," the one closest to me said. "That's a problem, isn't it?" There was a palpable sneer in her voice. Crap, now I'd have to walk to Alex.

So I did my shopping and while I was gathering up the last pannier of green beans (half of which seem to be diseased and will have to be tossed, but when you're shopping only four hours before closing time on Saturday you can't be choosy) and a head of cabbage and some carrots, it occurred to me that there was a wine shop where I usually celebrate a big check by buying a nice bottle for six or seven Euros, and it wasn't too far away. So after I paid and packed my groceries, I headed down there. The guy was as friendly as ever, but all he had was a few kinds of salami in his deli case, and a couple of mournful hunks of cheese. "So do you know if there's somewhere in the neighborhood here I could get some?" I asked. I mean, I knew there was, but I was wracking my brains because I'd foolishly been counting on the Italian place being open. He looked at me with wide eyes and said "Why, no."

Well, dammit, I knew he was wrong, but it hit me, as I walked out the door and turned the corner onto Auguststr., that this is very typical of the way people do business here. As I posted earlier, there's a real problem with people not thinking before they go into business. The current plague of cut-rate hairdressers and bakeries was preceded by the Italian deli plague, and this guy was one of the survivors. But I'm thinking he was just lucky. He should not only know what the competition is, but where it is and what they're selling. He should check every week, because he's not alone, and there are only so many shoppers out there, and they can vote with their feet and pocketbooks any time they want to.

But by now there was a thought in the back of my head that this restaurant-looking thing at the corner of Tucholskystr. and Auguststr. had a deli in it, and, to my relief, I was right. I got there, and there was a hunk of pancetta. I'd spent nearly an hour by now tracking one down, so I asked the guy behind the counter for 100 grams "or so." The "or so" was so he wouldn't get a heart attack if it came to 104 or 92 grams; Germans are funny that way, and it always amuses me to see the lady I buy coffee from taking out or adding a bean at a time until the digital scale reads 250.0000 grams. So he stared at me. Maybe my accent. I began to ask again, and he said "Pancetta?" "Yes, in one piece." This is because even though the stuff is mostly fat, that just makes it more irresistable to Germans as a sandwich filling. And he continued to stare. Finally, he turned to a young woman standing behind him and repeated my order. She said "You only want a hundred grams?" "Or so," I said, "in one piece."

Another thing the "or so" does is encourage Turks to give me a bit more when I buy olives. It appeared to have the opposite effect on this gal, though, because she came back with a very thin slice and asked if I wanted anything else. "How much does this piece weigh?" I asked, because I needed at least 65g for the recipe, and this looked pretty thin. "Oh," she said, "I don't know." But you're about to ask for money for it, eh? "Could you find out, please?" I asked. By now she and the guy were both staring "go away" beams out of their eyes. But she went and re-weighed it, and it turned out to be 75g. Why should I want to know this, anyway? I'm only the customer!

So I came back here, put stuff in the fridge and sat down to write this as therapy. I keep forgetting: the customer is always wrong. The customer is the annoyance that keeps you from having an eight-hour coffee-break.

At least Mrs. B wasn't scowling at me when I got back here. Maybe she'll go back to Dusseldorf soon. Or get hit by a car.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Glories of the Past

I promised a while back that I'd post my favorite reissues of the year, and frankly I'm glad I waited because today's mail brought a knockout box set I hadn't heard anything about. Reissues are more or less my bread and butter, because of my long-time affiliation with Fresh Air (which ran my Little Richard's Lost Years piece yesterday: listen to it here). Getting something on Fresh Air will help it sell, and since reissues aren't a priority for most record labels, they're overseen by a dedicated small band of fanatics, if they're a division of a major label, or just plain fanatics, if they're on indie labels.

The following list has both, and has stuff from the Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, right down to Dust To Digital, a one-man operation out of Atlanta. As previously, this is in no real order; I hate ranking things and prefer to leave that up to those who are so inclined.

* Johnny Ace: The Complete Duke Recordings (Hip-O Select) Hip-O Select is Universal's Internet mail-order reissue label, and its name couldn't, I suppose, have anything to do with Rhin-O...err, excuse me...Rhino Records, which is now Warners' reissue arm. It's hard to believe that they're charging twenty bucks for this, but it's worth it. Ace (real name James Alexander) came up as one of the Beale Streeters, the hippest band in late '40s Memphis, probably because besides him it contained people like Bobby "Blue" Bland and B.B. King. He fell under the sway of Don Robey, the notorious Houston gangster and record magnate, and his suave good looks and superior songwriting made him a teen idol for black teenage girls. If anyone recognizes his name today, it's because they know he lost a game of Russian Roulette backstage at the Houston City Auditorium on Christmas night, 1954 (maybe: other rumors have floated around in the years since), not because they know songs like "The Clock," "Saving My Love For You," and "So Lonely," or maybe because they know "Pledging My Love," which, thanks to the James Dean-like adulation that followed his death, became a huge hit in 1955. Anyway, it's all here, and it's great.

* Johnny Burnette: The Complete Coral Rock 'n' Roll Trio Recordings (Hip-O Select) A missing cornerstone of the history of rock and roll, mostly because this band didn't last a year after it started recording. Guitarist Johnny and his bass-playing brother Dorsey were as notorious throughout Memphis for their amazing stage act as for their habit of getting into drunken brawls with customers -- and each other. The key element of the group was electric guitarist Paul Burleson, who lived until last year (Johnny died in 1964, Dorsey in '71). Until I read Colin Escott's excellent notes here, I was unaware that Burleson had once been a member of Howlin' Wolf's band, or that the Rock 'n' Roll Trio had been playing this music since 1951 in various Memphis clubs, thereby predating Elvis by several years. Given their reputation, it's easy to see why maybe Sam Phillips didn't want to take a chance with them at Sun, but this stuff is as red-hot as anything he did record there, for the most part. There's one track with an orchestra, and Burleson had jettisoned them by the time the session that makes up the disc's last four tracks came along, but "Tear It Up," "Train Kept A-Rollin'," "Rock Therapy," and "Lonesome Train (On a Lonesome Track)" are moments unlike any other. Essential.

* Howard Tate: Get It While You Can (Hip-O Select) Tate made news last year when he made his first record in a couple of decades, after a trip to Hell and back. The reason people liked that one so well was that it showed he was just as good as he was on this 1966 classic. Producer Jerry Ragovoy provided a lot of the songs here, including the title, which Janis Joplin picked up, and although it may be overkill for this reissue to feature the stereo and the mono mixes of the album, the result is just like playing it twice. Which you're going to want to do anyway.

* David Ruffin: David (Motown Select) '70s soul is perhaps an acquired taste, particularly for those who still think they loathe disco, but this lost solo album from the ill-fated Temptation David Ruffin is well worth your time. With production by the label's top people and arrangements (I think) mostly by Johnny Bristol, about whom more in a moment, this is one of those moments where the direction soul music was going started turning around. Why did the Powers That Be file it away and make him start over? His drug abuse? Getting on the wrong side of the Byzantine internal politics of Motown? Probably all that and more. None of which is audible here.

* Johnny Bristol: The MGM Collection (Hip-O Select) Bristol partnered with Harvey Fuqua, formerly of the Moonglows, at Motown, writing songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," but by 1973, like so many of the old guard there, he'd had enough. This disc brings together two albums I'd never heard before. Certainly I saw enough copies of Hang On In There, Baby gathering dust at fifty cents apiece to think that maybe it was truly awful: lord knows the cover was pretty bad. But it's a classic, heavily influenced by Marvin Gaye's work post What's Going On, mostly written and solely produced by Bristol, with arrangements by one of his few peers at the time, H.B. Barnum. His second album, Feeling the Magic, misses it by a hair, probably because Paul Riser's arrangements are pretty stock. Bristol died in March, and this ought to help rescue his lost reputation.

* Various Artists: Night Train to Nashville I did a Fresh Air segment on this amazing two-disc collection of soul music from Nashville -- yup, you read that right -- earlier this year, and I continue to be amazed by how wonderful it is. A co-production of the Country Music Foundation and Lost Highway Records (damn, another Universal Music Group company!), it stretches from Cecil Gant, one of the first modern R&B performers, through the Prisonaires' "Just Walkin' in the Rain," one of Sun's first hits, to a vocal by a youthful Joe Henderson (better known as a tenor saxophonist of much depth), to the irrepressible Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson (with a hip electric sitar!). Great stuff from an unknown part of the musical universe.

* Jimmy Bryant: Frettin' Fingers (Sundazed) Three discs of amphetamine-crazed hillbilly electric guitar and steel guitar music? Hay-ull yes! Maybe a bit too much of a good thing, but the world of the anonymous sideman in country music is one well worth exploring, as is the idiosyncratic school of it that Capitol Records birthed in California. Merle Haggard and Buck Owens are well-known, but Bryant and steel player Speedy West recorded a lot of backup stuff. Capitol was smart enough to let them do a few LPs, too, and they've become prized collectors items for country and jazz pickers, who sweat buckets trying to copy them. Bryant also did a bunch of records without West, and this three-disc set cherry-picks the best of the albums and singles he did between 1950 and 1967 for Capitol. An amazing footnote to country history.

* Various Artists: Can't You Hear Me Callin' (Columbia Legacy) As close as anyone's going to get for a while to telling the story of bluegrass. The way labels refuse to lease tracks because they think they're sitting on a gold mine is a rant for another time, but I have to hand it to the compilers of this set for being as inclusive as they could be, even going slightly outside the lines of bluegrass per se to make their point about its being influential. It was still a minority music within the minority music of country, but what's interesting is that it seems to have remained vital while real country music is just about dead. This is because bluegrass learned how to accept a new audience, while country stubbornly alienated it. Anyway, disc four here is hit and miss, the booklet is unreadable (and Columbia used to have such great art direction!) and mine has already fallen out, but other than that, this is as good an introduction to bluegrass as you're going to find out there.

* The Stanley Brothers: An Evening Long Ago (Columbia Legacy) No, it's not the best Stanley Brothers album, but it is a pretty amazing one, recorded privately in 1956 by a fan, and showing a very stripped-down approach to bluegrass. Their greatest period, on King Records, was about to begin, and you can hear it happening here. Also features the world's shortest version of "Orange Blossom Special," which bluegrass fans everywhere will rejoice in. It's not a bad tune at all; it's just not worth wanking for seven minutes on.

* The Clash: London Calling, Legacy Edition (Columbia Legacy) In a way, it's just marketing. In another way, it's great to have this whole document. It's one of the very greatest records of the punk era, and I'm recommending it this year not because of the original album, which is available all by itself, or because of the so-called "Vanilla Tapes" demo, heard here for the first time (it's only intermittently interesting), but because the DVD which is the third disc in the set has a wonderful documentary of the making of the album, featuring gonzo producer Guy Stevens, whom I'd heard about from Mott the Hoople (he produced them, too), in full swing. Literally. With plastic chairs. If you want to know why the Clash imploded, there are also important clues here. Great stuff.

* The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (Sire/Warner Bros/Rhino) At a distance, is this too arch? Is David Byrne really all that people (not least of whom is David Byrne) think he is? Is the 1980-81 expanded, funkathized band really all that good? I'm still tossing these questions around, trying to toss nostalgia out the window, trying to get a handle on this expanded version of the classic live Heads material. Which, I guess, means that this is an important record. And those of you who wish to impede your listening with nostalgia (hey, I'm not being judgmental here, but it's something I have to deal with as a professional hazard: can't listen to this stuff fresh until the nostalgia leaves) should definitely grab this.

* Various Artists: This Is Reggae Music (Trojan/Sanctuary) This is the one that came this morning, and, as one of the first people in the U.S. to write about reggae (true: see "Drug Crazed Rastafarians Conquer Known World" in Creem, sometime in 1971), I educated myself from the thick packages of Trojan LPs the great promo man Max "Waxie Maxie" Eastman shot my way from Britain in the early '70s. This was before the total Rastafication of reggae, before the Wailers' Jamaican recordings were slowed down slightly to a logy pace more in tune with American stoners, when reggae was, like rock and roll had been before it, admitting of all manner of trash and weirdness. Because Trojan took stuff from anyone they could get it from before releasing it in England (with some exceptions), they could cast their net wide, from the weirdest Lee "Scratch" Perry productions to the sweet, peppy pop reggae of the Pioneers. The track list here looks like four years of packages from Waxie Maxie boiled down to four CDs, including stuff I haven't heard in 30 years and some stuff I've never heard. Great art direction, seems like good liner notes (I found out that the Desmond Dekker song is "It Miek," not "It Mek," as was printed on the U.S. record, and that the title does not, as I'd always heard, mean "fuck you" in Turkish -- and I've only skimmed, so far), and unless the sound is ungodly horrible -- and I'll post here if it is -- this is a must-have.

* Various Artists: Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (Numero) You wanna talk about fanatics, these guys are fanatics. Three records so far this year, only available through their website, two of them surveys of soul labels so obscure the Brits haven't even gotten to them -- and that's obscure! Their survey of the Bandit label has a much better story, but the music is almost unlistenable (hey, didn't anybody relate to the concept "flat"?) , but on this one, it all comes together with the story of a label that tried to make Columbus, Ohio the soul capitol of the country in the mid-'70s. Very obscure, very much fun. At least check out Numero's website, but I think this might be the future of specialty retailing: you'll notice that their prices are considerably lower than Hip-O Select's.

* Duke Ellington: Piano In The Background, Duke Ellington: Blues In Orbit, Duke Ellington: Piano In The Foreground, Duke Ellington: Masterpieces By Ellington, Duke Ellington: Ellington Uptown, Duke Ellington: Festival Session (all Columbia Legacy) This has been a great year for Ellington lovers, as Columbia emptied its vaults of late Ellington onto CD with extra tracks, a process they've been engaged in for some time. I'm not going to jump into the early-Ellington-versus-late-Ellington debate, except to note that there are sub-standard records in both periods. I am, however, fascinated with the idea of Ellington as a classical composer using an idiom that Americans, at least, still haven't accepted as such, and Masterpieces, at least, bolsters that concept very nicely. Perhaps Blues Uptown and Festival Session aren't essential, but an Ellington piano record like Foreground is always worth listening to: it's a mine of ideas. As someone who believes you can't have too many Italian cookbooks (I'd recommend Marcella Hazan and the Marianis, for starters), this has been a banner year!

Finally, there is no more despised genre than the Christmas record, and I'm sure some of the artists you hate the most have come out with some this year. But the folks who brought you the world's weirdest gospel box set, Goodbye, Babylon, have just released a 24 track assortment of gospel and folk Christmas music that does't suck, that, in fact, inspires. It's called Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, and it's deliciously eccentric. Which, of course, is the kind of Christmas I hope everyone will have!

(Valid question: why didn't any rock magazine pay me to write this?)