Saturday, July 10, 2004

Weekend Without Love

No, not me. Think of The Children!

It's the second weekend of July, which around Berlin means only one thing: Love Parade Weekend! Except, for the first time since 1989, it isn't happening.

Americans probably just stare blankly when they hear the words Love Parade, which has always amazed me. How could an event which brings a couple of million people into the streets of one of the world's most famous cities be completely blanked out by the U.S. media? And yet, it was, for the most part, for its entire 15-year existence.

The Love Parade started with 350 techno devotees organized by the DJ Dr. Motte parading down the Kurfürstendamm (Ku'damm), the big shopping street of West Berlin. With East Berlin having just opened up, a number of clubs sprung up in places of dubious or uncertain legality: Tresor in the basement of a bombed-out department store, E-Werk in an abandoned power plant, and others that never became as famous. This was the perfect home for Berlin's new adopted dance music, techno, which had originated a couple of years earlier in Detroit but had failed to catch on both there and in London. Berliners loved the stark, industrial sound (and, having spent time in both places, I think it's easy to see how the cityscapes are similar), and with so much abandoned industrial real-estate to inhabit, it was a movement waiting to happen. Almost immediately, Berlin began to generate its own techno stars: Motte, Tanith, Paul van Dyk, Westbam. All had differing ideas as to what the music was about and how to make it work, and this factionalism could make for an interesting night out: there were so many possibilities that you could hit several clubs and have several different experiences .

The factionalism was friendly, though, and it all came together for the Love Parade, advertised as a political demonstration in favor of peace, love, and pancakes. (This was the only way they could get a permit for it, since freeform demonstrations of joy don't have a section in the local code of laws). Out of town DJs began to trickle in to play parties in spaces especially created for the event, and the hip dance communities in other countries began to take note of the event. Before long, the 350 had increased to 35,000.

My first Love Parade was 1994, when some friends and I watched it from an apartment on the Ku'damm and then went in search of the good parties later that night. The one we found was at the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg, and, a sign of how this had grown, it cost DM 50 to get into. (€1 = DM 2, pretty much). If, that is, you could get in: the guy taking the money didn't want to let me in because I was too old and my friend had to yell at him that I was an internationally famous music critic who wrote for the New York Times (not strictly true at the time, but hey...) and that letting me in could only do good things for them. The guy didn't like it, but he took my money. We had a great time, and at about 7 am we headed to another party at a wonderfully garish East German swimming pool in Pankow, only to find that one, which had featured Sven Väth and Paul van Dyk, packing up. Paul was still there, and we told him he was a wimp, but he was more limp than wimp: he'd clearly turned in an exhausting show.

The next year, Camel had a float in the parade, and they also had booths outside Tresor, which I found ominous. MTV, too, was already on board, as was their German competition, Viva (co-owned at the time by the music convention PopKomm and a consortium of major labels in Germany, although it was recently sold to Viacom). Clubs from all over Europe had floats, which were getting more and more ornate, and dancers were piled on dancers. The Ku'damm eventually gave way to another route: from Ernst-Reuter-Platz through the Tiergarten (Berlin's central park, which starts at the Zoo and ends at the Brandenburg Gate). This created some problems: the numbers had now grown into the hundreds of thousands, with people coming in from all over the world, and the environmental impact on the park, which, like it or not, was turned into the world's largest outdoor pissoir, was considerable. There were parties of widely varying quality all over town, even in districts that were totally dead the rest of the year, and those tended to have the ones with the C- and D-list DJs. The commercialization was utterly out of control: the CDU (the conservative party) had a float, there was one from an insurance company, and big commercial radio stations were much in evidence, even though they hardly ever played the sort of music the Love Parade celebrated.

I finally got my chance to ride a float in 1998, I believe it was. I was working at JazzRadio, and one of our irrepressible DJs, Armin Engel, who had a world music show, got the idea to put some African drummers and Swedish DJs onto a truck that we'd sponsor. Given the millions people like the cigarette and liquor companies put into their floats, we managed to do ours for a whopping DM 3500, which was less than anyone had ever done one for but more than we could afford, but the bill was underwritten by our new owner, a rich British twit who'd wind up sinking the station within a couple of years. In fact, he rode a short way with us, and then, ashen, bailed into the crowd.

And what a crowd it was! This was the year it peaked, with estimates going as high as 2,500,000 people in attendance. I'm telling you that you cannot possibly imagine this number until you've seen it. It took us nine or ten hours to make it to the finish, a distance that can be driven in fifteen minutes in moderate traffic. The crowning moment for me, riding on the truck, was when we got to the Grosse Stern, the huge traffic circle that goes around the Siegessäule, the Victory Column, atop which rests the golden statue of Nike made famous in Wim Wenders' unwatchable but much-loved film Wings of Desire. The entire area was as packed as physically possible with bodies, an MTV pavillion on the pediment of the column blasted out music, and the only place without people was the physical area inhabited by the trucks themselves, moving along in ultra-low gear as dancers as far as you could see writhed to whichever rhythms they were picking up at the time. Even if the number was the low-ball 750,000, it was inconceivable. When we finally ended, on a side-street by the Brandenburg Gate, I jogged to the Potsdamer Platz S-Bahn station, and, a few stops later, was back here, utterly and totally depleted.

The experience also cured me of the Love Parade forever. It was painfully obvious, as we inched through the mass, that the vast majority of these kids were just that: kids, young teenagers in from the provinces because it was the cool thing to do. The Love Parade had long since stopped being cool, and E-Werk, its spiritual headquarters, had recently closed, although, the company based there that managed the event was raking in millions from t-shirts, licensing the logo to the "official" parties, and an annual CD of the featured performers that regularly hit the charts. It had also long been impossible to get into the parties, no matter how much money you had, unless you'd obtained a VIP pass. Then it became impossible to get in even with one. The whole thing was getting to be like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Oktoberfest in Munich: the sort of thing that the natives leave town for. I avoided the Love Parade from then on.

Interestingly, in the past couple of years, the numbers have been declining. Last year's saw the organizers claiming 750,000, which had been the low figure just five years earlier. The true number was probably around half that, according to my sources. And the Monday after the Love Parade, I found myself in Zoo Station early in the morning for the nine-hour ride to Paris, and it was like walking into a zombie movie. Someone should have just photographed the teenage wreckage on display for an anti-Ecstasy poster. The kids oozed the aftermath of a desperate attempt to convince themselves that they'd had fun.

In fact, I'd forgotten about the Love Parade after the February announcement that it wasn't going to happen this year because the funds couldn't be found. What reminded me was last Saturday, when I heard a godawful noise coming from the street. Inbetween cold rain-showers, I walked a block to Torstr., and there was a bedraggled, tiny procession of pickup trucks with DJ booths mounted on them, politial slogans on dirty bedsheets bedecking their sides, and the most pathetic bunch of drab-clad kids I'd seen in a long time -- or, that is, since the previous weekend, when I'd stumbled on a bunch of punks at Rosenthaler Platz with squeegees trying to wash car windshields, anyway -- dancing behind them. A sign on one truck informed me that this was the Fuck Parade, which was one of the competitors that sprung up some years back (another was the Hate Parade, for punk-rockers, but unfortunately some of the participants took this a little too literally, and, being Nazis, caused the event to be banned). The Fuck Parade was supposedly for anti-fascist anarchists, but the music was dull and the kids disspirited, their dancing utterly unconvincing. I went back into the house as the heavens unleashed some more icy rain.

This week, though, I saw a number of posters go up for what would ordinarily have been Love Parade events, with big-name DJs who had undoubtedly been booked, like the venues, a year in advance. One event was called Love Suxx, another the Glove Parade. I saw an unusual number of chic Japanese 20-somethings in the street yesterday as I ran around doing errands, so I guess the tourists are here. And last night, there was a lot of noise in the neighborhood, someone beating arhythmically on a conga drum, the sounds of amplified music coming across when the wind blew just right. So I guess someone's partying out there. Not me, though. I still have a lot of curiosity about the music involved, but the event, I think, committed suicide a long time ago.


Dr. Eduard Bene� said...

Ed, always a pleasure to read your travelogues, even when they are right outside your doorstep.

I have been travelling to Germany every year since '98 and was amazed to read and hear about the Love Parade while there. You're absolutely right, how weird to have not heard about it before.

Dr. Eduard Bene� said...

Ed, always a pleasure to read your travelogues, even when they are right outside your doorstep.

I have been travelling to Germany every year since '98 and was amazed to read and hear about the Love Parade while there. You're absolutely right, how weird to have not heard about it before.