Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Times Discovers Berlin! (Again)

It was going to be a vacation. Take the train to Amsterdam, see an old friend, eat some different food, relax for part of a day, then get on a plane and emerge some hours later in Austin, where there'd be no snow, and fewer gloomy faces.

And it just about worked, too. By the time I got off the train in Amsterdam Centraal, I was beginning to unwind. An evening with Mike Stewart talking about old times and listening to some of the stuff he's currently producing (I think Marynka has some great stuff working) and then going out for a Surinamese dinner (it's a weird collision of Indian, Chinese and Caribbean cuisines, tasty and cheap), and Berlin was sliding away out of my memory.

The next morning, I took a tram to the train to the airport, and, before I headed to the gate, I thought, hey, I should pick up an International Herald Tribune to read, especially since it's Saturday and all, and I can get the New York Times crossword a day early. (Right about now, Andy Zwerling is getting ready to write me an e-mail telling me that if I were cool enough to live in New York I'd have it on Thursday night. You should buy his record anyway).

And, because I wanted to check the weather, which is on the back page, I flipped the paper over as soon as I'd wedged into my airplane seat, and of all things, here was yet another article about how cool Berlin was! And of course I had to read it.

This time, like the last time the Times wrote about arty, Bohemian Berlin -- a whopping three weeks previously -- the guy got a lot of stuff right. No, not the part about Lou Reed living here (when are people going to realize that he may have written a pompous, overblown "rock opera" called Berlin, but he'd never seen the damn place when he did so?), nor the recommendation of the Paris Bar, treating its non-celebrity customers like pariahs since before the Wall came down (why anyone goes there twice is a mystery to me). But he noticed the new galleries on Zimmerstr., although I don't necessarily agree with his exact choices, that was smart. But the rest of the article was a rehash of the obvious: Kreuzberg has cheap apartments! (Hell, it's had them since at least 1968, when it was a Turkish slum squatted by hippies). Berlin is cheap! (Yeah, that's because of the unemployment, only noted by the arch young man in the gallery up towards the start of the article saying "Nobody works in Berlin. Everyone's either an artist or a politician," which'll come as a huge surprise to lots of my neighbors, who don't have either excuse for not working.)

And after that, the writer, one Richard K. Woodward, glancingly mentions the museums on Museum Island, the ones even the worst guidebooks mention, and pays a visit to the Sammlung Hoffmann, open one day a month if you can get on the guided tour. That brought back memories, because the radio station I used to work for was there in the Sophien-Gips-Höfe, and I hadn't realized that our landlord, Rolf Hoffmann, had died. I met him once at an art party (where I also consumed spinach soup made with gin -- aren't artists wacky?) and he spilled a huge glass of red wine on my shirt, commenting "I have baptized you!" Still, any church that has art by Pipilotti Rist, Antichrist of contemporary art, is one I'm not joining any time soon.

In the end it's another blah-blah story about the galleries, many of which will fold soon when they either can't afford their spaces or their hot young artists cool, about the artists who'll eventually get tired of a place with horrible weather and a population that basically hates innovation and loves to say no, and the scenesters who drift around the galleries wondering if they look cool enough. All, of course, supported by dull generalities ("Techno has roots in Berlin" -- and Detroit, of course, but those guys are black and Americans don't notice them, although the Germans do), clichés about tourists like David Bowie (and non-tourists like Lou Reed), and recommendations for the Paris Bar. One would think the Times could do better, but given what their travel section, where this article appeared, pays, maybe not.

Which is not to say that there isn't a blockbuster of good news in the article. I quote: "During the cold war, visiting Berlin required changes of planes, layovers and worries about visas should you want to stray into Communist territory. And even after the Wall fell, getting to Berlin didn't get much easier, with almost no direct flights out of the United States.

"But that will soon change, when Delta starts nonstop service out of Kennedy International Airport on May 2, and Continental does the same out of Newark on July 1."

Now, that is news: cheap flights to/from the States when the service debuts, followed by increasingly empty planes and both airlines' withdrawal from the market, no doubt. That's what happened with American and United. But if you're coming, there are two dates to start looking into: there'll be loss-leaders from both airlines, unless I miss my bet.

Anyway, I carried that damn article around for two weeks thinking I'd have enough peace of mind to sit down and write this entry, but it never happened. I got home last night, and so I'll be talking a bit about just why I didn't have time over the next couple of days. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Thoughts Before A Journey

I suspect the next 24 hours are going to be insane, as I pack for my trip to Texas, check to see what bills I can pay before I leave, and do the last-minute stuff that's an inevitable part of travelling. With snow pounding down in thick, wet flakes outside, which started while I was at the ARD studios recording my next batch of Fresh Air pieces, I simply cannot wait to be in Austin, where Saturday's high is predicted to be 77 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 25 Celsius, just to make my European readers feel terrible).

But there's always a sense of apprehension, and these days it's more than my admittedly irrational fear of flying. The country I return to on these brief visits is not the country I left. Well, fair enough, you say, after eleven years it hardly could be. But it's changed in ways I have trouble understanding, ways which scare me and the rest of the world. Once I'm in Austin, I see very few signs of this change, although there are just enough to remind me they're there. But the soldiers everywhere, the tension in the airport (I almost had security called on me last year when I asked if I could change my return ticket: I wasn't aware that I couldn't, and all it took was my protesting mildly for the woman to panic), and the pall of fear that you can feel, if not see, all make me realize that it's not a place I want to spend a lot of time.

My reaction isn't like some people over here. I had dinner the other night with a couple I know. He's German, she's American, and neither of them is doing all that well. With a young child now to support, they're naturally thinking how they could make things better for themselves and their kid, and at one point in the conversation, the German guy said "It's very difficult. You know the unemployment here is over 20% and it's more than that here in Berlin. The figures are the closest we've ever come since the days of the rise of fascism." He paused. "So for a German with ties to America, the question becomes, do we deal with the place where the conditions are exactly as they were when fascism arose, or do we move to the place which is already fascist?"

Now, I wouldn't call this guy's politics mainstream, but he's just voicing what a lot of Germans feel at least as a possibility. After all, they're not seeing the movie from inside, and they're just as subject to media manipulation as anyone, and a lot of what they see looks eerily familiar. I still believe that America will recover from the crew of radicals who are running it at the moment, and that perhaps the experience will teach some people some lessons and help them cherish their freedoms a little more. But Germans see a crazed leader, intent on invading other countries, supported by a cadre of true believers, and they get a real bad sense of deja vu. That's no more the case than the American vision of a Germany overrun with neo-nazi skinheads is, but I think a lot of people here are a bit unsettled by the possibility that there might be more than a grain of truth there. And there's another problem: the Germans have always felt an affinity for the Americans, who treated them humanely and helped them build back their economy after defeating them in World War II. If this could happen to our friends, some of these people must be thinking, can it happen to us?

And thus the nervous feeling: in a generation, Germany has gone from pretty much full employment, from a situation where there were so many jobs that they welcomed Italians and Turks into the country to do the jobs they couldn't get Germans to do, to a situation where one in five people is out of work. I'd say that simply because so many people are aware of the story as it happened last time that the rise of fascism in Germany is one of the least likely scenarios here. The far right party that's been making the news of late, the NDP, is a tiny minority which only does well in the regions worst-hit by the economic blight, and even then, the voters tend to turn on them when they see that all they've managed to do is to turn their state legislature into a pack of pariahs. When I first moved here, everyone was scared of the Republikaner, the (pardon) Republican Party, which was headed by an old guy who was widely rumored to be a maybe-not-so-ex-nazi, and whose election posters were as scurrilous and vile as I've ever seen: Germany for the Germans! But you never hear about them these days.

So I'll strike a deal with you Germans: I won't be scared of your country if you don't be scared of mine. You know good and well that a few guys with no hair and back-country accents can't make a popular revolution in this country, not as media-saturated as it's gotten. And I know that in America, the lessons of the last election -- which was only a couple of months ago, don't forget -- are being analyzed and re-thought, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some fairly interesting things happen around next year's elections. And no, I don't think we'll be invading Iran in June. What y'all should consider is taking an American vacation, because I don't think the dollar's going to recover any time soon, and boy, is it cheap over there right now. You don't have to fear the natives because you're Germans, and Germans are fearless travellers. They must be: there's a travel agency right around the corner here offering €749 packages to Kabul, for heaven's sake. If you can hack that, you can hack America.

Anyway, I know that 80% of you just fly to Orlando and lie on the beach.


More cross-cultural studies are provided in this astonishing article about an ex-Austinite revisiting the old stomping grounds. He's the mirror image of me: he likes Germany, for one thing, but, as someone commented, that's probably because he lives in Freiburg. All you need to know about Freiburg is that it's the place where I was talking to a guy who lived in a large apartment with a bunch of other people and he told me that on weekends, they drew lots to see who'd go shopping in Switzerland, who'd go to France, and who'd go to Italy, all of which are just a short drive away. Not Berlin, in other words. But this guy is part of the huge Berlin-Austin axis, which is something I have yet to figure out.

Anyway, enjoy. I'm off Friday for South By Southwest, and I don't know if I'll have the time or inclination to write much here, although if my proposed trip over into Cajun country happens, there'll probably be photographs. What's left of my jet-lagged self will be back on Mar. 30, at which point I think it's pretty inevitable that I'll start complaining about Berlin again.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Crumbs, February 32, 2005

Yeah, it may say March on your calendar, but I look out the window, and it's still February out there.


Thanks to Jakob for sending along news of a newly-created web publication dedicated to translating the best of Germany's newspapers' feuilleton pages into English. Signandsight is located literally around the corner from me, in what Wired magazine once predicted would be Germany's Silicon Valley until the local anti-innovation movement ("Why should we do that? It's never been done before") drove a lot of the innovators out of town. But this project seems to have some government support, three dedicated Germanophiles doing the translating, and a hefty, nearly impenetrable manifesto to impress the folks who deal out the money. A great place to check out the (as we say here) zeitgeist, and, perhaps just as importantly, to see if the German press lives up to its high reputation. As someone who was extremely disappointed with the English version of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung once it started appearing in the International Herald Tribune, I'm going to be following this with interest. At the least, I hope they have a sympathetic landlord.


Further thanks to David for sending me a review from Amazon of Machers and Rockers by none other than Bob Pruter. I once read Pruter's book Chicago Soul back when I had my blues/soul/gospel radio show here and the prose was so narcotic that I did a whole two-hour show on Chicago soul not only to please my listeners (who loved it) but to remind myself that the stuff was actually interesting. But one thing: Pruter is a researcher, there's no doubt of that. And besides all the stuff that I brought up in my perhaps overly angry review, Pruter pointed out that Cohen also got nearly all the addresses in the book wrong, too. Okay, maybe this isn't quite as serious as Jayson Blair, but maybe someone can explain to me why it's any different. David also alleges that he got a lot of stuff in Tough Jews wrong, too, and recommends a book called But He Was Good To His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters, by Robert A. Rockaway, which is currently out of print. Me, I'm just happy to see that someone wrote a book on that subject and gave it that title!


I'll leave you with a true anecdote of cultural sophistication here in the World City. A few months ago, I discovered Centro Italia, the local wholesale Italian food market, which sells mostly to the restaurant trade, but, because of some strange law here, is also obligated to open for retail sales (albeit with higher prices) to the general public. It's sort of like I imagine Heaven to be, except in Heaven there's no cash register on the way out, the wine selection is better and the salsiccie have fennel and red pepper the way God intended. (Of course, you couldn't sell those to Germans, but I think they get a different Heaven).

Anyway, I was walking down the aisle, buying olive oil and Voiello pasta (the best in the world, made by Barillo for the trade, apparently) and other stuff and this very well-dressed middle-aged woman came up to me with a jar in her hand. "Excuse me," she said. "Are these capers?" I looked at the label -- piselli -- and said "No, those are green peas." "Oh." And she continued shopping. A minute later she was back. "What about these?" "Nope. Those are clams." Fortunately, I noticed I was standing right in front of the capers (which were labelled in German), and pointed them out to her. She was visibly relieved.

And lest you think capers are as foreign to Berlin tables as clams are, I should point out that they're an integral part of one of the few pieces of Berlin cuisine, Königsberger Klopse, which are meatballs in cream gravy with capers in it. Go figure.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

An Unnecessary Book

I've just wasted two evenings of my life, evenings I could have spent improving my mind, with a book that's so bad that I'm mourning the trees it took to create it. Bad books are nothing new for me: I seem to come across them all the time. Just recently, I was in the English-book section of a local bookstore and picked up an 800-page sci-fi novel that only cost €5. I should have known it was crap, and it certainly was: a sort of space-opera of the sort I'd thought perished with A.E. van Vogt, bane of my sci-fi-reading teenage years.

But this was different. It came in a package my producer at Fresh Air had sent with a book I'd asked her to find me for a possible piece. She thought this one might interest me, and I thank her for that. Her instincts were certainly right, but it left me in despair.

It's called Machers and Rockers: Chess Records and the Business of Rock and Roll, and it's by Rich Cohen, whose book on Jewish gangsters, Tough Jews, I read a few years ago and liked. On the back are encomia from Larry King (a friend of Cohen's father) and Jann Wenner (Cohen's employer). And it's certainly a great idea. Phil and Leonard Chess were certainly tough Jews, immigrants from Poland (where their name was Cyzsz) who landed in Chicago, got into first the liquor business and then the nightclub business on the black South Side, and were smart enough to realize that there was money to be made with the music the schvartzes they served made. Once they got rolling, they lucked into Muddy Waters, who was in the ascendant as king of the Chicago blues, and, through him, they found others, such as Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, John Brim, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Rogers, and many others. Then, a guitarist recommended by Muddy showed up at their door, a 19-year-old kid named Chuck Berry, and they suddenly found themselves helping to invent rock and roll. In this, as it developed, they sowed the seeds of their own destruction, although they had no way of knowing it at the time; as Cohen points out, they were only trying to make a buck, which is what they had always been trying to do.

There's a reason why Jews were so prominent in the independent record business after World War II, and the Chess brothers epitomize that reason: Jews were still marginal to America, and so, as they had in Hollywood, they found niches in marginal businesses. A lot of them worked in the black sections of America's cities, and they had something of a knowledge of what the black people who lived there wanted. Plus, making records was a business that, while high-risk, had a potentially high payoff, especially if you indulged in the time-honored tradition of stiffing your artists, a practice hardly limited to Jews: just ask Don Robey, or John Dolphin, or Jack Lauderdale, all black label owners (Duke/Peacock, Made In Hollywood/Dolphin, and Swingtime, respectively), all notorious ripoffs, if not outright gangsters. Like the junk business or the rag trade their fathers had plied, selling music to black people was a job no "respectable" person -- read WASP -- wanted.

Phil and Leonard became millionaires, and Chess second only to Atlantic in revenues as an indie. It's a compelling story, and it's been told in a book called Spinning Blues Into Gold, by Nadine Cohodas, a book I've never even seen.

Machers and Rockers is published by W.W. Norton's Atlas Books subsidiary in a series called Enterprise, which apparently profiles businesses: there's also a book on Ted Turner by Ken Auletta, and Tim Parks has one coming on the Medicis, which ought to be fun. So this isn't one of those quickie cut-and-paste operations like litter the rock-book landscape.

With a lineup that incudes Auletta and Parks, though, you'd think there was an editor who would take this stuff seriously, which is one reason this book is so appalling. Oh, sure, it starts off fine, with a chapter entitled "Today You Are A Man, Get Me a Drink," in which Cohen, in full gonzo mode, imagines the Bar Mitzvah of Marshall Chess, Leonard's son, and heir apparent to the label and all its workings. I know people who are still jealous of Marshall for having had the Flamingoes sing at his Bar Mitzvah. Hell, I'm jealous, and I'm not even Jewish! Cohen does a fine job of presenting the mix of people who were there: old Jews from the traditional life, particularly the merchants who ran shops on Maxwell Street on the South Side, where a flea-market flourished on weekends and young blues guys in search of a break would set up and entertain the shoppers. Then other folks from the record industry: DJs, distributors, competing label guys. And, behind them, the black folks who worked at Chess; not just the musicians, but people who ran the mail room and the packing room and pressed the records. It's a nice introduction for someone who doesn't know the business.

And, right there on page 17, five pages in, is the first mistake: Hy Weiss is identified as the founder of Bang Records, which didn't even exist in 1955, when Marshall Chess became a man in the eyes of his congregation. When it did exist, nearly a decade later, it was named for the initials of the four men who set it up: Bert Berns, Ahmet Ertegun, Neshui Ertegun and Gerald Wexler. Weiss, as any record collector could have told you, ran Old Town, New York's legendary doo-wop label. And yeah, he was probably there.

It doesn't get better. Cohen's so in love with the way he writes -- and he ought to be, it's a lot of fun, the voice of a classic tummler of the post-Lenny Bruce era spritzing on Jews and schvartzes and any other poor schmuck who gets in the way, reveling in the sleazy details of the record business -- that he's not overly concerned with either chronology or facts. The chronology is a judgement call: I would have found the story more dramatic if he'd unfolded it in its classic arc, the rags-to-riches one, ending with the Chess brothers millionaires but cheated out of their legacy, and Leonard's dramatic death: one more outrage foisted on him by the company that he'd sold the label to made him apoplectic, he jumped into his Cadillac and zoomed off, only to have a massive coronary and plow into a couple of parked cars.

But, like I said, that's a judgement call. The facts are a more serious problem. It's not just Hy Weiss: at one point Cohen lists the artists who were on Chess, and I've got news for him. Chess had a serious roster of talent, one which produced an amazing body of work: I have a 13-CD set here commemorating Chess' 50th anniversary and there's no fat. But Rich, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was the rock on which Don Robey founded his empire: he never recorded for Chess. Yes, the Moonglows were on Chess, but no, Ben E. King, lead singer for the Drifters who later went solo, wasn't their lead singer. That was Harvey Fuqua, who mentored Marvin Gaye. I certainly wouldn't call Dale Hawkins a "crooner," nor would I use that word for primitive country bluesmen like Joe Hill Louis or Dr. Isaiah Ross, neither of whom recorded for Chess. Neither did another of your "crooners," Rufus Thomas, and certainly Bobby "Blue" Bland never did, although there you at least got the "crooner" part right. A key player at Chess was a former boxer and all-round utility musician named Elias McDaniel, who later recorded under the name Bo Diddley, and you managed to spell both of those names wrong. And, later on? GRT did make tape, true, but the cassette wasn't their invention: that was Phillips in Holland.

These are the sorts of mistakes that might be made by an enthusiast in conversation, or written in a fanzine by a teenager, but when a contributing editor of Rolling Stone enshrines them between hard covers, we expect them to be true. And nor have I cherry-picked a couple of howlers; every couple of pages a factual error or statement based on a faulty interpretation of data or an assertion of fact that can't be backed up appears.

And this pisses me off. Sure, some of you must be thinking. You're pissed off because you didn't get to write this book. And you're partially right: I bet Rich Cohen doesn't wake up at night with anxiety attacks because he's months and months behind in his rent, and I bet when he pitches ideas to magazines, they at least answer him. I bet the advance on this book would have paid off my back rent and paid off the people who have been kind enough to loan me money to fix my teeth and keep the electricity on. I know for a fact that Rich Cohen has an agent, and I bet that agent doesn't scoff at his ideas.

So yeah, I'm jealous that someone can take one part good idea, three parts padding, and two parts bullshit and get it published.

But there's also this: there just isn't that much space for books like this in the marketplace. Because of hackwork cut-and-paste jobs like the Brits churn out by the boxcar-full, it's harder and harder for serious books on popular music to get printed. Hell, it's harder and harder for books, period, to get printed. But at least the cut-and-pastes tend to be published by a couple of publishers, and the marketplace recognizes them as such. This is Norton, who also published The Rose and the Briar, a collection edited by Greil Marcus and Sean Willentz that came out last fall and has yet to be reviewed in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books and which has actual good writing and solid research (hey, there's a picture of Frankie, as in Frankie and Johnny!) by actual serious writers including me, goddammit! And they're publishing what purports to be a serious (if offhandedly written, not that I have any problem with that) look at an American cultural and business phenomenon, but reads like something written in a week with no more expenditure than a hefty bill at Starbuck's to keep the head of steam going.

Okay, I'm done. Just another day in the life of a writer. Maybe the other book is better.