Friday, September 30, 2005

Okay, I Lied

A few more crumbs before the month vanishes.


Thanks to Jason of Perfect Sound Forever, the web's best music magazine, for forwarding Little Steven's keynote address to a radio conference. It's all rah-rah, and I love the way the guy who posted this has bowdlerized it, because we know some of those words can get girls pregnant, right, kids?

But after the adrenaline of reading his words drains off, one wonders if what he's saying makes any sense. Is radio even a viable medium for breaking artists any more? Isn't his nostalgia-fuelled rant just another middle-aged guy saying "Aaah, music was better when I was a kid?" I like the idea of his "underground garage" format a lot, and I'm happy that so many new acts have gotten heard there, but it's been over 30 years since radio programming was done by live humans and deejays went unscripted or unformatted, so it's only on college stations and the occasional weirdo outlet like KPIG in California where Mr. Van Zandt's ideal is practiced.

In an age of cultural overproduction like we're living in, there's no way mass media can even begin to get a handle on what's out there, no matter how microtome-thin they slice the categories and divisions. It's almost impossible to squeeze all the goodies, old and new, onto even ten radio stations, as cable-casting listeners in the States already know. Hoping that commercial radio will take the lead again is nicely idealistic, but I'd like to hear less cheerleading and a lot more hard-nosed detail, Steven.


I was jolted out of my sleep this morning by the doorbell, and when I buzzed the person in, dressing as I did, I heard a hearty voice booming "GOOD MORNING!" Uh-oh, this couldn't be good.

But it was. I'm the guy in the building who, because I live on the ground floor and I'm almost always here, gets to take in the packages for the neighbors who aren't answering the bell. And, as I opened the door, here was the mustachioed, portly little guy who works for Hermes Versand, a delivery service. "Are you ready for...THE COUNTESS?" he asked, handing me a package. "Has she got BLUE BLOOD?" he inquired when I said yeah, I knew the Countess. I signed for the package, and there it was, addressed to [name deleted by request, 11/29/05]. Aka the 25-year-old girl upstairs who talks English with a Valley Girl accent and drives a convertible BMW sportscar with Freiburg plates.

German royalty: big deal. When I first moved here, I hung out with a crowd of students, including a tall, horsy woman who I'll call Ingeborg, because I can't remember her real name. One day we were going to do something, and someone asked me if I'd call her. They didn't know her number, but gave me her last name. Sure enough, there in the book, was XXX, Ingeborg Baroness von. "She's a baroness?" I asked one of my friends. "Ssssh. She hates people knowing that. Her parents are pretty awful about it."

Then there was Fred. Still is Fred, in fact, off in London. Fred the no-count count. There's history there. I once asked him if he were a count, why he never had any money or at least invited his friends up to some crumbling castle somewhere for drinks. "Well," he replied in his posh British accent (born in America, raised in Ireland, with a German title: an international kinda guy), "even if my uncle hadn't been involved in the plot against Hitler, Schulenburgs tend to breed like rabbits." And it was true: his great-uncle had been Police Chief in Berlin and had been part of the plot of noblemen and military who tried to kill Hitler with a bomb. His grandmother had been part of the German Resistance, and had lived to write a book about it.

But he was right. He went to Texas with me one time for SXSW, and we went off to Louisiana afterwards. He joined me on the condition that we go there via Schulenburg, Texas so he could satisfy his curiosity about its name. We walked into the Chamber of Commerce, and he immediately charmed the woman behind the counter into calling the town historian, who worked at the public library. He, in turn, directed us to the old graveyard where the man who'd founded the town was buried. Sure enough, in the back of the cemetery, we found an old-world-looking tombstone, and the words "in Hessen geboren" above Mr. Schulenburg's dates. "Oh, my," said Fred, scribbling down details, "this should keep Grandma busy for a while." As we drove away (laden with a dozen of the coffee mugs from the Chamber, which declared, in unwitting dismissal of the place, "Schulenburg: Half-way to Everywhere!" -- "There, that's Christmas sorted," said Fred), he explained that this guy was probably the fifth son or something, and he'd basically been told there'd be nothing for him to inherit, so he had to make his way in the world. At that time, a lot of land-agents were coming through Germany trying to settle the land between Austin and San Antonio to promote an Anglo majority because they were afraid that the Hispanic (Tejano) population might well side with Mexico against the Republic of Texas should another war break out. (Ridiculously paranoid -- those same Tejanos had just given their lives fighting for independence from Mexico -- but that's how it was). Tons of Germans settled what's now called the Hill Country, and Schulenburg wasn't the only impoverished nobleman to settle there, or the most high-ranking: the Prinz von Braunfels picked up, lock stock and modest crown, and founded New Braunfels, Texas.

Nor is Fred the highest-ranking nobleman to sit in my living-room. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was proud to play host to Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, so that we could talk about a project he's working on. I mentioned this to someone a few days later and he commented, "Oh, yeah, Chris Strachwitz. He's, like, a prince or something." Or something.


I've done the numbers, and from what I can tell, it's going to cost me just under €10,000 to make the move to France. That includes everything, including paying off all my debts. It also includes a number of padded figures, just because stuff always costs more than it looks like it will.

This is doable. Right now I'm anticipating liftoff mid next year. And accepting any legal work to raise the funds.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

September's Last Crumbs (Probably)

I really don't get the Berlin Marathon. How on earth do you hold a race that lasts two days? Actually, I guess the first day's race wasn't runners, since I walked out of the apartment to go to the store in the middle of it on Saturday and looked over my shoulder to goggle at the speed the runners were achieving, only to realize seconds later that it was an endless stream of grim-faced inline skaters. (I think it may be illegal to show enjoyment in this city, but I'd better check with a lawyer first). They kept going the entire time I was at the store, and were still going strong when I got back, which is a time-span of about 35 minutes. The chaos this occasioned among the vehicles that couldn't use Torstr., of course, was of legendary proportions. And Berlin drivers lose their tempers very, very easily.

The next day, they were going down Torstr. on foot (I guess: I didn't go check) at about 8:30. I know this because there are people who line the route of the race and applaud constantly. There are others who whistle, and then there are the idiots who bring airhorns and honk them. They are very loud. They can wake you out of a sound sleep. They should be illegal. I mean, if I can't play music after 10pm without fear of a visit from the cops, how can these cretins stand out there for 90 minutes, honking aimlessly, on Sunday morning?

The promotional billboards for this event are still up all over town. They make it seem like a very grim event indeed. My favorite shows a row of porta-potties with exhausted people lined up in front of them. The caption is: There's stage fright even at the Berlin Marathon. Boy, that'd be enough to sell me!

And, as always, the kicker line, in English, apparently delivered by Adidas: Impossible Is Nothing!

Memo to Nike: change it to Do It Just. Or maybe Do Just It.


Ever willing to risk my frail body for my readers -- well, actually, because I was curious and because I was too lazy yesterday to go to Potsdamer Platz to hit Salomon in Potsdamer Platz -- I bought a couple of bagels at the Turkish bakery on the corner this morning. They weren't bagels. They were normal Berliner Brötschen, one sesame, one poppy-seed, only in bagel form, and at 80 cents each, twice the price of their un-holed brethren. They were clearly not boiled before baking, and I am not looking forward to the impending Israeli-Turkish War. Does anyone know how to say "you have to use high-gluten flour and you must boil them before you bake them" in Turkish?

Actually, they weren't as bad as the horrid cakey things Cynthia Barcomi introduced as bagels here about ten years ago, but today I was rummaging through some old tear-sheets while trying and failing to create an Excel spread-sheet for this class-action suit for freelancers and discovered one of my old articles about bagels. Ten years ago, I was wondering why a delicacy which was invented sixty or so miles away (historians are uncertain of the bagel's exact origin, but place it in Poland and/or Russia) wasn't being made here. Today, they're trendy (I have, somewhere, a little booklet entitled Was Ist Ein Bagel?, which advises that it's pronounced BYE-gull), and every half-assed bakery (including the one on my corner) is making "bagels" and a couple of "bagel" franchises have erupted in the touristy corners of my 'hood. None are as good as the German Bagel Brothers franchise, though. And I have a sneaking suspicion I'll be bereft of bagels once I move to France.


The former White Trash Fast Food location on the other corner has been a hive of activity for the past few days, and it looks like it might be turning into a gallery. That's all we need: another gallery around here. But I have no way of knowing for certain, because someone's put a huge sheet of brown paper over the door and written on it, in English:


Fine. I didn't want to know anyway.


I feel guilty every minute I'm inside these days, because this fine warm weather won't last much longer. The current forecast is for rain starting tonight, and I'm just hoping Monday, which is a holiday (German Unification Day), will be cool and clear so that I can go to the last race of the season. Oncie the rain starts in, though, it'll be all downhill, and cold and gray will dominate the city once again. We've actually been very lucky, although the summer's been intermittent. Since the evidence is piling up that it'll be my last summer here, I really do want to get out and savor it until it's utterly gone.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Another Anniversary

It occurred to me the other night that another milestone in my life is going to occur sometime right around now. Pardon me for not knowing the exact date, but I wasn't really keeping track of things back when this happened.

Nonetheless, sometime in late September, 40 years ago, I wrote my first article and it got published.

It sort of happened in a daze. I'd been off to Antioch College for a few weeks, and was beginning to realize that things weren't what they seemed. We -- the group of guys in my dorm, and a sister group in another dorm -- had been enrolled in a rather vague experimental program, and about two weeks into it, our factuly advisor, the only one among us who knew how it worked, was offered a trip to Russia by some Quaker organization he belonged to and snapped it up. "I know you'll all get along fine without me," he said, and vanished. Given the way the rest of my academic career turned out, I sort of hope he was arrested for spying and sent to the Gulag, but I never heard about him again.

Anyway, it was three or four weeks into the College Experience, and I was bored. I had a bunch of time on my hands, and a wee bit of money, and I'd bought a few albums. One of them, Elektra's Singer-Songwriter Project, I rather liked, so I sat down and tapped out a short review of it. Who on earth would be interested in this? I wondered, and then put it in an envelope and sent it to Broadside magazine in New York. A few weeks later, I got my subscription copy of the magazine and in it was a personal note asking if I had any more stuff I wanted to write. Well, sure I did! Next, I sent them a review of a Richard and Mimi Fariña album. Hey, this was easy!

I'd been published in the folk press before, in high school, but it was just a letter to the editor of Sing Out!, nothing serious. Still, this was fun, and it gave me entry into a magazine that had published the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and many more -- although with them, they published sheet music. I didn't realize it at the time, but Broadside was run by two Communists from Oklahoma, Sis Cunningham and Gordon Friesen, and their rather unyielding political agenda would eventually spell the magazine's doom as a must-read in the folk community. But for the moment, it was a magnificent place for a 16-year-old kid to be.

That winter, I was based in Princeton, New Jersey, working at the McCarter Theater as part of Antioch's work-study program. Being so close to New York, I dropped in on the Broadside crew on a visit to New York, and they asked me if I'd be able to do a profile for them: Len Chandler, a folksinger who was not only topical, but Negro, to boot! He was an early friend of Bob Dylan's, a master at making songs out of newspaper articles, and generally a stand-up guy, and he had an album coming out on Columbia Records. So one day when I had some time off, I took the bus into New York, and met Chandler.

"Oh, man, this is embarrassing," he said. "I have another interview scheduled with this Soviet magazine. It's sort of like Life, but it doesn't circulate outside of Russia. It's a really important bit of exposure. But hey, let me call them and see if you can come along." He went in the next room, and his wife, Judy Collins' sister, came out and chatted with me. "All fine with them," said Len. "Let's go uptown."

Not just uptown, either; the Dakota. Apparently the proletariat supported their cultural ambassadors to the other side in fine style. It was a huge apartment, and we were greeted warmly by our host and hostess. I had a tape recorder, reel-to-reel, along with me, and set up my microphone on a low table. We lounged around it on thick cushions, and snacked on brown bread, homemade mayonnaise, and red and black caviar, among other things. Refreshment came from a huge bottle of vodka, frozen on its side in a block of ice, with a silver spigot which dispensed it into tiny silver cups. I had a few.

Needless to say, I don't remember much of this, because I had never had alcohol before. I do remember being asked by our hosts where I went to college, and them saying "Oh yes, we know it well," when I said Antioch, which gave me pause: maybe it really was a hotbed of communism! But another thing that happened was they kept pressing Len to say things he really didn't want to say, and at one point he said something like "To me, what's important is to write a good song, one people want to sing and to hear you sing. What it says is secondary to making a well-crafted piece of music." This struck me as a wonderful sentiment, and I kept a mental note of it.

After the interview, it was late, and we got up. I weaved a bit, and remember careening from one wall to the other in the hallway outside the apartment. "You gonna be okay?" Len asked, and I realized, yeah, I was gonna be okay. And I was; at that age, you're made out of steel, and it didn't hurt that the vodka was amazingly pure stuff. At any rate, we got in a cab and started heading downtown, but not back to Len's place. He had a show he wanted to catch at an after-hours club in Sheridan Square, and it was there that we heard Ronnie Gilbert, once of the Weavers, singing Billie Holiday songs in front of a jazz trio that included Bill Lee, Spike Lee's dad. After that, it was back to chez Chandler for a few hours' shuteye on the couch, after which I joined the working class on the 5:30 subways to Port Authority, where I caught a bus back to Princeton.

Needless to say, Len's esthetic of songwriting didn't please the Broadside staff any more than it did the Russians. I'm sure they made up their story to say what they wanted it to, but I made the idea the center of mine and it didn't exactly go over well. Or get published.

Still, I kept in touch with Broadside, and I think I published a review of Richard Fariña's novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me there that spring. I had an advance copy, thanks to the father of my new girlfriend, who was well-known around publishing circles, and had thought it was something I might enjoy. He was right: I loved it, I was devastated when Fariña died, and I still consider the book to be a unique document, various people's various misgivings about Fariña's ego notwithstanding.

It was my girlfriend's father's connections, too, that got me into my first magazine job. I'd spent the winter of 1966 working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Christmas Card department as a stockboy, but that job was about to end after we did the post-Christmas inventory. There was a show at Town Hall my girlfriend and I wanted to see -- Judy Collins and Tom Rush -- and so I took one of my last paychecks down to the box office there on lunch-break and went to buy tickets. To my surprise, the woman at the box office was one of my old co-workers from the McCarter Theater, and she was happy to do me a favor, selling me tickets for the press section for the price of nosebleed tickets. (Of course, I now realize she just pocketed my twelve bucks or whatever, but in doing this she changed my life).

The night of the concert, my old co-worker at the Metropolitan, Mark, invited my girlfriend and me to dinner before the show, and we went up to his painter's studio and had spaghetti with him, and smoked some powerful pot. I remember the cab-ride downtown seeming like an amusement-park ride, and then we presented our tickets at Town Hall and were magically transported to something like the fifth row.

Now, previous to this, my girlfriend, who was a major Bob Dylan fan, had been presented by her dad with loose page proofs of a forthcoming book by Dylan entitled Tarantula. It was impossible to read, but we'd sit there and try. And, just the week before the concert, the gossip column in the Village Voice had noted the move of the mimeographed "serious" rock and roll magazine Crawdaddy! and its publisher, Paul Williams, to New York.

So there we were, stoned out of our gourds, watching Tom Rush. Then the lights came up, and this guy behind us stood up and started handing out copies of Crawdaddy! to the various media elite who were doubtless seated around us. "Hey," I asked him, "are you Paul Williams?" He snapped that he was, eyes still searching the crowd for more people to impress. "I've got something you might like to look at. Bob Dylan's written a book, and my girlfriend has a copy of it." "Impossible," he said. "If Dylan had written a book, I'd know all about it!" "Well, he has." "Bring it by the office and let me look at it," he said, losing interest. He wrote the 6th Avenue address on a copy of the magazine -- Howlin' Wolf was on the cover -- and handed it to me.

So on Monday, I gathered up the manila envelope with the loose sheets of the book in it and went to New York from Princeton, where I'd been staying. Williams stared at it and stared at it, paging through it and, as we had, trying to make sense out of it. "Can I borrow this?" he asked, suddenly much friendlier. "I want to make a copy of it, and I know where there's a copy machine at Elektra I can use." He was tight with Paul Rothschild, he let it be known, and Paul would want to see this, too. "Do you need any help around here?" I asked. The office was a tiny one-room affair, with a bathtub and toilet in a tiny room just off the entryway, but there were a couple of electric typewriters on a table in the middle of the one room and records everywhere. "Can you type?" he asked. Well, yeah, I could type. He showed me a manuscript and parked me in front of the IBM Executive and turned it on. "See if you can type this." In a few minutes I was done, errorless. "Pretty good. Come back tomorrow. I think I'll have more work for you."

At this point, I had decided not to return to school, but to look for work in New York so I could be close to my girlfriend, who was still going to high school in Princeton. I was living in Westchester with my parents, and taking the train in every day, searching for work, interviewing for crap jobs as stock clerk and so on, and then heading downtown after noon, and working at Crawdaddy! until late. Finally, Paul said I could move in, since the magazine was moving downstairs to a large loft. The staff was Paul, Tim Jurgens, some guy who was dodging the draft whose name escapes me, and me. Winter was getting a good solid grip on the Village, but I was finally living the life I wanted to live. And that's the way it'd be for a while.


So after 40 years, I realize that it's a very mixed blessing. I very likely will never earn more than about $30,000 a year, which is the most I've ever made at writing. In fact, it's very unlikely I'll ever earn that much again, because the opportunities are waning, and the field of "rock criticism," to which it's been my sad fate to be relegated by most of the publishing industry, is not only one of the worst-paying ghettoes in the business, but also one of the most corrupt and one possessed of an Oedipal impulse that means that the vast majority of people from my generation, the one which founded "rock criticism," are getting less and less work. I still have dreams that I'll be able to leave that ghetto behind, but it's going to mean focusing on writing books, not magazine articles. There are fewer magazines, and the competition is worse than it's ever been. I lack contacts, living thousands of miles from New York, and these days people don't even respond to queries from people they don't already know. (Which, given some of the turn-downs I've gotten, is almost okay).

I don't really have a choice about changing my career, but I do have a word of advice for young writers: either be born rich, marry rich, or be content to starve. Don't forget: in the past couple of years there have been weeks when I was able to feed myself only by going out and finding empty beer bottles I could turn in for eight Euro-cents apiece. You, too, could be enjoying that exact lifestyle forty years into your career if you play your cards right. It's sad that the variety of voices in the media is starved by the occupation only being available to the upper classes, but I don't see that changing any time soon.

Anyway, you see why I'm not popping champagne corks here. I've denied myself a family (oddly, women aren't attracted to men who can't support themselves), any hope of retiring (I don't have any desire to and never have, and even if I had the stagnation of my parents' last years would scare me to death), any hope of owning a home because of my choice of career.

Of course, I didn't know it would be this way when I chose it. I guess I should have seen it as an omen when it started with caviar.

Friday, September 23, 2005

After The Fact

That horrible grinding sound you heard a while back was the Berlin art season opening. It usually doesn't sound like that, but there's been precious little money to buy oil to grease the wheels, what with the €40-plus-billion city debt. In fact, you can assess just how messed up things are when you note that the spring-summer success at the Neue Nationalgalerie was the show of Die Brücke and its life in Berlin (which I blogged about at the start of the summer), and now, at the start of the new season, the Berlinische Galerie, over by the Jewish Museum, the hardest-to-find museum in town, has announced their fall show which is...Die Brücke! I guess because all this'll cost them is the transportation from one museum (either the Neue Nationalgalerie, which, I saw the other day, is changing shows, or the Brücke Museum down in Dahlem) to another.

Anyway, I never get invited to stuff anymore, because my fax machine doesn't work, and that's still the medium the Berlin art scene uses to communicate, but somehow I got an invitation in the mail to the opening of the Berlin Photo Festival at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, entitled After The Fact. And I'd already decided to go and write something for the blog when I got a call from Ffotogrrl in far-off Wales telling me she was coming over for it, and wanted to catch up. We'd meet at the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Well, I wasn't sure: these openings are huge events, and crowded, but I said sure, I'll meet you there. And off I went, on a warm late-summer evening, walking down Friedrichstr. to see some art.

It's a mixed bag, this show. Lots of it very didactically political, which I guess is to be expected at this particular juncture of history. If you like being yelled at, there's a room of photos of Somali mothers with their children, and a long text about the subjugation of women by Islam in Somalia, and another room with an intallation on landmines, and another dealing with sub-Saharan illegal immigrants crossing from Morocco to Spain, with an achingly poor text (is there such a word as "clandestinity?" If there is, there's gotta be a better word for what this artist's trying to say) and a malfunctioning DVD player.

Not all the political stuff is hectoring. I found Matthew Sleeth's "Tour of Duty," a series of shots of Australian soldiers in East Timor, to be nicely angry without being over the top. It doesn't take much to subsitute Australians for Americans and East Timor for Iraq -- at least not for me -- and then step back and wonder if you've been fair making that leap. I'm not sure. And Masaki Hirano's "Holes" is really tricky: close-up pictures of holes in walls, with almost enough extra context so that you can figure them out. Some are clearly bullet-holes and other damage of fighting. Others are construction or just decay. A nice series to ponder.

Not all of the series work too well. In fact I'd say the ones that don't outnumber the ones that do. For instance Christoph Draeger's "Voyages apocalyptiques" is a series of photographs of places where terrible things have taken place, from Lockerbie, Scotland, to a soccer field in Belgium where numerous people died in a collapse to places in Northern Ireland where there have been riots. There's a picture of the World Trade Center in 1994, no doubt referring to the bomb that went off there, but he completely destroys the nice, bland effect of the photo series -- which vividly points out that horrible things can happen in the most mundane places (as I can attest, having visited Lockerbie many times) by showing how mundane they look -- by including a picture of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, yellow smoke drifting across the Manhattan skyscape.

Those who attempt the least wind up doing the best work: Jessica Backhaus' measured series of pictures of everyday country people and their interiors in Poland, "Jesus and the Cherries," conveys volumes, as do the small photos of small people by Roman Ondak, "Tomorrows," showing Slovenian primary school kids trying to be solemn while doing things like unveiling a commemorative plaque or shaking hands.

Two fine uses of color, too, stood out. Anja Jensen took photos of her luggage being x-rayed -- or, rather, photographed the x-ray images themselves -- as she flew "Palma-München-Amsterdam 1999" and the colored pictures set in a grid are a nice set of abstractions, their colors purely utilitarian, but bright and jarring nonetheless.

My favorite of all, though, was "Cyberspace," by Joachim Schmid, which made me think Matisse was in the house. They were actually photographs of banal interiors, obviously some sort of computer photo that had been messed with. But the colors! They were eye-popping! I gave them a quick once-over, since they were at the start of the show, and vowed to go back to them after I'd found Ffotogrrl, and then, way in the back somewhere, I ran into Barbara Blickensdorf, whose gallery I've also mentioned here before, and she, too, was looking for someone: "I have an artist in the show," she said, "and he's got some photos of online sex-chat rooms, which he logged onto and then told the girls to go away for a minute, after which he phogotraphed them." I went back and looked again. Damned if that wasn't what it was: one of the girls even left her vibrator behind. Dunno if Matisse would have thought of that, but it works.

I'm sure Barbara, who's more adept at these sort of gatherings than I am, found who she was looking for. I arrived 45 minutes after the opening so I could miss the lectures by the assorted gasbags, and only stayed for about 90 minutes so I could jot down notes, so I never found Ffotogrrl. Of course, she'll be late to her own funeral, so it's entirely possible she's arriving there right about now, since I came in and wrote this down right after I got home.

Anyway, I guess art will be hard to avoid for a few months. I'm actually looking forward to bumping into some more of it.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Late September Crumbs

Americans keep asking me about the elections. I'm as baffled as anyone. One German I mentioned this to said "If they figure out what's going on, could you have them tell us?" Fortunately, my favorite political junkie was over last night, and here's what I was able to discern from the conversation.

The whole thing seems to hinge on the FDP, the "liberals." Like any good liberals, they don't really stand for anything, at least not monolithically. The party is divided between a rightish-sorta wing and a leftish-sorta wing. Depending on which party, the conservative CDU/CSU or the social democratic SPD (currently in power), gains the upper hand, it will form a coalition with the FDP, and that wing of the liberals will be the dominant one in the party. However, nobody seems to know who's going to get the upper hand. There is a lot of talking going on, more than usual, which may account for the cloud of hot air I saw over the Reichstag yesterday when I went to record some Fresh Air pieces at ARD.

But even with the FDP on deck, it's still not going to be a big enough coalition to actually rule. Thus, it would appear it'll be a three-way coalition, but which of the two major parties gets to pick the Chancellor is still up in the air. It's likely that because she performed so badly in the vote, Angela Merkel won't be given the Chancellorship if the CDU/CSU comes out on top, and it's just as likely that Gerhard Schröder's run is over. As for the only politician everyone I know likes, the Greens' Joschka Fischer, he's announced that he's through with having a big-time position (he's been Foreign Minister) and will be stepping down.

In short, it's a mess. And if you don't understand it, you're in very good company. Like, most of Germany


Getting back to things I do understand because I can see and experience them directly, that strange shop with the Mörder sign near my house is proceeding slowly, and is giving out business cards for something called Unternehmen-Mitte, featuring a website with nothing on it yet. Unternehmen means business, concern, or enterprise, and they promise "arts and crafts and an espresso bar," according to the sign. All very mysterious and inconclusive.

Two doors down, the Turkish bakery is now offering bagels and ciabatta. A certain cultural boundary has been breached, I think. Although the thought of Turkish bagels, I have to admit, is extremely scary.


Another thing people keep asking is how the move to France is coming, and the answer is, slowly. I have made one very nice discovery, though, in The Languedoc Page, a very nice collection of links and information maintained by a guy named Peter. It's also got a forum/community thing going which I joined, mostly to lurk and see what's going on. (Seems to be some difficulty in getting a cricket game going at the moment).

Languedoc seems to be turning into the new Provence, albeit without quite the publicity, since Kevin Moon doesn't seem to have turned into Peter Mayle yet. There's lots of talk about buying country property and transferring money from England. I have some questions about that, too, but it'd be about transferring a little over €10,000 -- once I have it -- from Berlin rather than a few hundred thousand pounds from Britain.

Sheesh, I'm already intimidated by my neighbors and I haven't even moved there yet.


Coming attractions, posted here mostly to shame myself into getting around to doing them, will be the adventures of Chinky Chinaman and Co. in Berlin (new adventures in racism and cultural incomprehension), and a trip to a vanished spa, yet another tale of Berlin's completely ignoring its history. Both with photos. I gotta get that camera out and working!

More later, I promise.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

PopKomm, With Strange Interlude

I'm almost recovered from PopKomm, which started with the arrival of the SXSW crew on Tuesday afternoon and lasted through the end of yesterday afternoon as I sat at the stand at the trade show and they took meetings.

Caveat: What follows is strictly my own opinion, not that of SXSW. Got it? Okay.

We were stuck in the entry hall, the one you had to walk through to get to the rest of the stuff, and I have to say, it was empty most of the time. As far as trade shows go, it had hardly any traffic. But it got worse as you went further into the building. There were three halls, all in a row. Ours was on the ground-floor level, but as you left it you went through another of those damned forests of gauzy fabric like Sony had at the IFA (see previous posts), this one more white than black, fortunately, and came out at some stairs leading down to a hall which was mostly filled with national stands, including this year's featured country, Spain. Also Luxemboug. You may not know that Luxembourg has a pop music industry. Hell, I didn't.

The next hall was the most depressing, though: Label Camp. The fantasy is it's set up like a summer campground, and this is PopKomm's concession to the constant criticism it got over the years that the conference is hostile to indie labels. Which, back then, it was. Now, the majors need the indies so badly that they can't ignore them. But Label Camp was a gloomy place indeed, with many stands uninhabited, and the smell of awful German Chinese food drifting from the red-and-gold pagoda structure which was the only thing in the room that seemed to be doing any business. Can't get enough of that Chinapfanne and Chop Suey, these folks.

Since the three SXSWers had to take meetings -- an impressive schedule of them -- my job was to field questions from the casual visitors. There were some doozies: "How much do I pay you to showcase my band at your festival?" Boy, I had to rein in my impulses each time I heard that one. "You are label?" No, we are not label. "I need you to promote my band in America." Me, personally? I doubt it. "Let me just give you my CD." Well, I don't have anything to do with getting you accepted by SXSW, and I'm not interested in listening to it, because I'm just an underemployed journalist who lives in Berlin.

But the sad fact is, there weren't many people visiting PopKomm this year, as far as I could tell. Thus, I was mostly reduced to watching the folks who drifted by. Many, many unfortunate tattoos, the worst of which were on a dumpy woman from Brazil who, in a fit of irony, wore a skirt made out of what looked like a tablecloth from some '50s socialist country showing happy peasants doing agricultural things. I forget what her blouse was, but on the back of each calf she had a very poorly-rendered Betty Page-like pinup tattooed. What was she thinking? Was she thinking?

Many unfortunate fashion decisions, too. There's nothing like seeing a guy of about 45 toddling along in low-cut cargo shorts, the kind which go below the knee, an untucked white shirt, and a tuxedo jacket, clutching a briefcase and yakking into a cell phone. He probably thinks he's "down with the kids," but I would hope the kids run when they see him coming. Of course, many of the most unfortunate fashion victims were kids themselves. There was one pair from England, a seven-foot woman of frightening skinniness with her hair shaven and colored and twisted out in so many ways that she was hard to look at. Her partner wasn't quite so complicatedly made up, but aged facial tattoos, the kind you get in German jails, made him seem quite sinister: he'd clearly had them for over a decade. There was another woman, German, in her mid-40s, who had her hair shaven on either side and the rectangle remaining dyed deepest black. She complemented this with an array of facial piercings that was truly hard to look at, and finished it all off with standard '78 punk clothing.

PopKomm makes a very bad mistake by allowing live music in the trade show, and one booth near us, which declared that "Art is Packaging" and was selling a rather silly CD sleeve concept, had shows several times a day by a German Sting imitator. I had never thought there was much market for such a thing, but this guy came complete with bass, which he played live, and karaoke backing tracks and did a show of Sting's greatest hits to nobody in particular. On the third day he was replaced by an act I dubbed Afro-Pik and the White Brothers, three Germans and a very jive-ass Negro with a huge afro topped off by said pick, who did an incomprehensible mixture of awful stuff. The black guy, naturally (no pun intended), rapped.

Of course, there were some good moments, thanks to some of the Usual Suspects, people one always sees at these things, who dropped by to chat with the SXSW crew, and some of whom actually remembered me from the dim past. We also managed to get visited by some promising new people -- a woman who had a festival in Recife and who was interested in doing business with SXSW could turn out to be something good for the conference.

I was most taken by a couple who own Lo-Max Records, a British label which releases the Go-Betweens, the fine Australian band. One of them, Bernard MacMahon, has gone and acquired every single 78 represented on the famous Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, remastered them, and then found pictures of every artist on it! In addition, he's collected ephemera, memorabilia, and actual instruments played on these records, and is not only re-issuing the Anthology with his remastering, but also doing a film which will go straight to DVD, and mounting an exhibition of all of the photos and other things he's acquired. This is a mammoth undertaking, and if he'd said he was going to do all of this, I'd be supportive but skeptical. As it is, though, he's done it. I was supposed to meet up with him earlier today for the express purpose of seeing the photo of one of the Anthology's weirdest artists, Richard "Rabbit" Brown, one of the very few guitar-playing New Orleans bluesmen I can think of (in fact, the only other one I can think of is Snooks Eaglin, and he's an entirely different generation). Rabbit Brown's track on the Anthology, "James Alley Blues," is one of the scariest pieces of American music ever waxed. Sad to say, MacMahon was running late and had to get to the airport, but he'll be back here in a couple of weeks, so I'll see it then.

To be honest, though, most of the music on offer at PopKomm wasn't of interest to me at all. There's always been so much mediocre European rock music, and now that there are government subsidies in many countries for it, the mediocrity is getting to be the norm (and yes, I know that's contrary to the actual definition of mediocrity). I've tried to like this stuff, but I just can't, although I'm happy that so much of it comes to live-music-starved Berlin to play in hastily-constructed clubs. I met and had a chat with what is, I'm told by neutral parties, unquestionably the biggest band in Portugal, who were nice enough guys, but, in the end, what does it mean to be the biggest rock band in Portugal, especially to the wider world? (Also, I wonder how the Germans reacted to their name: the Gift. Check your German dictionary if you don't get the joke).

Not that I didn't get anything out of it. No, indeed, by the end of the first day, Wednesday, I began to feel odd. Thursday, I was definitely coming down with something, so I beat a quick retreat back to the house. A couple of glasses of wine after dinner, and I headed straight to bed: if I could get in nine hours' sleep before heading off to the ICC the next morning I'd be okay. I was gone by midnight.

I was roused out of a deep sleep by my doorbell ringing. This couldn't be happening, I thought. But it was. I got on the intercom, still pretty much asleep. "You've got to let me in," a voice said, "You're my last hope." Who is this? "It's Bill," said the voice [name changed to protect those who need protection]. Bill? I was still pretty much asleep. "Bill Bell." Oh, that Bill. I was conscious, by now, that it was raining like crazy. I buzzed him in and put on some clothes. He was standing at my front door, soaked to the skin, holding a beer bottle, dressed incongruously, given the cool temperature, in a white kurta. What on earth? "You try to please a woman..." he said, and started crying. "I'm sorry you have to be the lightning rod for all the weird expat..." He wasn't finishing sentences. "All I need is a place to sleep." Well, I have a couch, although it's not all that comfortable. You can sleep on it -- I do when I have a real bad cold and have to sleep sitting up -- but it ain't fun. "That's okay." So I left him on the couch, and went back to bed. I was almost asleep when I felt someone sitting on the foot of my bed. I woke up to see him there. "You can't go to sleep and not tell me stories about New Orleans," he said. What? Go back to the couch and go to sleep. I have to get up in the morning. "Oh, come on. I know you have stories about New Orleans." My adrenaline was starting to rise. What was going on here? Look, I said, go back to the couch. We'll talk in the morning. So he did. Some time later, I was awakened by a light somewhere in the house. It went out quickly and a few minutes later I heard the front door close. In the way you can tell when you live alone, I knew for certain he was gone. It was still raining hard enough that I remembered that I was going to take a shower in the morning. That's what it sounded like.

It was 5:15.

Needless to say, I didn't get to the ICC on time the next day, but I was able to alert the boss, and he was good about it. But I was sicker than ever, hacking, sneezing, blowing my nose. My sense of taste was kaput. And I had discovered the labels off of the beer bottle and a bag with a tambourine, a microphone, and a bag of sunflower seeds in it in my living room, so I knew I hadn't hallucinated the night before. I dragged myself through the day, and came home as soon as I could, after helping to pack up the SXSW stand. There was a message on my machine. "I know you're not out doing errands, so you're probably just ignoring my call. I don't blame you, but I need to pick up my bag." Strangely arrogant: how did he know what I was doing or not doing? Then the phone rang. "Ah, you're there. Will you be there for the next hour? I want to come by and pick up my stuff." I suppose so, but I may be going out with the SXSW folks and "That's not important," he cut in. "Will you be there around 8?" I said I would and he hung up. He came by at the appointed time, shook hands and apologized, then reached in his pocket and came out with two pieces of paper. "This is a flyer for my next gig," he said, and threw it onto the floor. "This place is such a mess I'll just leave it for your next guest to find. Oh, and here's a brochure about me." He turned on his heel and left.

Later, another friend dropped in for a minute and confirmed that this guy's been tearing a swath in the expat community in the past couple of days. I don't know what anyone can do about it, but I do remember the words of William Burroughs.

"Spare no sympathy for the mentally ill. It's a bottomless pit, and they have more time than you do."

Perhaps more sympathetically, I remember that last winter, this was how I was feeling, that I might join the ranks of those I've known here who've snapped. A little less work, a little less opportunity to get out of town, and it might well have happened. That it's started happening before the cold, dark, depressing winter doesn't bode well. But it does harden my resolve to get out of this place before I get dragged down, too.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Short Pause...Maybe

For the next few days, I'm going to be spending my days helping out at the SXSW booth at PopKomm, the German pop-music trade show. Last year I thought I was going to be able to do the blog from there with free Wi-Fi, but it turned out that Messe Berlin, the organization running the event, wanted something like €80 a day for the privilege, which is utterly ridiculous. Of course, Europeans seem to have a completely different relationship to wireless technology than Americans do, seeing it as some sort of precious gift to be paid for commensurate with its rarity.

Anyway, if they've gotten the message (the IFA last week had free wireless, as I understand), I'll try to relieve the boredom of answering self-evident questions ("Are you a record company? Will you listen to my CD?" No. No.) by checking in here and making savage comments about the German record industry and the inhabitants thereof. Otherwise, I'll do it after the circus leaves town.

Friday, September 09, 2005

A Walk In The Park

This, too, will pass: I've become re-addicted to the lousy bagels they sell here, which are available over in Potsdamer Platz. What the hell; it was a nice day, the work I was supposed to do today fell out, and so it was a fine day for a walk. And it occurred to me, as I left the house, that I always go to Potz Platz the same way: down Friedrichstr. to Leipziger Str. and over to the mall...errr, I mean Potsdamer Platz Arkaden (employees can be fired for referring to it as a mall, although it is, to any American eyes, a mall).

So I decided today to walk the length of Reinhardtstr., cross over the bridge at its end, and walk through the Tiergarten. The Tiergarten, for those of you who haven't been here, is Berlin's Central Park. It's also its central park, a huge stretch of green between the Zoo (which defines its western end) and the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag.

Reinhardtstr. is a street "in transition." The most notable transition I noted today was the old Nazi air-raid bunker. It's being renovated by the Denkmalschutz folks (historic buildings authority) and an apartment is being built on top of it! This is amazing. They tried to tear it down, but the cost of demolishing it turned out to be higher than the value of the property it stood on, so at least the building is secure. But damn, who'd want to live on top of it?

Maybe the answer lies on the rest of the street, which has clones of a number of Bonn's favorite restaurants on it. Given the propinquity to the government district, it's become part of Berlin's Little Bonn ghetto, the hangout of the folks who go home on weekends because they love living in Berlin so much. I can see some high-up in the CDU liking the idea of living atop a monument to the Nazi elite. (Well, you didn't think they were planning to stash ordinary folks in there, do you?)

Of course, this government influence extends to campaign posters. Currently, the SPD has one with Schröder's head on it and three words: Powerful, Courageous, Human. The CDU, on the other hand, has made what looks to me like a tactical error, with huge billboards filled with a German flag and the words "Better for our land." Wrapping yourself in the flag does not have a positive connotation in Germany because of the last bunch who tried it. In fact, any sort of nationalistic-feeling boasting is very heavily frowned upon. Hell, I was astonished to realize that nobody here ever uses the word "proud" to describe themselves. Just ask a parent if they're proud of one of their kids' achievements and you'll get much nervous throat-clearing.

Anyway, I passed the multi-million-Euro kindergarten that was built on the banks of the Spree River for the Bonners' kids (as the city was cutting funds to its schools, much to the chagrin of the locals) and walked over the bridge, which not only wasn't there when I moved into the neighborhood, but crosses the Spree at a place where the Spree wasn't when I came here. There was a huge redirection of the river's course (done mostly by big gangs of Dutch workers) when the whole government complex went in, and that's where I found myself after I crossed the river: Alphaville. There will come a day, I suspect, when this whole Kohl-era grandeur will seem embarrassing, but at the moment, there are still busloads of tourists pulling up for tours of these buildings. As I crossed to the lawn of the Reichstag, I saw the usual long, long line of tourists waiting to get in. Tourism in Berlin is almost 100% German, and the Reichstag is the number-one attraction. Despite the mid-80s temperatures -- we're having a bit of an Indian Summer here at the moment -- the line stretched down the stairs and onto the lawn. I've been up there, and yeah, it's a nice view, but you can't really see into the chambers (so much for "transparent government"), and, well, the view isn't that nice. Still, it's a line, and you get to stand in it. Germans love to stand in lines.

The lawn took me into the Tiergarten, where I used to do my exercise walking back when I lived in the Moabit district and it was only two blocks away. I haven't been in there much since then, but it was such a nice day that it was a pleasure to walk in the shade of the trees, then come out into fields of wild flowers and plants like milkweed. I detoured as I neared Potsdamer Platz, though, because there was a big pink rock sitting there. This was a part of the park I wasn't overly familiar with, because it had been too close to the Wall back in the old days, and wasn't developed, so I was curious what this was a memorial to. Walking up on it, I noticed it was a giant boulder of pink sandstone which was apparently still being worked on. Parts were polished, parts not. And there wasn't a plaque to be seen. This marks some sort of progress for Berlin: a big hunk of stone out in the middle of nowhere which doesn't commemorate some shameful (not to mention pride-inducing) incident. It just is. I felt a lot better when, walking back towards Potsdamer Platz, I stumbled on a big ornate statue of Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn's pal, philosopher and writer. Looked like an early 19th Century job, muse proffering laurel-wreath and all. Also, there was graffiti all over it. I was still in Berlin.

When I got to Potsdamer Platz, via an unfamiliar approach (although I was happy to walk past the Cornwall Pasty Company and note that it's still open, since it's a great place to grab lunch down that way), I saw something that boggled me: inside the mall...I mean Arkaden...there were
German tourists getting a guided tour of the place. There's something so quintessentially German about that, I reflected, as if you couldn't be sure what you were seeing until it was explained to you, never mind that 99% of the shops there were identical with shops in any good-sized German town or city. Sort of like the lectures learned art historians give before the opening of any gallery show or museum exhibition, long-winded expositions of the obvious, albeit in very high German.

It occurred to me, as I left, bagels in hand, that I should continue my contrary approach to this trip I've made so often, and so I walked down Leipziger Str. on the side I never go on. This took me past the Bundesrat, a Parliament building, and there I found another Mendelssohn family monument, a tiny plaque screwed onto one side of it which noted that it was the site of the first Mendelssohn bank, the place where Felix wrote the overture to Midsummer Night's Dream, and the place where his sister Fanny was married and held the weekly Hausmusik concerts.

Not far past that was the Bulgarian Embassy, and the Kubrat Hotel, where, I guess, Bulgarians stay when they're in town. Bulgaria Air was offering one-way trips to Sofia for €111, which was tempting, but I noticed that the Bulgarian restaurant the Kubrat used to have attached to it was now an Italian restaurant. Same colors on the flag, but, I noted, checking one against the other, in different order.

I continued down the street, and walked past the T-Com House I mentioned in the last post. There were various bits of propaganda there, including what purported to be the diary of a woman who spent a weekend there with her husband and child (a woman, of course, is perfect for showing the average Telekom customer that the technology there is so simple that even a woman can use it!), and I was gratified to see that she downloaded and watched a film on Saturday evening: Meet Joe Black, which I believe is commonly held to be one of the worst films of the past decade.

Just past that was the Kommunikatiionsmuseum, and it was talking to me in English. The reason for this is that this is the Einstein Year here in Berlin, the 100th anniversary of the publication of the Theory of Relativity, and what I was hearing was Einstein giving speeches and interviews, and being broadcast into the street by the museum. There is a lot of Einstein stuff going on this year, and I really should get out and see what it's all about, the kind of thing I used to be paid to do and always enjoyed. Not that anyone wants the story these days, but hey, it keeps the brain oiled.

After that, the walk was a bit of an anticlimax, but hey, how can you top Einstein and Mendelssohn? Not to mention huge pink sandstone boulders.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

First Crumbs of Sepember

Only a couple of weeks to go until the election now, and the streets are practically polluted with campaign posters. Some inspired genius has printed up various improvements to be pasted on parts of them, so that Gerhard Schröder is seen wearing Frankenstinian bolts in his neck, a red clown's nose, or weird cartoony eyes. They're added to the posters with a good deal of precision, making you look twice. One less craftsmanlike defacer has printed up strips of paper that say "war and profit" and pastes them over the appropriate parts of the posters' declarations of purpose.

In England, the Guardian's blog has a rather silly piece on the posters (and a photo of the weirdest one), followed by a bunch of really great comments from readers, many of whom are from Berlin.

Me, I just keep repeating "Two weeks from Sunday, and I can't vote anyway" and keep walking.


And I sure did a bunch of walking yesterday, after a couple of friends visiting from California left me their press passes to the IFA. This stands for the Internationale Funkausstellung, which happens every two years. Although the name translates as "International Radio Exhibition," it's really a consumer electronics show, although I have to say that, as someone who's not much interested in cell phones or MP3 players, satellite television or podcasting, it wasn't too exciting for me.

Worst idea of the show, technological advances department: 3-D TV. Yes, it really works. Yes, after two minutes of watching the promo, which was various letters of the manufacturer's name kicking a soccer ball around, mostly into your face, I felt a headache coming on. No, you can't get the 3-D effect if you aren't right in line with the screen. No, it won't catch on. And you'd think I could remember who showed it with all those letters running around, but I can't. (Twenty minutes later: Grundig).

Worst company name: Gigantek. From China.

Worst company name, runner-up: Pilock Corporation. Um, you guys aren't going to do business in England, are you?

Germans Conforming To Stereotype Award: the 45 persons (I counted) lined up single-file for an inflated, clear-plastic giveaway pillow from JVC.

Best Company Exhibit: Vestel, a company I'd never heard of, but which was showing tons and tons of very impressive television equipment. They also had the best idea for how to show how good their screens were: by broadcasting a quick-cut collage of scenes from old movies. My immediate reaction was "Wow, I've never seen that look so good before!" There wasn't a lick of information about them anywhere in the hall, though, so imagine my surprise to learn, when finding that link up there, that they're Turkish! That settles it: I want Turkey in the EU by next week so there won't be any duties and I can afford one of these rigs!

Worst Company Exhibit: Sony. a bunch of "rooms" cordoned off by layer after layer of diaphanous black fabric. It was so confusing walking around in there, bumping into other people, that I'm absolutely sure I missed a lot of the products on display. Their promo reel for televisions was another collage from films, but it was all stuff blowing up and people shooting at each other. As with the idiots who were demonstrating their home theater rig with that race scene from the next-to-last Star Wars film, I wanted to shake them and say "Of course it looks good! It's all digital!" They should check in with Vestel: there is nothing remotely digital about Katherine Hepburn's cheekbones, which attract me far more than digitized explosions.


Motel Hell: In more what-were-they-thinking news, Deutsche Telekom is offering weekend stays in the T-Com House for lucky winners of its contest. It's off behind the Museum of Communication on Mauerstr. not far from Potsdamer Platz, but I'm trying to imagine who, out of the hundreds of thousands of people here whose lives have been made hell by Deutsche Telekom, would voluntarily turn a weekend over to living in a house completely controlled by their technology.


Finally in news from the 'hood, a shop right next door that's been empty for about six years suddenly started showing signs of life as a crew of young beatnik-looking types started totally renovating its insides. It's a tiny place, and I wasn't sure what was going on until first the drinks cooler, then the espresso machine turned up. Okay, it's going to sell food of some sort. Yesterday the sign went up, and now I'm both intrigued and worried. Its name is Mörder. Murderer.

Guess they'll be selling meat, right?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

We Interrupt This Program

I have some stuff I've been wanting to post here, but the ongoing story in New Orleans makes me realize that it can wait. Not that I have anything to add to the general chatter about the subject -- I haven't been to the city in years and years, having spent most of my Louisiana time in Cajun country in and around Eunice.

Still it's worth taking a moment to read this remarkable article explaining why New Orleans will -- indeed, must -- rise again. It's essential reading, as is Frank Rich's column in the Times today. So go read these things now. I'll still be here next week.