Saturday, December 30, 2006

End Of An Era

One of America's best record stores -- hell, one of the world's best record stores -- will close on Sept. 30, 2007. Village Music, in Mill Valley, California, has fallen victim to the high price of doing business in Marin County, and proprietor John Goddard has decided to sell off his stock, as well as the mind-boggling array of memorabilia which covers his walls.

Actually, it's not just the expense. As John notes in a press release I got the day after I got my annual (and treasured) Christmas card from him, this year's featuring a photo of Little Jimmy Scott and Ruth Brown standing in front of the shop, "While the deciding factor in this decision has been the rent levels necessary to maintain a business in Mill Valley, this is only one of several reasons I've reached this decision. Basically -- it's time. I've had a great time here for a great many years. The things I've learned, the people I've met, and the ways in which my musical horizons have expanded (and, on some levels, solidified) have been probably the major focus of my life for 40 years. It has been, for the most part, wonderful."

I'll say. When I moved to California to work at Rolling Stone, it was my great good luck to rent an apartment in Sausalito, the town which lies at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not on the tourist side, but on the side overlooking the Bay where the fishing fleet (what was left of it), the houseboat community, and the residents' shopping district on Caledonia Avenue were. My place had a stunning view of Mt. Tamalpais, at the foot of which Mill Valley sits.

Naturally, being in the business I was in, I got loads and loads of records, many of which I didn't want. Just as I was about to be choked out of my home, one of the record reviewers I worked with mentioned a place where I could unload them, just a few miles away. That place was Village Music. John's policy was simple: you got credit, or you could take cash. He bought stuff for half what he sold it for. New albums in the store were $3.88, three for $10. Used albums went from a dime to quite a lot of money if they were rare enough. And there were lots and lots of albums.

Not only that, John knew a lot about most of them. He seemed to treasure American musical history more than anyone I'd met to that point, and he was evangelical about the stuff he liked. "You've never heard that? Take that home today!" But John, I've only got $16 credit, and I've got this other stuff... And out would come one of the mysterious pieces of paper that lived in and around the cash register. "Okay, now you owe me." And accounts would, inevitably, get settled. But this music wasn't just something that lived on round pieces of vinyl for John. He had an unbelievable network of people alerting him to out-of-the-way clubs and concerts and churches where the people who'd recorded those records were playing. You'd get a telephone call if you were among the lucky inner circle: "Mighty Clouds of Joy, Tuesday evening, church in Oakland. Interested?" "Ernest Tubb is playing in Morgan City tonight. It's kind of a haul, but I'm going." And, of course, if you heard of something, you'd call him. I was plugged into the zydeco circuit and always passed that news along.

Eventually, his knowledge and his stash of records increased to where expansion was inevitable. One night, I cooked a big pot of gumbo at his house and we drove it to the store, where a number of people waited with sledgehammers and a case of beer to knock down one of the walls. He'd acquired a lease on the store next door, and was going to double his space. It took about a week for that to fill up, but it did relieve the congestion somewhat. Nor were these just record collectors with the sledgehammers. John's clientele included a great number of people for whom access to the information in the grooves he sold was a matter of vital interest: professional musicians. And, this being Marin County and the '70s, the great majority of them could be filed under "rock stars." It wasn't at all unusual to be shopping with Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, Marty Balin, Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, or Maria Muldaur. I'm still pissed off at Bloomfield, whom I met when we both reached for the same Barbara Lynn album at the same time. "I need this," he said. But I saw it first! "Well, I'm Mike Bloomfield and you're not and I need this." We eventually became friendly, but that was also the only copy of that album I ever had a chance to own. I still haven't heard it. And, just as with the live music, these people passed on the knowledge they got: one day I walked in on a warm spring day and the most beautiful acoustic guitar music was playing. I asked what it was and he said "Slack key. Ry Cooder found a bunch of it in Hawaii and brought some back for me. I don't have any for sale, but I've got some ordered. Want me to save you some when it comes in? It's expensive..." It was, but it was worth it.

The knowledge that performers existed who didn't perform in California got John to thinking, and this led him to start throwing his famous parties. There was a bar at the other end of town called the Sweetwater where a lot of the local musicians hung out and sometimes performed, and John started renting it twice a year for private invitation-only parties. One was for the store's birthday in September, and the other was a Christmas party. Customers clamored to perform, and were nearly always routinely turned down; John had an iron-clad idea of who he wanted every time. Sometimes, of course, this meant building a backup band, so there was never any trouble finding musicians for that. But other times, the performers brought their own bands. The parties would be catered by barbeque joints or some of John's customers in the food business, and there'd be a cash bar.

John sought out performers down on their luck, performers who he felt should have wider exposure, and he cannily invited people who could improve their fortunes to these parties. Within weeks of a story appearing in the Village Voice about the all-but-forgotten jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott playing rat-holes in Newark, he was on the stage at the Sweetwater astonishing a crowd that had never heard of him. Six months later, his first Warner Bros. album appeared to a swarm of enthusiastic, I-didn't-know-he-was-still-alive reviews. The Christmas parties always featured Charles Brown, who, before Michael Jackson appeared on the scene, had the best-selling single by a black artist ever, "Merry Christmas, Baby," recorded in 1947, and selling seasonally every year thereafter. Mr. Brown hadn't been such a good businessman, and when he made his first Sweetwater appearance, he was eking out a living in Oakland teaching piano lessons. He, too, was amazed that this crowd knew him, and played one after another of his hits. Finally, he said "A very long time ago, we recorded a song that's been very good to us ever since. It's called 'Merry Christmas, Baby.' Would you like to hear it?" The crowd roared. Mr. Brown faked a double take. "Really? You do?" Pandemonium. His career saw an uptick, too, not long afterwards.

Not that contemporary performers were neglected. There was always something good to drink there, but I swear I wasn't hallucinating when I saw Elvis Costello backed by Commander Cody, James Burton, Jerry Garcia, Sammy Hagar, Austin de Lone, "Teenage" Steve Douglas, and one or two others I'm spacing on at the moment. The audience was just as diverse. Carlos Santana and John Lee Hooker always shared a table, and I saw one show from a seat at the bar, where I was between Tanita Tikaram and Pearl Harbor -- babe city!

The main thing, though, was that John has never thought of music as a product. Records, yes. Music, no. He's always been a fan, which is why he nearly passed out the first time B.B. King (a major record collector himself) or Cab Calloway walked into the store. I can't speculate on what he'll do next, but I bet he'll be doing something to do with his passionate love of American roots music.

As for me, I'm hoping I can get there once more before the place closes, and maybe even treat myself to a souvenir. The real souvenir -- the word is, of course, the French verb "to remember" -- is the education I got in that store and through knowing John Goddard all these years. You can't put a dollar figure on that, but if you want, we can figure out a way to do it with credit.

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown, R.I.P.

I suppose it wasn't a total surprise to wake up this morning and read that James Brown had left the building. He was, after all, 73 years old, and when you advertise yourself as the hardest working man in show business, you, well, you work hard at it. And there was never any doubt that James worked hard.

I got to see him up close once, in one of those random moments that happen when you least expect them. My friend TV Tom used to be the publicist for the Parliament-Funkadelic organization in their heyday, around 1977-78, which meant that there were several James Brown alumni on the bus: bassist Bootsy Collins, who fronted his own amazing band which included his brother Catfish (who'd played alongside Bootsy in the Brown band), saxophonist Maceo Parker, and trombonist Fred Wesley. Bootsy was always grateful for the protection the man he called "Mr. Brown" had given him as a young, green, but phenomenally gifted 16-year-old bass player, on the road with the "Sex Machine"-era Brown band. Catfish, Maceo, and Fred, however, would just give you the evil eye if you asked them about "Mr. Brown."

Anyway, Tom and I had flown in from the East Coast, since I was doing a story on the band and, with Tom, would follow them from Savannah, Georgia to Washington D.C. over the course of four or five days. We'd flown non-stop from L.A. to Atlanta, and were going to get some tiny plane to cover the last leg, but the weather coming in had been very unpleasant, and I'm a fearful flyer at the best of times. (Almost Famous wouldn't be made for years, but I am so there during that airplane scene.) Tom and I looked at the map, saw how close Savannah was, and decided to blow off the flight and pick up a rental car instead. We were going to have to do this anyway, and the chances were better that Atlanta would have a "floater," a car not assigned to a pool, and, thus, not subject to dropoff charges. And hey, it was the record company's money.

So we approached the Avis counter, which was next to the Hertz counter and maybe one or two others. As we were standing in line, Tom gripped my arm. "Don't look, but that's James Brown standing over there in the Hertz line!" So I casually rolled my eyes, and there he was. He was very short, very black, and had ridiculous hair. James Brown, all right.

Our line moved pretty quickly, and it became evident, the closer we got to the counter, that the black guy at the next counter was working for James Brown, because the dialogue was repetitive. Clerk: "I'm sorry, sir, but the card's not going through." Guy: "I'm certain there's some mistake. We always use you people. The name is Brown, James Brown." Clerk: "Yes, that's the name I show, but the card's not going through." Guy: "Could you please try again?" Clerk: "Yes, sir. Let's give it a minute." And there would be some more business, and the card wouldn't go through. "Do you suppose we should go vouch for him?" Tom wondered, more idly than asking a serious question. "Naaah, it's the card that's the problem, not the Godfather."

Our business took a while, because we insisted on a floater, and civilians aren't supposed to know about them. And we got to hear that dialogue several more times. The guy was just not going to give up. I think Tom was on the verge of taking his card over and putting it down for the beleaguered star when the clerk said "Well, how about that? It came up fine this time! I don't know what the problem was, but it's solved now." At this point, James hustled up to the counter and said "It's the car we always have reserved for us. The Lincoln. The purple Lincoln." Tom made a face and tried not to laugh.

But I'll tell you one thing: as we walked with our keys to the car we'd rented, we passed James Brown and the guy in the hall, and neither Tom nor I was brave enough to open our mouths and say a thing. Short, black, ridiculous hair, but the man had one powerful aura around him.


Actually, in the middle of writing that, I remembered the time I didn't meet James Brown. In the early '70s, John Goddard of Village Music, arguably America's greatest record store, bought a warehouse full of King Records, and I discovered, through him, a goldmine of American music. I bought dozens of them, and one thing they all had in common was the address: 1540 Brewster Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio. I became obsessed with King and its amazing hillbilly and R&B artists, although I didn't bother to pick up any of the albums John stocked by the man who had saved the company's life in the late '50s by being the only person on the label to have substantial hits: James Brown.

A lucky gig found me working in Chicago and picking up a nice check for it, so I arranged (back in the days of "triangle fares," which let you add on a destination to a round-trip ticket for a negligible amount) to visit friends living near Dayton, Ohio. And, I reasoned, while I was there, I could drive to Cincinnati and visit 1540 Brewster.

Which, of course, I did. And found nothing. Well, not literally nothing, but the huge space was empty except for a little lady behind a desk. John had asked me to find any memorabilia, particularly photos, but also press releases, point-of-sale material, anything they might have, and, if there was a lot of it, to call him collect so he could arrange to pay for it and have it shipped. Naturally, I asked her about that first. "Oh, we got rid of all of that. Just threw it out. We saved some of the more important stuff, though." Oh? I brightened up. "Like Steve Lawrence's first contract. Did you know he started with us?" I almost passed out. Threw it out???

Just at this moment a string-bean with an explosion of orange hair walked into the room, obviously back from lunch, asking if he'd had any messages. "No, but there's this young man who's come asking about King. Maybe you folks have something he's interested in?" "Sure," the guy said, and said "Come with me." We walked down a hall, and he stuck a key in a door labelled James Brown Enterprises.

Even with that warning, I wasn't prepared for what I saw. The room froze as I walked in, and the redhead said "It's okay, he's with me." He then introduced himself as James Brown's road manager. (Note for historians: I remember his last name as Jaffee, although I note that Alan Leeds was Brown's tour director at this time. Anyone out there can straighten this out?)

He showed me to a seat, and everyone went back to what they'd been doing. In the case of the couple over at the next desk, that was (him) counting $20 bills into an attache case and (her) languidly puffing on a cigarette. This action was even more noticeable than it might have been because of the very short skirt she was wearing and the huge emerald that had been pierced into her left nostril.

"Those people out there," the roadie said, "they don't care about anything! We were the only asset they had, and now James is with Polygram, and they had to give James Brown Enterprises all his files but the rest of it? Pfffft! They don't have any idea what they've got, they don't know what to do with it, and it's driving everyone crazy. All I can say is, it's great your friend got all those albums, because if they weren't pressed on such cheap plastic, they'd probably already have recycled them, too. Sorry, I'd like to help, but..." and he shrugged.

As a naive white kid in my mid-20s, I was freaked out enough by the scene around me, so I thanked him, shook his hand, and went back to my car. The last I saw of 1540 Brewster was in my rear-view mirror.

The good news, incidentally, is that a lot of the King tapes and acetates were, in fact, saved, and are being sorted through by people who do know what they're doing. The bad news is, the people who own the label still don't have a clue. But James Brown's legacy is safe, thanks to the aforementioned Alan Leeds.

The very bad news, though, is that his legacy is now at an end. Thanks for everything, Godfather.

Another Odd Berlin Christmas Story

Had my third annual Christmas dinner at the dancer's last night -- kabocha squash soup followed by an excellent wild-hare ragout -- followed by a troll through German television looking at Christmas stuff (and a remarkable documentary about people who escaped over the Berlin Wall -- or tried to -- on what must've been the Burden of History Channel, since what's that got to do with Christmas?) but, alas, nothing on the way home to match the delightful aftermath of our first annual dinner, which I recounted here.

Actually, this Christmas had a weird edge to it. Saturday, walking to stock up at the store (Berlin doesn't open again until Wednesday morning), I heard rapid footsteps approaching me from behind. My New York instincts took over, and I looked over my shoulder to see a little guy in a green hooded windbreaker, arms filled with boxes of awful Glühwein, running like crazy. His face was flushed, and he had a full beard, which, as he passed me, made me think of a garden troll, since he had his hood up. I heard more footsteps, and saw a skinny young guy running after him. It was too late for me to do anything, and I'm not sure I would have if I could have, because the situation looked pretty ambiguous. At Bergstr., the little guy hung a right, and the skinny guy passed me, panting audibly. (New Year's resolution for you, dude: it involves cigarettes). As I turned left, I saw the skinny guy, almost doubled-over, grab a cell phone and make a call. I guess it was just a larcenous wino and maybe a guy from the store where he stole the wine, but it was an odd sight.

Not to mention that last night, getting out of the U-Bahn by the dancer's, there was what appeared to be a flaming cocktail parasol burning brightly on the platform and some Arab-looking guys walking away from it. I took the wrong exit, which was fortunate, because by the time I got to where I saw the exit I should have taken, it was awash with police cars and vans, and cops interrogating a large crowd of these same Arab-looking guys, who might have been rousted out of the Internet cafe on the corner. Guess this year was Crimesmas.

But I did have a story for today in readiness, something that happened to me about ten years ago. It doesn't make me look particularly smart, for the most part, but it does have a weird ending.

I was walking to the store, along the same route as Saturday, when a white van pulled up and the passenger-side window rolled down. A youngish guy asked me, in German, if I needed speakers. Well, it just so happened I did, since the ones I'd cobbled out of a defunct stereo system a friend had given me had crapped out. One didn't work at all, and the other was iffy. What luck! But...what was going on?

The guy started speaking rapid-fire German, and I asked him to slow down because my German wasn't that good. "English?" he asked, and I said sure. "Wow, that's good; we're from Holland and our German's not so hot either. Listen, we've been working on a club here in town, setting up the sound system, and this guy's not sparing anything; it's a great system, and he's paid a lot for it. Anyway, we ordered the equipment, and somehow they shipped us double the number of speakers we needed, so we're making a little extra Christmas money on this job and we're selling them super-cheap. These are great speakers: look at this." He pulled a loose-leaf notebook out from somewhere and showed me an article from some high-end stereo magazine I'd never heard of. The speakers he had had come in third, just beneath two brands I'd heard of. Interesting!

"Look, every penny we make on this deal is free money, so we're not going to rip you off," he said. "We'll sell them to you for DM 200 a pair. Hey, you have any friends who need speakers?" In fact, I did. I'd been bitching about mine going out while I was at the radio station where I worked, and one of the guys there said he'd just blown one of his and didn't know if it'd be cheaper to get it fixed or just buy new ones. "So why not buy two pairs and sell him the other? That way, you make money on the deal, too."

I looked at them, and the address on the boxes was a company in South Carolina. But I wasn't sure. They might have been stolen, for one thing, but by Dutch guys with their own van? That didn't seem plausible. But the facts were the facts: I had some extra money, I needed speakers because mine were dead, and here was an opportunity. So they drove me to my bank around the corner and, at my insistence, stayed in the van while I hit the cash machine. We drove back to my place, I paid them, and they helped me unload the speakers into my front door. I asked for a receipt, since it was a professional expense, and got one, with an address in far north Berlin on it. "Just remember," the guy said, "if for any reason you're dissatisfied, just bring them back, opened or not, and we'll refund 100% of your money." could I lose?

After I got back from my trip to the store -- I still had to eat, after all -- I hooked them up. They sounded okay, but I was suddenly feeling weird about the whole thing. There was one person I knew who'd have the skinny on these things, a guy in Austin who had sold high-end stuff to unimaginably wealthy Texans, so I fired off an e-mail to him. Almost immediately, he wrote back. "Were the guys who sold you this in a white van?" he asked. How bizarre, I thought. How could he know that? I said yes, and he sent me back a URL for something called the White Van Speaker Scam. From looking at it, it seemed like I was the only person in the world who didn't know about this. I'd let my greed and my desire to get my stereo working again -- and, let's face it, my wanting to buy myself a Christmas present, since nobody else was going to -- cloud my better judgement. I felt like a moron.

So I packed the speaker back up, and looked at the receipt, then checked the map. It was in Wittenau, which was a long ways away, and I'd have to take a cab, but I was going to do it. The next morning, I hailed a cab, and the driver let me load all four speakers into the car. About DM 20 later, I was at an industrial park of some sort out in the middle of nowhere. It took some doing, but we found the "suite" listed on the receipt -- by now, the cabbie had gotten into it and was hoping I'd get my revenge on the scamsters. Anyway, I knocked on the door, and guy opened it and said "We're holding a meeting. We're not open." I responded in English and told him that I had a receipt in my pocket that said I'd get a 100% refund within three days, and I was returning the speakers. "You're returning them?" he said, amazed. "You're the first person who's ever done that!" Yeah, well, I was returning them. We hauled them into the space, and sure enough, there was one of the guys who'd sold them to me, dressed in a suit, standing in front of a blackboard with diagrams labelled in English: "Sales Talk," "Customer Satisfaction," stuff like that. "You're not returning the speakers?" he said. "What was wrong? Were they defective? We'll replace them." No, I said, I just got a better deal. He goggled. "You did? Where?" Ah, I lied, my little secret.

At that point, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a couple of bills. Just a couple, but high-denomination. "Man, this is all the money that's in the place. You're going to leave us penniless." Like, by then, I cared. It was exactly enough, and I thanked him and left. The cabbie was still there, although I'd paid him. "You got your money back?" he said. "Great! I'll drive you to the U-Bahn for free. It's good to see that sometimes you can stand up to the gangsters and win!"

Two days later, the guy who buys my used CDs showed up at my house. I told him the story, and even he had heard about the White Van Speaker Scam! "If you want good speakers, though, I know where you can get JBL studio monitors for 1/3 their normal price." Oh, yeah? "Sure," he said, and named a huge electronics chain. "They price them cheap to get you in there and hope you buy more stuff. But this price is only for 24 hours." And a couple of hours later, I had a new pair of excellent speakers, made by a firm I'd heard of, set up and working in my house. I'm still using them, in fact.

Remember, this was ten years ago. Today, all you have to do is Google "white van speaker" and you get a handful of pages. I'm still very grateful to the guy in Texas for making the connection. Not to mention the righteous cabbie and the honest scammer.

Ho ho ho, as they say.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Early Christmas Present?

I just came back from a brisk walk, stockpiling coffee before our coming 4-day weekend (after Saturday, nothing will be open until Wednesday morning, at which point there'll be nothing in the shops because they won't have re-stocked yet), and on my way back up Friedrichstr., almost to Torstr., I saw that a new business had opened in a bad-luck location that's been a half-dozen things in the past few years. This one, though, might make it.

Its predecessor was a store called Come In, which sold, uh, jewelry and stuff, just another un-thought-out business waiting to get pounded into the ground, which happened in due time. The new joint has just as cute a name: Yum Mee. Irritating as that is, it both advertises what's for sale and shows off the horrid Orientalism which holds forth here in those two words. However, what it sells (in part) could be a godsend to the 'hood: bánh mi. Half the menu is regular baguette sandwiches, the other half a somewhat timid approach to this classic Vietnamese snack.

My own introduction to bánh mi came in Honolulu, whence I'd gone to do a story on Hawaiian music, which is a much harder assignment than you'd think. Still, I had a motivated researcher in the person of my friend Margaret, who'd moved there with her new husband, Rollo Banks, one of America's leading tattoo artists. (Please note this was before every idiot teenager in the world had a tattoo. Rollo had inherited the designs of Sailor Jerry, and was still poking them out at China Sea Tattoo on Army Street in Honolulu's Chinatown.) The day I'd arrived in Honolulu, I'd done something very smart: not fought the jetlag. This was Margaret's idea: "If you wake up at 6 and go to bed at 10, you'll be keeping local time, and you'll never see the tourists." She was right.

One morning, then, Rollo offered to take me on a tour of Chinatown at 6 in the morning, and I of course jumped at the opportunity. They tell tourists Chinatown is dangerous, and if you're asked, you should echo that opinion. It's not, of course, true, but Chinatown is sleazy -- or it was back in 1990. at any rate. Rollo was an inspired guide to the sleaze, too; we went to a dime-a-dance place where there was a live orchestra of Filipinos. The drummer -- and I can swear to this, having stood right next to him -- was asleep, keeping perfect time (all he needed to do was whack the snare), and picking a scab on his neck in his sleep. On the periphery of the dance-floor were little booths where the dance-hall girls -- Okinawans, Rollo said -- gave blow-jobs for five bucks. There was an antique shop (and why was this open at 6am?) where I bet someone who knew his Chinese or Japanese stuff might well uncover a bargain: it looked like the stock hadn't been added to since about 1920. Various closed bars were passed and their legends commented upon, and then we went to the wholesale fish market, where multi-ton tuna were being wheeled in straight off the boat while the sushi chefs from the best hotels in the state swarmed over them bidding on the choicest bits. Outside the fish market was a fruit and vegetable market, and Rollo bought a perfectly ripe mango, whereupon he pulled out his knife, stabbed it, and started carving it with careful in-and-out motions. He withdrew the knife, wiped the blade on his jeans and popped the mango open, its flesh falling apart into discrete bite-sized chunks, much to the admiration of the young Vietnamese woman who'd sold it to him. "I learned that trick from a teenaged whore in Bangkok," he said, and she turned a very unusual color.

We ended the tour in a Vietnamese coffee-shop whose name I carefully wrote down, only to discover later that the two words meant "coffee shop" in Vietnamese. And there, for breakfast, I had a paté, shredded daikon, shredded green chile, homemade mayonnaise, cilantro, shredded carrot and lettuce bánh mi on a perfect baguette, with two cups of that rocket-fuel Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk to wake me up. By the time we got back to Army Street, there was a line in front of China Sea that led around the block. "Oh, hell," Rollo sighed. "Fleet's in."

Anyway, with that kind of intro to bánh mi, no wonder I've been waiting for them to show up here. I doubt Yum Mee will be that good, but I'm also intending to head down there tomorrow at lunchtime.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Once Upon A Time

Today, partially goaded by a blitz of recent postering, I headed to Berlin's brand-new DDR Museum, located in a truly odd underground bunker beneath the Radisson SAS Hotel on Karl-Liebknecht Str., with a branch of the Spree River separating it from the Berliner Dom. It's a brand-new, wired kind of bunker, though, with a flat-screen displaying the museum's logo to catch the eye of anyone who might be walking alongside the Spree in the rain these days. (A noodle restaurant a little further along had tables set for about 150 people and was completely empty).

It's an odd place. To call the lighting "muted" would be an understatement. It's not quite gloomy, but it sort of forces the eyes towards the exhibits, not all of which are on eye-level. Some of its displays aren't very intuitive, either: I walked in and saw a very good model of the Berlin Wall, with all of its between-the-wall barriers and security devices, and wanted to know more. It wasn't until I'd spent some time in the museum that I noted that these bars fixed onto the wall with captions on them were actually handles for various drawers and cabinets which contained exhibits, so I had to head back and check the one by the Wall model. It's a good way to conserve space, but it can also block aisles and cause congestion.

But what's even odder is that it doesn't really seem to take a stand on the DDR -- which I admire. (For you Americans, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the name given to the East German nation. The museum has it as GDR, German Democratic Republic, in the captions, but I've always preferred the German abbreviation). It may be a bit naive to assert, as they do, that "the DDR never knew misery and poverty," since that sure wasn't the case if you lived outside a handful of cities which were kept (relatively) well-provisioned by the central government, but they give equal treatment to the upside and the downside. There's a Stasi secret-police listening-post in an obscure corner as well as an exquisitely fitted-out model apartment, its TV showing a nice sample-reel of DDR TV shows, and all of its cabinets and drawers filled with artifacts and consumer goods. One wall of the kitchen has some great old DDR cartoons dealing with women's place in the daily life of the country, and the bookshop has a DDR cookbook for the very brave. There's also a couple of exhibits about resistance to the regime, from the rather apolitical punks to the "environmental" magazine (really part of a nationwide movement centered in Leipzig) that was secretly printed in the basement of the Zionist movement's office. The sports section has a drawer which opens to show one box of anabolic steroids, the killer drug which the nation's sports officials used to try to bring their athletes to Olympic glory, but backfired into cancers and weird gender-altering problems.

One particularly educational exhibit is a Trabant automobile, which you can wedge yourself into if you're so inclined, with an unsentimental account of the problems of ownership (mechanics were apt to ask, if you brought yours in, whether you'd brought the parts; they were apparently very difficult to obtain). There's also an unusually large part of the museum given over to the FKK (nude beach) movement. Was the DDR really so big on nudism?

All in all, it's an odd thing to see this impeccably preserved collection of artifacts so lovingly assembled, and then to step outside, gaze slightly to your left, and see the skeleton of the soon-to-vanish Palast der Republik, the DDR's main administrative building, in its last throes of demolition. And to walk back home, musing on the things you didn't see: the DDR and foreigners, the DDR and minority groups (including Jews), the DDR army... In some ways it's a counterweight to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In others, it's yet another odd statement of the Burden of History.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Expat Magazines: What I've Learned

Since I realized the other day that I've already made one of my New Year's resolutions -- not to get involved in any more magazine startups -- and since the morass of comments on those last two posts got into this area, I thought it might be time to expound my basic theory of how to do an English-language magazine in another country.

The following is based on my experience here in Europe, specifically -- although not totally -- in Berlin. There might be other variables which would make this advice not as applicable in the Far East or South America, I don't know. But this is what I've learned in the past decade.

Earlier, even: when I first moved here in 1993, Checkpoint magazine was already publishing. Co-funded by Zitty, Time Out, and some private funds, it had been running for about a year when I first approached it. It wasn't very successful for a number of reasons, not least of which was appalling art direction. Eventually, Time Out pulled out, and Zitty took it over, forming a new subsidiary of their company to do so. Since the old name was owned by the previous entity, a new one had to be found, and, casting about for suggestions, I liked one from a friend, Metropolis. True, this was also claimed by an American architecture magazine, but doing our title search (something every magazine should do...hello, ExBerliner!) we discovered it hadn't been registered in Germany, so we were clear to use it as long as it didn't look like we were putting out an architecture magazine. It didn't.

Zitty proved to be an unreliable partner, to say the least. They'd withdraw or hold back funds, and they'd "suspend publication" for a couple of months at a time -- once, most disastrously, over the three summer months, the very time when Berlin got most of its English-language tourist trade, and thus, a perfect opportunity for advertisers. In late 1996, though, they'd convinced Metropolis' editor, Kevin Cote, to join Zitty as editor-in-chief, and he handed the magazine over to me. I made a couple of changes: the magazine became free, thereby freeing it from having to compete for space with newsstands which hated to display non-Turkish and non-Russian foreign-language publications; and editorial focus was redirected from tourists, never a stable market, to residents.

Having taken our editor, though, Zitty lost all interest in the magazine, and killed it after two issues. Oh, excuse me, "suspended publication." Weirdly, the two issues I'd put out, with the free distribution network still in its infancy, made money, something the magazine had never done in its earlier incarnations. I was plenty angry about the "suspension," and announced that the next editorial meeting would take place as scheduled, with an eye towards continuing English-language magazine publication in Berlin. Out of this grew a project known as the Berlin Information Group (BIG), one of whose elements was a newsprint magazine called b. The other elements, and the story of how and why it failed, aren't part of what I'm focusing on, though.

The two big changes at Metropolis remain essential to the success of a magazine like this today. And yes, I mean magazine. Webpages are great, blogs are great, but even though you can read the web on your cell phone on the U-Bahn, do you really want to? I'm still convinced that a well-designed magazine with great graphics is a fine thing, portable, browsable, and, if it's free, disposable without guilt. (You do recycle, don't you?)

Making the magazine free puts a larger burden on the ad staff to get ads (and another burden on the editorial staff not to go all advertorial, which seems a temptation too many yield to these days), but it also means you can target your distribution points far more precisely, and hit your readers where they actually exist. I remember seeing Checkpoint in U-Bahn kiosks, forced upon them by the Zitty distribution guy. Nobody looked twice at them. If you try to sell the magazine at your distribution points -- English-language cinemas, bookstores, video rentals, bars, restaurants, etc. -- you're asking each merchant to keep track of each copy sold and segregate the proceeds from his own intake. Fahgeddaboudit. Running a business is hard enough without that kind of headache. Free is free. And free means a huge number of them get picked up and a huge percentage of them get read. Work out the economics of the advertising -- we actually had people approaching us at b towards the end of our three-month run, so anxious were they to reach our readership -- and keep it free.

The second point, though, is far more subtle, and the one we had the hardest time making the few prospective investors understand. Locals, approached with our projections, would trot out the figures from the Ausländerbehörde and tell us there were only 35,000 Americans in Berlin, only X hundred Australians, New Zealanders, and an unknown number of British people and Irish people. There was, they said with a certain amount of Schadenfreude, no way we could make money with those kind of numbers. Which, as far as it went, was true. With so few residents forming a base, we would only enjoy a small increase when the tourism figures -- not so hot in those days, better now -- were added on. Then we would hear the German investor's mantra: Wo ist der Sicherheit? Where is the security? As if investing were a 100% secure proposition anyway. Ask those poor people who lost their shirts on Deutsche Telekom.

But that figure -- for the sake of argument, let's say it's 60,000 -- is only a start. There are two more readerships, as I learned at Metropolis and as the BIG project got underway. The second readership is people whose native language isn't English, but whose English is better than their German: Indians, Japanese, even some Europeans like Scandinavians, Dutch, and French. These people live and work here, too, and they're happy to have help understanding what's going on. I estimated their numbers at around half the core readership's. The third readership is the most nebulous -- and, potentially, populous -- of all: those native German-speakers whose desire to improve their English (not to mention see their home from a totally different viewpoint than the German media presents) would drive them to seek out such a publication. This may be just a data-point, but when I put an ad in Metropolis looking for a new apartment, with an office phone number on it, I got twelve calls, nine of which were from Germans who apologized for their bad English as soon as we started talking. That seemed telling to me: I expected to hear from the expat community with offers they'd picked up on the jungle telegraph. There is no way to research this number in advance, but it's there, and once you're in business, you encounter it repeatedly.

The other thing to remember about all three segments of the readership is that it's demographically diverse. If you want to focus on the hip! edgy! college kids on junior year abroad, be my guest, but you're not going to make any money. Consider the executives at Anglo-American companies here on contracts of a couple of years. Consider the academic and diplomatic communities. Consider the older people who've washed up here because of everything from the military to DAAD. Consider those Germans who became Anglophiles or Americanophiles during the occupation. We heard from every one of these groups and more as we tried to make b a reality. They haven't gone away, and they're not being served.

Of course, one advantage we had back in '96 was that Deutsche Telekom was making access to the Internet almost impossible, so any kind of online presence was a nice fantasy (and one we were planning for), but nothing we could do much about right at the moment. Today, the online presence and the print presence would have to be complementary to each other, and the success of the enterprise would come out of the synergy.

But like I said, I'm walking away from all of this. I'd mostly walked away from it at the beginning of this year, when I helped someone start a project in France. My advice was all ignored, with the result that the magazine is mostly aimed at retired British people, which is a shame, since the constituency is much larger. I've had it: I'm going to concentrate on book projects (since magazines are a losing proposition for writers) and try to make as much money as I can as quickly as I can so I can get out of here as soon as I can. I don't exactly feel like I've wasted my time on this, and I'm glad I learned what I did. But this is a risk-averse society that's hostile to entrepreneurship, and just a bit more so when that entrepreneurship comes from an outsider. Someone else can beat their head against that particular wall. Good luck.

Monday, December 11, 2006

So Why Not Another One?

I got an e-mail yesterday from a friend who read my post on that ridiculous New York Times story, and he had an interesting point:

"Figured the Times piece would detonate you. Would you say it was accurate as of, say, early 90s, but the economic collapse has made it outdated? Or was it ever true? Certainly Berlin has had that image since, say, a few years before the U2 Zoo album. Seems time for a counter-hype travel article puncturing the outdated image yet celebrating what, if anything, is there to enjoy."

And he's right. Much as I don't enjoy living here any more, I do have an affection for Berlin, and newcomers and visitors often take my famous walking tour of the central city, which starts at my house and ends up two blocks away at Berti Brecht's grave, if they last that long. In fact, that's what I was doing yesterday when this guy's e-mail came. When I put myself in the mind of someone who's seeing this city for the first time, I know there are a lot of things I'd recommend they do.

So for this proposed counter-hype story, some notes:

Stop ringing the hip! edgy! Berlin! bell. Sorry, it was like that ten or more years ago, but the coming of the government in 2000 and the attendant real-estate hype all but killed that Berlin. It used to be possible to set up an illegal club in some disused space, sell beer out of iced tin tubs, with a sound system and some minimal lighting, maybe some odd art from one of your friends, and have a little party a couple of times a week, the location spreading among the cognoscenti by word of mouth. But the disused spaces became objects of speculation and as the speculators displaced not only the club spaces, but the working spaces and living spaces for artists, those artists and the hangers-on and scenemakers moved on. I'm absolutely positive there are still illegal clubs, and little scenes here and there, but nothing like there were in the mid-90s and earlier. And, of course, there's the annoying fact that if you write about them in the media they get busted.

Instead, consider that just your normal everyday bar scene seems weird enough for the American readership, and that some of the most "authentic" experiences can be had in places hipsters either don't notice or take for granted. Stories are everywhere. Try to find some of them out. For instance, there's a rather nondescript restaurant/bar towards the top of Friedrichstr. I've walked past for years, the Bärenklause, I think it's called. Just the other day, I found out it was a secret meeting-place for a bunch of anti-Nazi workers who passed on information to the Allies during the war. The place up on the corner by my place, Honigmond, was a gathering-place for dissidents in the DDR. And the Kellerrestaurant am Brecht-Haus a couple of blocks away was, in fact, Brecht's basement (the house is a museum upstairs), and the food there is hardly innovative, but usually top-notch. Of course, being able to identify a schnitzel is sort of a basic requirement for being able to appreciate these sorts of places.

Nazis and Jews: that's what people come here to see. So give it to them! Look, it's a basic statement of fact: people don't come to Berlin to eat or to shop (especially the latter), so what's left? History. And the history that's here is pretty much all recent, which is to say Industrial Revolution and later. I can see taking a pass on the Jewish Museum, but what kind of travel writer are you if you can't find a new spin on the exhibition inside the New Synagogue or point out one of the many Nazi air-raid bunkers around town? Am I the only person who still notices the bullet-holes from the street-fighting as World War II came to a close here? How about fashioning some clever statement based on the fact that the deportation monument and Christian Boltanski's The Missing House are across the street from each other, or walking up to Koppenplatz and checking out that sculpture in the park of the table with the tipped-over chair, another comment on the deportations, as, of course, are the Klopfenstein brass memorials. Do you suppose the hip! edgy! writers even see these things? And there's even a humorous take on this stuff, if you want it: how awful Berlin bagels are, and how truly vile the food at the Beth Cafe, run by the local temple, is. I thought it was just supposed to be more authentic until I met an old man there who'd grown up Jewish in Berlin and escaped to Toronto in 1939. "My mother cooked Berlin Jewish food, and it didn't look like this, I tell you! What are these people palming off on us?"

Besides the Nazis and the Jews, of course, there's also the Communists. Although the Wall Documentation Center on Bernauer Str. is pretty incomprehensible to a non-German-reader (and who wants to read all those documents, anyway?), the Wall walk from Nordbahnhof to Mauerpark is lined with those trilingual plexiglass signs about the Bernauer Str. death-strip. There are two Stasi museums, apparently, and the new Museum of the DDR. And, on a lighter note, there's lots of DDR crap for sale in Ostalgia stores and flea markets.

Mista Issyvoo, he dead. And so is the world inhabited by David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Stop looking for it: it's not there. Instead of trying to force your own preconceptions on the city, why not look at what's actually there? Surely there's enough to say about the real Berlin that would attract a reader here. It's got more green space than any other city in Europe, per square mile. In the summer, that means tons and tons of lawn, forest, park. Places to sunbathe, walk, feed ducks, let the kids run around, or just read a newspaper under the sun. Go to a Wochenmarkt, where more and more organic stuff is beginning to show up, and where you can also buy some pretty neat non-food items a lot of the time. Take a few of the river cruises and figure out which ones are best. Is this stuff corny? Hay-ull yes! Is it fun? You bet!

And when the sun's not shining -- 89% of the time -- the continuing reshuffling of the museums here has presented some great opportunities for culture-vulturing. I'll be the first to admit I've been remiss in checking them out in recent years, and with the Bode Museum now re-opened, just a few blocks from my house, I'm totally embarrassed that I don't have a clue what's in there these days. But the city's current poverty notwithstanding, the Prussians were some acquisitive bastards, and the city's holdings reflect three centuries of a royal family that grabbed what they could and commissioned the rest.


So you see, there's a lot of stuff these stories miss in their headlong rush to perpetuate a long-dead stereotype, stuff that could be made attractive to the crowd they're writing for. There's another problem, though, which lies in the last sentence of my friend's e-mail, a sentence I purposely left out:

"But who would run it?"

Indeed. I can't think of a single travel magazine aimed at people who travel the way I and the vast majority of people I know travel: not so much "budget" as not spending unnecessary money; not so much "adventure" as guided by a curiosity about out-of-the-way places; not so much voyeuristic as open to learning something about where we are on the earth, knowledge which can come from every one of our senses, as well as our intellect. Me, I've given up hope that such a magazine will ever appear. For one thing, where would you get advertising for it? Not from the big cruise lines. Not from the huge resort chains. Not from luxury jewelers. Nor, more than likely, from Cadillac Escalade and other high-end SUV makers.

So you're not going to read the story about the real Berlin -- or the real Paris or the real Kyoto. Instead, you're stuck with people who don't know a sausage from a schnitzel and think salads can be plump. And who, incredibly enough, still get to write for the New York Times.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Not Another One!

Okay, I now have a theory that some higher-up at the New York Times is heavily invested in some Berlin real estate he can't unload. That's the only explanation for the deluge of travel-section articles on hip! edgy! new! East! Berlin! the paper has carried this year. This is, what? The fourth, at least.

That link will be good for a week, and I'm including it instead of the usual text-only link so you can enjoy the video that goes with it, which manages to mispronounce just about every single place-name it utters, including Reichstag, and identifies a Wurst as a Schnitzel. That the Grey Lady thinks it's news that the eastern part of the city is where the action is, and, worse, that it would print such twaddle as "Bullet-scarred buildings are metamorphosing from squatters’ homes, to artists’ studios, and then to retail showrooms. Gray Communist alleys are laboratories for trendy bars, restaurants and galleries. And, like the city itself, Berliners continue to reinvent themselves as cultural vanguards, pushing the boundaries of art, fashion and design" in 2006 is mind-boggling.

The city's economic deterioration is only touched upon once, in wondering who can afford €300 shirts, and the article never wonders how many of the revelers in the hip! edgy! nighttime are residents instead of, say, Americans enjoying a cheap year in Europe. But then, I guess it's reassuring for Americans to come to Europe to hang out with other Americans. That's what reinvigorated Prague, after all.

Finally, with the exception of M. Vuong's, which I haven't been able to get into since he moved to Neue Schönhauser Allee from Gipsstr., I would be very wary of their food recommendations. I've downed many a good beer at Altes Europa (although I guess now it's been "discovered"), but I would never even think of touching the food there.

Come to think of it, though, there's three more Sunday papers left to squeeze in a trip through Berlin's Christmas markets. This may not be the last article this year. Or maybe it is: there's nothing particularly hip! and edgy! about Christmas markets. Maybe that's one reason I like 'em!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Which, I guess, is what you'd call things larger than crumbs...


First, of course, there's the story of the Burden of History Santas. Now that these despicable objects have all been destroyed, it's safe to direct you to the Spiegel Online story about them. Make sure you enlarge the photo there so you can see the offending gesture.

This paranoia about the "Hitler salute" is omnipresent. I was on the upper level of a double-decker bus one time when a bunch of high-school boys thundered up the stairs and took some seats. They had just left a group of friends outside, and as the bus pulled away, one of the kids nudged another one and said "Hey, he's waving at you." The second kid raised his arm to wave, and suddenly blushed bright red as his friend slapped his arm down.

From this cautionary Christmas tale, I'd assume that pointing at the Star of Bethlehem on the part of shepherds or Magi isn't depicted in German Christmas ornaments. I'll be on the lookout when I make my customary tour of the Christmas markets some weekend in the near future. Can't be too safe!


While lamenting the disappearance of things I like here, it's, um, fair and balanced to point out the disappearance of things I've always hated, and on a recent walk to Alexanderplatz, I noted that the pedestrian subway, a large, DDR-era tiled collection of underground tunnels connecting various parts of Alex, had been paved over. True, it was the best way to get out of the rain, and a huge gallery for graffiti artists, but it was also the realm of the worst street musician ever, a flutist with one of those mephistophelean beards who played over orchestral tracks on a boom-box. I don't think I have ever heard a musician play with less feeling, not to mention that his cassette seemed to contain only three tunes, which, excepting that Brandenburg Concerto movement, I've utterly forgotten.

Street musicians here have to be licensed, and I've been told that the licenses, which are issued at some preposterous hour of the morning like 6:30, are controlled by the Russian mob, which sends a few guys down to pick them all up and then doles them out to musicians, mostly Russian, who agree to their terms. One of those terms, apparently, is learning scams: some friends of mine once had a restaurant, and a friendly, funny guitarist would show up from time to time to entertain. Then he'd take all his small change and ask for a beer and the favor of converting his handfuls of coins into larger currency. Oddly, the restaurant kept coming up short at the cash register at 3 am, when it closed, and finally my friends made the connection and banned him. The police later confirmed that this was a very common scam with these musicians.

Of course, the other thing about pedestrian subways, common around the world as far as I can tell, is that they serve as late night urinals for the terminally inebriated, and on a warm summer day the one at Alex exuded a strong odor unless the cleaning crews, who also worked on the graffiti, had made their monthly appearance. The only positive aspect of this I can think of is that the flutist had to inhale the miasma in gasps as he thundered through the goddam Brandenburg.

Now, access to Alex is via surface, which means you have to stand in the rain waiting for the light to change. A small price to pay, given everything.


Thanks to Brent for this (translated) article from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, confirming what the local tabloid headlines have been screaming all week: THE HAUPTBAHNHOF MUST BE COMPLETELY REBUILT! Not true, of course, as you'll read, but within the story is confirmation of something I've been saying here (and to anyone who'll listen) about the attitude of Germany's former monopolies (Deutsche Post, Deutsche Telekom, and, here, Deutsche Bahn) towards the public at large.

What the article doesn't mention specifically is that the platform-length issue isn't just a matter of esthetics. The east-west trains board outdoors, on the top level, and one of the "savings" DB instituted as they revised the architect's original plans was to shorten not the platform, but the roof covering that platform. In thus saving a bit of money, they forgot that the high-speed ICE trains that pull into Berlin are really long, because they often split in two at a later destination. Several cars of these trains (and, thus, the passengers waiting to board) are thus exposed to the elements because the roof isn't long enough, and the biggest irony is that these very cars are usually the first class ones, so you've just paid a premium to stand in the rain waiting to board. It's true that the ticket envelopes and route-guides inside the trains often have ads for cold remedies, but this is a rather cruel way of drumming up business for them, I think.

I also wonder if the vaulted ceilings that may be part of the rebuilding, if it happens, will make the lower levels of the station any lighter. For all its glass and high-tech appurtenances, the Hauptbahnhof is one of the gloomiest places I've ever been in, a shopping mall in a cave.

It's also worth noting the prose style of the article, which I think is accurately translated. This is what readers of Germany's "better" papers (and this one is considered the best) have to slog through in order to get their information. No wonder so many people read the tabloids.