Sunday, January 27, 2008

His Berlin

I've known John Rockwell ever since I wrote a story for Us magazine, back in 1978 or so. At the time, the magazine was owned by the New York Times, and Rockwell worked for them. They'd asked me for a story on "Women in Rock," which I thought was a great idea, since punk had finally liberated female rock musicians from the "chick singer" slot, and so I interviewed Joan Jett, Debbie Harry (a chick singer, true, but somehow different), Patti Smith, and Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth (who provided me with one of my favorite quotes ever: "Naked, I look sorta like Rudolf Nureyev."). They didn't like the first draft I submitted, so I rewrote the story. They still didn't like it, but were itching to go to press with it, so without telling me, they plagiarized a bunch of stuff from Ben Fong-Torres' interviews for Rolling Stone and a story Rockwell had done for the Times on Linda Ronstadt. I was horrified when I saw the magazine -- for which it was the cover story -- and even more horrified when the plagiarism was spread by the New York Times Syndicate to several dozen daily newspapers across America under my byline. The resultant uproar (Us refused to print a retraction or apology) effectively ended my career for a while and I took a job as a secretary at the Levi Strauss Corporation, which was all my skills could get me in San Francisco at the time.

Both Fong-Torres and Rockwell were very angry, naturally, but Rockwell and I had a friend in common, who arranged a dinner (I cooked) so we could meet and I could plead my case. John was appalled that the Times would do such a thing, but believed me. So we've been in touch ever since.

Ironically, we've seen more of each other since I moved to Berlin than in the years previous because of his work at the Times and, for a while, as director of the Lincoln Center Festival. John has never needed an excuse to come to Germany: he's one of the most unabashed Germanophiles I've ever run into. And, because he moved here when he was five and has lived here on and off since, he never needs an excuse to come to Berlin, where he still has old family friends dating from his father's posting here as an administrator of OMGUS, the Office of Military Government, U.S., from 1945 until just before the Berlin blockade.

So it was no surprise to hear his voice on the phone a couple of weeks ago telling me he'd accepted a short residency at the American Academy in Berlin. Usually, fellows at the Academy live there for six months while they complete or research a book, but John took a shorter stay in exchange for simply giving a lecture, which was going to be entitled "My Berlin."

Naturally, I had to hear this.

Last Thursday, I found myself walking down one of those mansion-encrusted far West Berlin streets near the Wannsee U-Bahn to hand my invitation to the gatekeeper and walk to the former villa of banker Hans Arnhold, where a mixture of Academy fellows and local intellectuals of both the German and American persuasions had come for the talk. John saw to it that I was also invited for the dinner (duck liver pâté on sherry-apple gelée and lamb's lettuce followed by wild boar sirloin medallions in chestnut sauce with jerusalem artichoke purée and broccoli romanesco -- not a million miles from what one would encounter at a place like Guy), where I was seated next to the director of the Dresden Philharmonic and a cultural attaché from the American Embassy and across from the director of the Radial System arts space and not far from a woman who thought for the longest while that I was Ed Wood. Heady conversation ensued.

Not, however, as heady as the talk which followed. John was introduced by Pamela Rosenberg, the managing director of the Berlin Philharmonic, an old school-chum of John's and a fellow Germanophile, who talked about his youthful enthusiasm for German opera and his immense record collection, both of which I can verify from personal experience.

Finally, John took the podium for his speech. He started by acknowleding his Germanophilia, while noting that this is always intertwined with the question of German culture and evil. Sensibly, he noted that although Wagner was an antisemite, the critical industry of going back to his operas and finding antisemitism in every one of them was a deplorable instance of post hoc ergo propter hoc, which I found refreshing. There is, after all, not even a Shylock or Fagin in Wagner. He did a lot of reminiscing, and I began to figure out where what I'd always considered an odd quirk had germinated. When you're five years old and you've got cultured German musicians playing in your house, playing German classics right up where you can see them, you're going to get fascinated with the music and the musicians. Furthermore, you're going to make the association, once you're back in the States, with that other place, Germany, where this happens. And that's going to lead to a fascination, not only with the music if you're so inclined (and John clearly was), but also with the country. So it's not surprising to see him doing graduate work in German topics, or hanging out in Bayreuth seeing Wagner operas over and over and over -- and returning year after year to see different producitons of them.

That he also wound up being a music critic, first at the Los Angeles Times, then at the New York Times is hardly surprising, but that he wound up as the New York Times' chief rock critic -- and did a bang-up job of it -- is what has made him a unique figure on the American critical landscape. He was doing both jobs during the great Downtown Renaissance of the late '70s -- ie, the rise of both CBGBs and Steve Reich -- and got to witness (as did I, although not as frequently or as up close) the greatest American musical revolution of our age. He's got a perplexing fondness for Linda Ronstadt that I don't share, but he's on the money a lot of the time.

As the talk continued, though, I began to see very clearly where we diverge. It comes down to one crucial juncture: romanticism. A whole lot of musical appreciation, whether some people want to admit it or not, comes down to making a soul connection, feeling a resonance within yourself to the music being presented. If you don't feel it, you gotta fake it, like the man said, but you can't fake it in print, not for long. And romanticism has never rung a single bell with me. I'm right down with the whole history of European classical (or so-called) music from Machaut through Haydn, but the minute Beethoven stalks onto the scene, I take a vacation until Stravinsky and the boys show up 80 or so years later. And even then there's a lot of stuff I can't stand, and most of it refers straight to romanticism, right down to Arnold Schoenberg and Elliot Carter.

"Romanticism is about extremes," John said, adding later that "I like romanticism with some constraints." Well, you don't have to know much about European culture to know that romanticism wasn't just music, and that its theoretical and practical origins are just about 100% German: Goethe, Schiller, and on and on. And that stuff just glazes my eyes over. I've never been able to read it, don't much like its painted or sculpted manifestations, or find any resonance in its literature or music. Is this a blind-spot, a defect in my orientation that needs fixing?

Well, naturally, I don't think so. But the equation of German culture with romanticism, or maybe just my realizing how inextricably knotted together the two are, opened my eyes just a little more. When I went to the Academy, I was still seething with an "I hate Germans" vibe I'd picked up at this year's Green Week, which had exacerbated my nagging, years-long, realization that I've just been here too long and need to move on. And maybe it was the musical clue which was responsible for a realization: once we're past the 19th Century, my musical touchstones, from Stravinsky (Russian, but it was very much a francophile culture) through Copland (studied with Boulanger in Paris) through Glass (ditto), not to mention Ravel and Poulenc and all that electronic music I was so crazy about as a teenager, are French! I felt I'd been absolved of my visceral dislike of Germany. I don't get it, never have, and don't have to.

This is the point where I make the obvious disclaimer that I don't expect France to be the magic pill which solves everything. If anything, their bureaucracy is as pig-headed as Germany's, only lacking the tiny bit of efficiency that German Ordnung brings. There's an arrogance, cultural and political, which is annoying, although as an American I guess I'm inured to a lot of that. And I won't bother expatiating about the values I find there which are more congruent with my own when it comes to esthetics or sensuality.

Coincidentally, the morning after John's talk, I got an e-mail from a guy in Berkeley who reads this blog, who'd been here the weekend before and was still a little drunk on the experience. He's planning to buy a place here and live here part-time, and had been in the Kollwitzplatz market at the same time I had been there, and was going on about how wonderful the place seemed to him. I wrote him a rather scathing reply, and suggested he read this article that Bowleserised had passed along.

We all have our Berlins. John has his, the guy in Berkeley has his, and I have mine. Your Berlin isn't superior to mine, mine's not superior to yours, at least not if either of us has come to our Berlin by serious thought.

It's goat cheese or asparagus. I know people who just cannot stand asparagus, and I can't understand that at all. But I also know people -- French people, especially -- who are serious connoisseurs of goat cheeses. It's understandable: there are a lot of them, and there are a lot of serious artisans making them, pouring their expertise into the job, and I honor them for that just as I honor winemakers for doing essentially the same thing with a different product. It's just that, for whatever reason, I can't eat it. My throat literally closes up, making it impossible for me to swallow it in the unlikely event that I've gotten it past my nose. I have no idea why this is -- it's not as easy a problem as decoding German culture through romanticism, after all -- and it may be due to biochemistry or genetics. As may be other people's asparagus problem, I don't know.

But at least now I think I have a firmer grip on my Germanophobia, thanks to John's Germanophilia. I'm still skeptical about the view both he and Ms. Rosenberg have that Berlin at the moment is a hot-spot of creativity -- it seems to me that that train left the station long ago -- but I'm glad to have a clearer vision than ever of why I need to move on.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


There it is, my new neighborhood, the Gleimkiez in Prenzlauer Berg. As you can see, it sticks out into nothing, a place where the Wall once ran. In fact, it was within the "security zone" of the Wall, and, had it not been made up of a solid mass of inhabitable apartment buildings, it would have been demolished for that reason. Instead, the DDR, not wishing to incur the ire of its citizens, allowed it to stand, but erected a checkpoint on the periphery which required a special one-time pass for visitors' entry. The residents were restricted to those citizens of the DDR authorized to carry weapons, in case the "fascists" came swarming over the Wall: Stasi, army, police. Merchants working there -- bakers, butchers, etc. -- had special passes. I learned all of this from a historical marker the Wall Documentation Center has up at the top of Mauerpark.

In the photo, you can see the lights of the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark, a huge complex which includes a soccer stadium and the Max-Schmelling-Halle, where Bob Dylan played last year. You can also make out the Fehrnsehturm in Alexanderplatz. One thing that surprised me is how close much of the city is via public transportation from here, be it Alexanderplatz, Friedrichstr., or even Westend. The Schönhauser Allee stop has the Ringbahn, which is awfully fast (I made it back from Ikea, way down south, in less than 30 minutes) and the S1, the central north-south line, as well as the U2, which goes all over the place, and the M1 tram, which gets you to Hackescher Markt in about 15 minutes. It's also got a huge shopping mall with a decent supermarket. Another huge mall, at Gesundbrunnen, is a ten-minute walk from the bridge you see in the picture.

The actual neighborhood itself is refreshingly underdeveloped, although I don't guess that'll last for long. Still, there is a flavor of the Old East here:

This won't last long, I'm afraid. Walking down Gleimstr. with BiB the other night, he confirmed that this is, as I'd been told, a concentration of gay bars, and we all know that's a harbinger of gentrification. Another sign is the presence of The Bird, the reigning monarch of the absolutely authentic American hamburger in Berlin. Another star attraction is Omoni, a Japanese-Korean restaurant with a superb sushi chef and mind-blowing Korean dishes. (Both of these will be written about soonish in Hungry In Berlin, which moving has kept me absent from of late). A few designers' shops have begun to sprout up, and even (gasp!) a couple of art galleries.

As with the rest of Prenzlauer Berg, young people pushing baby-carriages dominate the streets during the day. I'm reliably informed that both Neukölln and Wedding have higher birth-rates than Prenzlauer Berg, which was trumpeted as the "fertility capital of Europe" at one point not long ago, but the population here is predominantly young, and I really feel like a geezer, since I'm an obvious expat and yet I'm not 30 years old like the other ones are.

But I like the neighborhood, and I'm settling in somewhat, although I remain conflicted about how much work I want to (or can afford to) put into this apartment if I'm not going to be here too long. The best solution seems to be to take it all a day at a time, doing some unpacking chores every day, working every day, and figuring out what's what as I roam the streets.

Being a churl and an oaf, I neglected to thank the folks who helped me in the move, and so I do so now. First, the amazing Studentix moving team, whom I recommend to one and all. After that, the dynamic duo of Natalie and Connie, whose superhero comic will soon be on the stands, edited by Marie. Other notable assistance came from Ben and Yuhang, construction consultants extraordinaire, Mike and lady B, the dancer for on-the-phone impersonation ("nobody can tell I'm not a man on the telephone") which brought Deutsche Telekom to its knees and got the installer out on a Saturday -- incredible! -- and arranged for the heating-repair guy, Lou, for imperiling his respiratory system while packing books, John for standing guard, and a special pre-thanks to Kean for the trip we'll no doubt make soon to get a living room rug.

Some of these people were rewarded with beer 'n' burgers at the Bird, a couple with Korean stuff at Omoni, and all will receive certificates as Knights of the Couch -- people entitled to stay at my place -- once I reach Montpellier.

Which, I swear, someday, I will.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Slum

I'm never moving again. Never. It took two weeks, two €300 sessions with the (excellent) student movers, much stress and strain, and now everything (well, almost everything; the plates and glasses are still back in the old place, which also has to be cleaned) is here.


I mean, I know where the big stuff is, the bookcases and desk and so on. But the books that go in the bookcases, the stuff that goes on the desk... I know it's somewhere. Or, rather, I hope it's somewhere.

But somewhere is big. This place is a full 10 square meters bigger than the last place, which you'd think would translate into ease of storage and a more spacious living situation. No doubt some day soon it will, but until then it's just big and filled with boxes of stuff. And I'm not at all sure what's in those boxes past the occasional scribbled BOOKS or CDS. And I'm going to have to find out soon, because I've actually got a hell of a lot of work to do before I head to SXSW in mid-March.

There are some wonderful additions here. I scored two couches from a departing American journalist, one of which is faux leather and like sitting on a cloud. One thing I was definitely not sad about was finally being able to abandon the old sofa-couch which has been in my possession since 1994, when I moved to Wilmersdorf for a while and lived in a place so small I had to sleep on it after I'd finished my evening reading while sitting on it. It followed me to the rat-infested place in Wedding, then to the place I've just left, where it started falling apart, first shedding the webbing which supported the mattress, making it impossible to put up guests on it, then the cushions gradually tearing, sending a powder of aged foam rubber out of the rents. It, and the no-longer functional washing machine, were taken to a toxic waste storage site by the students. Thanks, guys.

As a Christmas present to myself, I bought a new washer, which sat unused for a week because the installers told me I needed an Abflussnase (drain-nose) for the outgoing water. Fortunately, there's a little hardware store not far from here, but the guy had never heard of an Abflussnase, and instead suggested an odd-looking plastic part that cost €2.99. It looked good, and I took it home, and although I could fit it on the hose from the washer, I couldn't figure out how you attached it to the drain on the kitchen sink. The New Year holiday subtracted a lot of valuable time from necessary purchases, but at last I took the thing to the salesman who'd sold me the machine and asked him if this was right. "Sure," he said, and went over to a display model of just the machine I'd bought. I was, it developed, trying to install the thing backwards. Never even occurred to me. How embarrassing, I said. "Ah, we can't know everything in this world," he said. Back home, it worked out just fine. Well, almost. I finally had a moment to do a load of wash yesterday and the thing leaks. I'm told there's some sort of string Germans use as a sealant, and so I'm off in search of some of that, although I'm not exactly certain how it works. But boy, it's a great washing machine.

And, also in the kitchen, say hello to a real live gas stove! Yes, folks, no more guessing how much heat is going into the pot, because you can see. No more burning the hell out of stuff because the plate on the electric stove doesn't cool off fast enough because you just turn down the heat and the effect is instantaneous. It's only got three burners, but they all work. So does the oven, although instead of registering temperatures, it's just got numbers from 1 to 5. Gotta figure that one out.

The bedroom? Spacious, and with another couch from the foreign correspondent. Kind of a weird place for it, I know, but I just couldn't turn down two comfortable couches after years of one uncomfortable one. And although there are bags of stuff all over the bedroom, I just haven't gotten around to unpacking them. There'll be a whole wall for bookshelves or whatever.

Between the kitchen and the bedroom is a very narrow little room which is one of the building's downsides. It contains a shower and a sink. The sink is so small that I can barely stand facing its mirror, and shaving involves contortion. The shower, too, isn't so big, the shower-head droops at a weird angle, and the water only lasts a couple of minutes because it's stored in an electrically-heated boiler above. Better than the 180-second shower I had to use in Wedding, but not much.

Next down the hall is the Little Room. The last guy who lived here, a single father with a son, built a loft-bed for his kid here, and that's gotta go. Ben has graciously offered to rip it out, as well as to help me get some light in the kitchen, which is painted dark red for some reason. But getting rid of the loft is now complicated by the fact that there are dozens of boxes -- heavy boxes -- of books everywhere. Another thing about the Little Room is the Tiny Room, which is through a small door at its end, and has a window, an electrical outlet, and about enough room to walk three paces. I have no idea what I'll do with this.

Then there's the long, narrow room with the toilet at one end. There's no heat in here, and no light. There is, however, a much better-situated sink, and room to put some shelves up, so I'm going to get some light installed and a mirror and make this the shaving and toothbrushing room, too. But boy, is it cold; there's a ventilator and a window at the edge of a ledge behind the toilet, and there's no closing that off. Ah, well, spring is just around the corner, right?

Finally, there's the living-room/dining-room/office, a huge room with two windows looking out on a cheerless courtyard and the brown cement this DDR-era building's make of. I had to call in a gas-heating technician to fix the heaters in the kitchen and bedroom and here, and he couldn't figure out why this one didn't work. He said he'd come back, but he hasn't. So there's no heat, although that doesn't seem to matter much. I'll get a rug and a table to eat at, and eventually figure out how the jigsaw puzzle all fits together. And, one very bizarre upside, Deutsche Telekom called to say my number had been transferred to the outlet here. It didn't work. The dancer called them on Friday to report this, and they sent a technician out on Saturday to fix it! She futzed around, plugged some stuff into the socket, and left for a few minutes. When she came back, she plugged a gizmo into the wall and pushed some buttons worked! So now I'm still plowing through a week of e-mails, catching up with blogs and (oh, yes) working again. And in the evening, I sit on the cloud-like couch and read and am very, very glad I'm here.

There are reasons for this. One, the rent is much lower than at my last place. Two, I discovered when the electric company transferred my account that my monthly bill was now one-quarter of what it had been, which means that someone was piggybacking my electricity in the old place for 11 years. This pisses me off, but I doubt there's anything I can do about it at this point. Three, although this neighborhood (which will be the subject of another post later) isn't as hip! and edgy! as my last one, it does have a well-stocked Asian grocery, a regular supermarket within a short walk and another within a slightly longer walk, a shopping mall, an astonishing Korean-Japanese restaurant (which I'll soon post about over at Hungry In Berlin), a bar called The Bird, which is run by two Americans with a vision of serving completely authentic American hamburgers and steaks (succeeding almost completely), and access to a wide variety of public transportation which can get me all over town easily and quickly.

It's also unavoidable that this place is something of a slum. The hall light went out this weekend and hasn't been repaired. The plumbing makes alarming noises (the neighbors flush their toilets all night and day), and the cement walls are old and not in such great repair. The Hausmeister (what New Yorkers would call the super), the landlord's brother, doesn't appear to be overworked, shall we say. There's an overwhelming funkiness to the place, and that's not all good.

But now I've got to unpack, finish up with the old place, and settle in. And I'm never moving again. Ever. If I do, I'll do it as a Franciscan monk, with no possessions.

Oh, hell, that's not true. As soon as I've got the money, I'm going to France. I talked to the students about it and they're game. The price is less than I thought. And, since the washing machine was part of the calculations for the moving price, that's been crossed off. I may very well be able to do this in the not too distant future, like this summer, if the work keeps coming in.

And, as I speculated earlier, I do feel liberated a bit from the ghosts of the past. Time to make some new ones. It's a new year, a new place, and the same old me. That feels good. It really does.