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.

7 comments:

Scraps said...

I love Beethoven, love Schoenberg -- in fact, those are pretty much the largest two touchstones for what I like in classical music. But I dislike most Romantic poetry, and from what I know of the thought and philosophy of Romanticism -- I am undereducated in this as in many other areas -- I dislike it intensely. Which is to say, I think that there is not (for me) so much emotional connection between the forms of art that get subsumed in historical movements as there is intellectual.

Did you and Fong-Torres ever reach an understanding?

Bowleserised said...

Can you pull off an angora sweater like Ed Wood?

BiB said...

Ed, what a fantastic piece of writing. Unfortunately, my brain has turned to mush since my academic days have been put behind me so I can hardly remember the details of German romanticism which we very much did have to study as it was so influential on the Russians. But I know so much what you mean about the cultural baggage of a place and how that can affect you, and vice versa. Sometimes I wonder whether I decide to prefer how the non-Russians do something to make me remember not to move back to Russia. Which has made me like German ways more. There are aspects of German creativity I like. Germans do outsiderism better. Embrace misery and madness better. And I like the rationalism. But it's horses for courses and the course probably becomes more complicated the longer you've been away from where you started and the more places have been added to flavour the whole stew. Yes, France will have its annoyances too but you can put them to the edge of the plate, like goat's cheese, and savour the rest. Whereas Germany has majorly gone off for you (although it's perhaps not too late, still, to send the main course back and ask the chef to rustle up a variation).

[I've been out of action with varying ailments for the last few weeks. Hope to see you soon.]

Olaf said...

Wonderful read, Ed. Thanks for posting it.

Berlin is what feels like my real home, but until the last couple of years, I had not thought it possible to live there again. Then I got old and realized that in the face of mortality, no risk is too great, at least in the longer view. And the older one is, the longer the view can be, oddly enough.

Anyway, my Berlin is a basket of fragments--fragments of memory, of history, of recent experience, of fantasy, of self-delusion, of dread and hope. (Is this cliched enough for you yet?) They give material to build a foundation for a new life there, if I choose it. All the variables spread across our own behavior and circumstances and the randomness of existence make it simultaneously impossible to predict and a lot of fun to play with.

Berlin is now a place for radical-posing bourgeois refugees. I count myself among them, for ill or good. And Berlin is cool.

Ed Ward said...

Scraps: Yeah, I agree. Not only that, there's also sometimes a disconnect between the various arts. I like Baroque music just fine; the architecture and painting not so much.

Olaf: I wish you luck, and would certainly recommend a reality check before making the leap.

Bowleserised: It depends on who's wearing it and how badly she wants me to pull it off.

William Thirteen said...

ed i was in france recently and thought of you. not a foodie myself but thought i might try something on your behalf - i had an exquisite appetizer "Emince' de Poire au Vin rouge et Magret de Canard fume' au". i wasn't sure what was what when it showed up, thinking the red thing was a beet until it slowly dawned on me that it was a pear soaked in red wine. very tasty. this was followed up by a "Filet de Perche Beurre Meuniere" which was overcooked and negligible, but the delicious "Croquant praline au Chocolat" made up for it...

you see how we put ourselves out for you!

Dr. Sardonic said...

I hadn't seen that Biedermeier-Bionade article about Prenzlauer Berg in the Zeit. Pretty brutal stuff.