Tuesday, August 17, 2004

On Cool

I had a beer with a woman from Vienna the other night at the Strandbar Mitte, a bar on the banks of the Spree River not far from my house. It appeared a couple of years ago when some enterprising folks dumped some sand on an unused piece of land, built a ramshackle bar, and set up some deck chairs, making an instant beach. The weather cooperated, and it became the hot bar of the summer. Now, I'd heard a lot about it, and I have to admit I was disappointed. The bar help was surly in the extreme, shouting at the customers, the drinks were expensive, the view of the Bode Museum on the tip of Museum Island was nice enough, but the clientele seemed to be lagered-up British louts and a sprinkling of this year's ubiquitous phenomenon, the Portugese tourist.

Vienna, I knew, is one of Europe's centers for experimental electronic music at the moment, and I'd heard there was a very nice art scene alongside it as well. It's been on my list of places to visit for some time now. But this woman told me her friends there envied her for being in Berlin. One thing they were really excited about was the Badeschiff, this summer's hot place to hang out. This is a barge anchored in the Spree on which someone has built a 30-meter swimming pool. Now, you can't swim in the Spree because it's too toxic. But being able to swim on the Spree is apparently the thing to do, and the media sheep anointed it an astonishing way to spend some time. She said the place was crammed to an unpleasant degree, that you couldn't swim at all because there were so many people in the pool it was all you could do to stand upright. She fled.

In Vienna over the past few years, she said, they've reclaimed the Danube to the point where you can now swim anywhere in it. But her friends thought it was way cooler to cram yourself onto the Badeschiff with all the other trendies. Go figure.

But the quest for cool, I believe, is what draws a lot of people to this benighted city. There's this belief that proximity to a scene confers the virtues of that scene onto even the most clueless person, and boy, do we see a lot of that around here. I've seen plenty of the supposedly cool places in Berlin come and go in my time here, and I'm still trying to figure some of them out. I remember Hop Sing, an illegal bar in the Kreuzberg district, named after the cook on Bonanza, all done up in faux cowboy, complete with swinging doors. It was underground, literally, in the basement of an office building, really hot and crowded, blaring country music over its sound system. I have no idea why it was supposed to be so cool, although I went there a couple of times.

One of the big magnets on my side of town has always been Tacheles, which was one of the original art-squats. It managed to get listed in a bunch of Let's Go-style guidebooks for the young and impressionable, who actually believed it was a hotbed of alternative culture, although the working artists in this area avoided it like rat poison, because it was swiftly taken over by heroin dealers and the Russian Mob. Eventually, the city asked them to buy it for one Mark per square meter (about 1/20th of the going rate) and the idiots in charge yelled "Art must be free! Give it to us for nothing!" and the police emptied them out. There's a new administration in there now, and it's pretty much 100% a tourist attraction, but my favorite memory of it was when an actual real artist from America was here looking for studio space and went there and got quoted a per-square-meter price for an unimproved, unheated, unlit studio that was above what he could have gotten space in any new, glitzy office building for. Anarchists, perhaps; capitalists, certainly. But the tourists still come.

The current mecca of cool is, unfortunately, right on the corner by my house. White Trash Fast Food is a relocation of a private club that used to be in Haus Schwarzenberg, run by a sour Angeleno named Wally. Certainly the place got a makeover in the move to what had been a money-laundering Chinese restaurant whose proprietors vanished overnight, leaving chopped vegetables still out in bowls. Not that anyone ever ate there, at least not twice. Besides money, it was apparently laundering immigrants, too, in an elaborate scheme I'm not clear about. But Wally and his crew took over, and I remember attending the opening party, which made me decidedly uncomfortable. "White trash" apparently means any Southern American working-class person, and among the giggly delights was a Hank Williams tape playing over the sound system. Clearly Wally doesn't understand his own culture, but he's imposing his ignorant vision on foreigners in the name of cool. It certainly works, if the crowds are any indication. It's the only bar/restaurant I know of that charges admission, if not the only one that screens its patrons, particularly by age. No way I could ever get in there again. But it may be on its way out: Blixa Bargeld and friends used to go there to play bridge on Wednesday nights (oh, the layers of irony! How cool can you get? Bridge!), but apparently they don't do that any more.

The thing is, though, that to me cool is passive. Hell, the word even implies that. The places I like better are where people who are actually doing things congregate. These places tend more to heat than cool: furious conversations, decor that changes every time you go in because people pay off their bar tabs with art, odd performances and happenings. Back when it was illegal, Eschloraque, the bar in Haus Schwarzenberg, was like that (although I understand they had to get legal as part of the process of the collective buying the place). You had to work to find it, you had to be recognized at the door to get in, but there was certainly nothing cool about what was going on inside, because it was where the local artists went to blow off steam after actually working on actual art-works in an actual art scene. Nothing like that at Tacheles.

I guess George Clinton said it best back in the late '70s when I was interviewing him a lot because my pal TV Tom was his publicist. "Cool? You gonna have lots of time to be cool after you're dead."

And heat, after all, is an indication of energy being radiated. Something that's sorely lacking in broke old Berlin these days.

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