Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Just a few moments ago, my entire apartment was shaking. I've lived through earthquakes before, when I lived in California, but this was different: it wasn't as irregular, and the vibration was much faster. Dishes were rattling, stuff was dancing around on my desk. I wasn't worried, though, because I knew what it was.

For the past three years, the luxury apartments next door to me, which cost a quarter-million Euros apiece, have looked out over a hole that has filled up with windblown garbage and construction debris, a hole that was advertised as an underground parking garage. I have no idea why construction stopped (although it's probably for the usual reason things stop around here, ie, the money ran out), but just last week, they've started again. This has involved bringing in a huge shovel to scoop out the hole, and from the amount of shattered brick they've been lifting out, I have to assume there was a bombed building there, perfectly routine for this part of Berlin, which got hit pretty badly due to its proximity to the Reichskanzlei on Wilhelmstr. (Not that close, but you could only be so accurate from that high up back then).

The shovel scoops, and big trucks perform a tricky maneuver of driving down the alley and then backing into the parking lot just behind my building (which has spaces that were rented, I guess, to the unfortunate tenants of the place next door) and onto the piece of ground they're excavating. This starts at 6:30 in the morning when they fire up the shovel, although I have to say these workmen don't yell at each other or drive cars blaring heavy metal music like the last crew did. At some point this morning, I guess one of the trucks was in physical contact with our building, which explains the vibration. I expect my landlord's unpleasant mother, who sometimes lives in the apartment across the hall from me, will find evidence of this when next she occupies the place. (Not that I'll know: she stopped talking to me when I informed her son she'd forced her way into my apartment to look it over. She decided on the spot that I was a dirty foreigner -- I admit the place wasn't in such good shape that day -- and told me, no kidding, that "You should spend a minimum of two hours a day cleaning." Fine, I'll put a slave on the to-buy list.)

But if you've looked at that supremely uninformative but Flash-heavy website for this building project, you'll notice that in addition to the apartments at Borsigstr. 3a and 4, which are already in place, they're planning to build a 4a, a brand-new building which was supposed to be finished this spring. Fortunately for my peace of mind, it hasn't even been started, although I fear that this new spurt of activity portends something of that nature, and that's going to be a disaster.

When I sit at my desk here, I have two windows in front of me (one of them is a door, which leads to the back yard, except there aren't any steps, which adds to the Winchester Mystery House vibe of my landlord's family's ambitions. It got me burglarized, but that's another story.). They look out at the small back yard, beyond which is a wall, which has partially collapsed, and the paved area that served as a parking lot until the construction boys needed it back. There are a number of trees, which at the moment are wearing a wonderful flame-yellow color, some bushes, and a couple of old brick sheds which may be descendents of the hay-barns that used to be placed in this section of the city when the old medieval city wall, which ran along Torstr., was still up. As far as I can figure from the rather ambiguous map the planners erected in the alley, the one which announced the completion of Borsigstr. 4a this spring (and hey, I just looked and it's gone!), this nice scene is going to be replaced by the new! modern! building of 4a. And this is going to require jackhammers breaking up the pavement, a foundation being dug, pilings being driven, and all the merry chatter of the work crews as they report for duty every morning at 6:30. And in the end, the building will go up, the tiny amount of sunlight this ground-floor apartment gets will be severely diminished, and I'll get to look at a building standing empty for months, probably years, on end as the developer re-learns that the market for luxury housing in Berlin is sorta depressed at the moment. To put it mildly.

I really, really want to be out of here before this all happens, although the prospect at the moment isn't very good for it coming to pass.

But in the meanwhile, there's a silver lining nobody told me about until I'd lived here for years. One of the very good things about renting in Germany is how unfairly the rights are distributed: they're all on the tenant's side, or very nearly so. And because the noise level here is so high with the construction -- it was so loud this morning that I couldn't even hear my coffee-maker, which usually sounds like a 400-pound hog coughing up a hairball -- because it causes dust to come into the house and contaminate everything, so that there's a thin layer of yellow over things 24 hours after I've cleaned them off, because of the interrupted sleep which causes me to wake up at 6:30, five hours after I've gone to bed, then fall asleep again fitfully and wake up logy four hours later, I have recourse. It's a little thing called Mietminderung, rent-abatement, and now I'm going to actually make my American readers salivate with envy.

You can write your landlord and request Mietminderung, which he may grant you if he thinks you have a case. He makes less, but he makes it up because the construction firm carries insurance for just such an eventuality -- all part of the cost of doing business. In the end, neither the landlord nor the construction company is terribly disaccommodated, and the tenant gets lower rent. If I'd known this when I first moved in here and the landlord and his family were knocking this place down and putting it up again and knocking it down again and so on, and then when they started renovating Borsigstr. 2, and then again when this project on the other side started up, hell, I'd never have paid retail at all! Or, more realistically, maybe one year out of seven. Of course, in extreme cases, as happened to one friend of mine, when they do a radical renovation project on your place, they're obligated to find you another apartment to live in. As long as it's not in Germany, I'm down with that.

But, alas, the other side of the coin is that with your Mietminderung, you still have to endure the noise. And, as it gets colder -- and I have to say, we've had a wonderful fall, with spots of Indian summer appearing here and there -- I'll be spending more and more time in the noisy, dusty, vibrating apartment. When it's quiet and clean, it's bad enough. I just hope this will give me even more motivation to figure out a way to get the hell out of this dying city. As if I needed any more.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Greg Shaw

I got the news this week that Greg Shaw had died suddenly, and found myself transported back to the past. I hadn't seen Greg in years, but he was once a friend and neighbor.

I ran into him when I was working at Rolling Stone, and Jann Wenner assigned me a story on fanzines. I had an inkling of what fanzines were, since I'd been a science-fiction fan years ago, and knew fanzines played a part in that world, but I wasn't quite sure what a rock fanzine would be. I found out soon enough: I went up to Greg and Suzie Shaw's house in San Anselmo and spent the afternoon talking with them about Who Put The Bomp, Greg's current one. Some years earlier, he'd edited Mojo Navigator, the Bay Area's first rock magazine of any note, which dared to cover not only the rise of the ballroom bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but also the teen-club scene, where garage bands were purveying a far simpler and more direct kind of rock and roll. He was also lucky to have started the magazine in August, 1966, right as it was all taking off. As for Who Put the Bomp, it was similarly concerned with good old pop music as much as the sensations of the day.

This may have been why Wenner was so contemptuous of him when I came back to the office and announced that I'd gotten the story. "He's a pimply-faced nerd with an amateurish magazine, right? It ought to make a funny story." But I didn't play it that way. (Somewhere there seems to be a cache of Rollng Stone articles of mine, since I've had others throw them back in my face, but they're apparently not on the Rolling Stone site, at least as far as I can determine; I was hoping to have a link to the story I did on Greg). This didn't improve relations with Wenner.

After I was fired, of course, I had a lot more time to hang out, and I'd see Greg and Suzie every so often, either at shows or sometimes just hanging out at his house, as we played old records and talked about stuff. The article -- and Greg's own skills -- had brought the magazine a degree of fame, and it began to do very well. At one point before he moved to Michigan to hook up with Creem, Lester Bangs came up from Southern California for a rampage of drug-taking, writing, and, I believe, a liaison with Suzie (with Greg's blessing), and the result was a nearly issue-long screed entitled "James Taylor Marked For Death." I was part of the collating party for that one (man, the things computers have made obsolete!) as we walked around the room in a circle, pulling one sheet from a pile and one from the next, until we had the whole issue in our hands, at which point it got dropped onto a desk and stapled. Yes, it was mimeographed. You young people should probably Google that word.

Still, this was no way to make a living, and, like many rock writers of the time, Greg finally took a job with a record company. United Artists had a low, one-story building with mirror windows across the street from Hollywood High School, and their head of publicity, Marty Cerf, hired Greg to co-edit with him a UA-funded rock mag called Phonograph Record Magazine, which was distributed free to record stores. It paid well, reviewed records besides UA ones, and gave a start to many a young journalist, as well as providing a place for some of us older ones to earn a few bucks. Given that it was a major record label, UA was a pretty screwy place in those days. I mean, would anyone attempt something like Phonograph Record these days? Or hire Greg Shaw to run it? (Or, for that matter, hire Marty Cerf, one of the weirdest publicists I ever knew?) Because she came with the package, Suzie Shaw had a job there, too, and one of the great tragedies of my life then was that when UA acquired the Blue Note Records catalog, Suzie mailed a few of us a checklist of Blue Notes, and she just tossed the ones we checked into boxes and sent them to us. Unfortunately, she lost my list and my education in Blue Note's wonders was delayed by years. But that was the kind of thing people routinely got away with back then.

At one point, Greg found out that one of our favorite bands, the Flamin Groovies (a band I'd been forbidden to write about at Rolling Stone for some reason), had recorded a killer record but didn't have a deal. Greg founded Bomp Records to press it up: "You Tore Me Down" was a magnificent change of direction for the Groovies, who went on to record a bunch of superlative, but out-of-time records which did a lot better in England than America (where they were more interested in Yes than three-minute pop masterpieces) and helped lay the foundation for a lot of the new wave stuff that came out later in the decade. Greg then quit UA to become the Groovies' manager.

With Bomp Records a reality, Greg was able to latch on to a lot of new sounds that were just beginning to surface in the mid-'70s, and released some of the first stuff by Devo and the Dead Boys and (for some reason this sticks in my head, although I can't verify it) Blondie. I'd already lost touch with Greg by this time, although I watched as Bomp became a thriving business concern. Greg and Suzie separated, and I'd occasionally run into her at music biz events.

But the main thing knowing Greg Shaw did for me was to make me aware very early on that the model of major-label record label wasn't for everyone, and that it was possible to make your own records and distribute them yourself, which, of course, the punk and new wave kids made a central part of their scene. Greg was in the right place at the right time twice in his life, which is something not a lot of people get to do, and was apparently a happily-married father when, last Tuesday, his blood sugar rose alarmingly (he had always been a diabetic) and he was rushed to the hospital, where he apparently just fell apart.

If you want to read his official biography, you can get more detail about all of this than the jumbled, half-remembered stuff above. Or you can go play the Groovies' immortal "Shake Some Action." That's what I'd do.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Gallery Opening

It's a good day that starts with me doubling my money. Here I was with that five cents in my pocket and I realized the laundry needed doing, so I opened the washing machine, and there was a five-cent coin that had apparently been cast off by a pair of pants I'd washed last time. A good omen, as was going to my bank's web-page and discovering that a magazine had made a deposit. So I was ready for anything.

Good thing I was, too: yesterday was the official opening of the Berlinische Galerie, the city's latest modern art museum. As an institution, it's been around for quite a while, but it's never had a home, displaying occasional shows on the upper floors of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, among other places. It was supposed to open at the Postfuhramt right near my house, but somehow that came to naught, and instead they built a brand-new building on Alte Jakobstr., sort of behind the Jewish Museum.

Apparently the concept here is to mix architecture, photography, and painting and sculpture into a collection reflecting Berlin's contributions to all of these, although press materials were thin on the ground. Also lacking was a coherent map on the invitation to the opening: a friend of mine and I set off to find it, and it turned out that about half the streets we needed to find in order to get there weren't on it. It's a fairly obscure corner of town -- the Jewish Museum at least now has signs to it, which helps a lot -- and we wasted about 20 minutes trying to find it.

Once we had, I began to wonder if it was worth it. The downstairs is spacious and has huge-ceilinged rooms, but they're filled with art of a nearly relentless mediocrity. True, there's a pretty good representation of adopted Berliner Wolf Vostell's Fluxus paintings, and a grouping of the huge photo portraits of young soldiers from Frank Thiel's "The Allies," two of which now adorn Checkpoint Charlie, but too much of it is given over to huge splashy over-theoretical contemporary works and silly abstractions by deservedly forgotten painters, and Emilio Vedova's hugely unimpressive "Absurd Berlin Diary" gets a whole room. A temporary show, "Architecture of the Homeless," is pretty incoherent; I'm not sure what it's supposed to prove, although Wolfgang Tillmans has a couple of interesting photos and Dayanita Singh has some wonderful photos from her book Myself Mona Ahmed, in which she spent two years documenting the life of an Indian eunuch. But probably the most telling work on display on the ground floor is Ed and Nancy Kienholz' "The Art Show," which consists of life-sized folks standing around with vents from cars replacing their faces (hot air, geddit?), holding glasses of wine in cheap plastic cups. If you press a button attached to a lucite box they each bear, you can hear them bloviate in perfect art-speak about...something or other having to do with art. Dang, I guess irony really is dead.

And so, with all the walking I'd already done, was I, very nearly, when I mounted the stairs and discovered that the real reason to come here is above ground-level. Here is an excellent overview of Berlin art from around 1890 until the immediate postwar era, including a semi-reproduction of the notorious Dada show, a whole bunch of Russian Suprematist and Constructivist paintings and architectural models, lots of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Hanna Höch, and Georg Grosz, a model of Albert Speer's projected Germaniahalle (I think that's right; there's no caption), with a scale-model Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag near it so that its idiotic hyper-grandeur is put into good perspective (apparently, one reason it couldn't be built was that moisture would gather up around the top of the dome and eventually the building would generate its own weather indoors -- the other reason, of course, was that Hitler never had the money or the time to build it), and a number of Arno Fischer's wonderful Situation Berlin, 1953-1960 photographs, mostly shot in the East.

Overall, I'd say the new Berlinische Galerie is a modest addition to the city's museum scene, but that modesty might be overcome if and when some more dynamic (and less academic) curation is applied to the ground floor. From the list of upcoming events, though, this doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon. Why, they're even hosting this year's infamous Total Music Meeting, the corduroy-clad groovy professors' own jazz festival on Nov. 4-6. Ah, well. Given that the Hamburger Bahnhof museum wound up having to accept the Flick Collection, a oh-so-trendy what-money-can-buy troll through the least interesting trends of the past couple of decades, just to have something to keep their doors open, it could be worse. At least the Berlinische Galerie hasn't added Pipilotti Rist, the antichrist of contemporary art to its collection. Yet.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


In the last post here I was complaining about editors not getting back to me, as well as the financial situation that's brought about, and while I honestly don't want to use this blog to whine about my problems, I had an interesting sequel to what I posted that, I think, brings up some larger issues, even if, in order to talk about them, I'm going to have to filter them through my own experience.

As I mentioned, Tracks Magazine was one of the ones I was waiting to hear about. Now, Tracks was launched with high hopes about a year ago, under a much-respected former editor of Spin, with some apparently good financing and a stated aim to become the American competition for Mojo, which was a good idea because although Mojo sells well in the U.S., filling a market niche no other music magazine does, it's also quite hostile to American writers.

Naturally, I pursued Tracks, because as someone who'd written a lot for Mojo before they'd become well-known (and hostile), I thought I'd be a natural, particularly because I was already getting a lot of the stuff they were going to write about. Or so I thought.

A first issue with a cover photo of Sting did nothing to increase my confidence, but what really made me scratch my head was when the editors showed up at SXSW in March. As far as I could tell, there was no promotion for this new magazine at an event that was almost custom-made for them to promote it. When I finally got to sit down with the editor, I pitched him an idea I had for a regular column, which I thought he'd go for because I'm already well-known thanks to the spots I do on Fresh Air. He blinked a couple of times and said "I really don't see where there'd be any place for that at the moment." Well, then, I said, at least put me in touch with your record-review editor; I could be of real service there. He gave me the guy's name, but no way to contact him. Interestingly, he didn't even have business cards himself.

Then it really got weird. I was standing talking to a couple of friends and another guy for about ten minutes when the editor came out of an interview he'd been leading with Joan Baez (in which, I was told, he'd agreed not to rehash her past once again but instead talk about the stuff she was doing now -- and then went ahead and spent the rest of the time rehashing her past, to her growing annoyance) and said "Oh, I see you've found our record review editor." It was the guy I didn't know. Curiously enough, he didn't have a card, either, although after I gave him mine, he promised to be in touch.

I went looking for the magazine. They made a great fuss out of the fact that they target record and book stores over newsstands for their distribution, and Borders was a big outlet for them. And yet not only did the mini-Borders in the SXSW trade show not have it (nor had they received a request to stock it, as they had other magazine titles and books by authors appearing at the conference), neither did any record store or book store I went to in Austin.

When I got back here, I wrote followup e-mails to both of them, and, although I tried a couple of times more, never heard a word. What was going on here, anyway?

A couple of months later, another editor, whom I'd never met, e-mailed me out of the blue. He was editing their travel section, he said, and wanted a story on Berlin. It took a couple of reminders, but he finally mailed me a package of the next few issues of the magazine, and I saw stories on a festival devoted to Django Reinhardt in France and the cool rock clubs of Boston.

I counter-suggested a couple of other stories from Europe, because I was afraid he had some image in his mind about Berlin that the city can't live up to, but no, he was only interested in Berlin.

Now, Berlin does not have much of a live rock scene at this point, for a number of reasons. Some of them are similar to any European city's (ie, the density of population makes it impossible to run a small club with electric music because there's always someone living upstairs) and some of them are less tangible (like, the pall of depression that hangs over this place). There's plenty of rock history, on the other hand, and I dutifully collected a series of addresses of where things used to be (David Bowie's old apartment on Hauptstr., the Amiga recording studio where all the DDR's approved bands recorded), because Berlin's big on the "where things used to be" tip.

I put it all together, told him I was aware this might not have been what he was looking for, but it was, alas, the truth, and I sent it off.

And that's where we were the other day when I posted. I was waiting, two months after the fact, for a reply. Yesterday, I got one:

Hi Ed,

Sorry it's taken some time. There was delay in getting a consensus. And that
is: The Berlin piece doesn't work for us, I'm afraid. So I'm going to send
you a kill fee of 25%. Thanks in any case for your interest in Tracks.


[name deleted]

Now, if you're not a professional journalist, this may not seem strange to you, but let me parse this a bit so you can see why it made me (and several people I forwarded it to) so mad.

To begin with, it was his idea originally. I didn't suggest it, so the responsibility for the idea is his. Second, I have no idea what the words "there was a delay in getting a consensus" mean, but saying "The Berlin piece doesn't work for us" tells me exactly nothing. In what way? Can it, perhaps, be fixed? After all, it's a common courtesy to the writer to try at least one rewrite to bring something up to snuff. And it's not like I put everything I knew into the piece. It's hard to write about a place from inside it, because you always make assumptions about what people do and don't know. Had I, perhaps, done that? Was there a format I failed to follow? Did he think he knew something about the subject that I didn't touch on?

But no, he didn't want it made better, he wanted it to go away. There's no room for maneuvering in this situation, because it would appear that this guy is one of the editors writers dread most: the "I don't know what I want, but I'll know when you give it to me" kind. Most often, they make you do rewrite after rewrite and return comments like "this isn't quite right yet" or the like. Actually, given that tendency I got off easy here: I might have gone through three or four rewrites of what was a bad idea to start with only to come to the same place.

And here's another interesting thing. Nobody I know in the U.S. who isn't a rock journalist has ever heard of this magazine. It has apparently had no impact whatever. Little wonder: would you think a magazine with a picture of Sting on the cover was aimed at you? The rock journalists, though, are aware of it because it pays a dollar a word. Just for comparison, most of the music magazines I'm currently working for pay 10% of that. And now, with the dollar at an all-time low against the Euro, that's really not good news.

What's really sad is that there's a market for an intelligently-written music magazine with a diverse spectrum of music, new and old, being covered, aimed at an audience of people over 30 years old, the "fifty-quid man," as the Guardian put it in an article way back in March. These are the people who are driving the market, who are buying Mojo at whatever exorbitant import price it commands, and buying it a month late, at that, in most parts of the country. They also buy other significant things, like cars and computers and booze and other high-dollar advertising targets. If the best attempt to serve them is Tracks, then Mojo is going to own the market until someone comes up with competition for them.

And that's probably not about to happen. Right at the moment, I sense a real fear running through the media. Some of this is, of course, due to the repression being rained down on broadcast media by the current administration. Some of it is also doubtless the result of people waiting to see if there'll be regime change in twelve days. It's my guess that if Kerry prevails, there will be a gigantic exhalation of held breath and things will loosen up considerably -- including purse-strings. But right now is not the time to start anything, as far as the overall mood is concerned. Hell, there are too many people applying for passports and investigating expatriation in Canada and New Zealand. The idea that America might have a future would do us all some good.

Anyway, my main disappointment is that this article would have bought me at least a month's rent, and now that's not going to happen. And I was wrong in my last post: I have five cents, not four. And I have enough food to last me through tomorrow evening. After that, though, if there isn't any money around, I'm going to be fasting this weekend. Involuntarily.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004


The best-laid plans and all...

There was a point when I was going to post here daily, and now it's become more like weekly. I didn't want it to happen, but there's a decided listlessness around here these days. Some of it I'll gladly lay at the feet of that damn cold, which is still a tiny bit in evidence. But there's also the fact that writing begets writing, and there were days not so long ago when I'd spend three or four hours working on an article, then come over here and post.

Well, that hasn't happened in a while. I can even see the downward spiral: in late August, I was beginning to get some meaningful work for the first time in a long while, work that went beyond my regular Fresh Air pieces, which only run occasionally. There was the rush to do all the Ars Electronica stuff, and the intellectual exercise that attending that event gave me led to my finally writing a huge piece on the future of the record industry as I saw it. It's a wonderful piece, and I'm very proud of it, and if the guy who commissioned it had edited it when I sent it to him we would have been on the web (it's a subscription-only web magazine) at the same time as Wired magazine's "long tail" article, an article on Nonesuch Records in the New York Times which made a similar point, and another article in the L.A. Weekly, which also bears on the topic. As it is, it's been a month since I sent it to him, and he keeps saying he'll get back to me and he doesn't. It'll be quite dated by the time he gets back to me, even if that happens tomorrow.

Plus, of course, I don't get paid until it's accepted.

Same with another magazine, which has had my article since Aug. 31. They wouldn't do business until I signed a writer's agreement. I asked them not to send it, since they were FedExing it, until I got back from Ars Electronica. So of course they sent it that weekend, and after three delivery tries, FedEx lost the damn thing. It took another three weeks to get another copy (the secretary wouldn't risk FedEx again, for some reason), another week to get it to them, signed, and now...silence.

And I don't get paid by them, either, until the editor gets back to me.

So right now I have four cents in my pocket, a promise of an international money order on its way from England (and good luck cashing that!), and, fortunately, enough food to last me through Thursday morning. I just finished a Fresh Air piece which I'll record tomorrow, so I'll get paid for that within a week, most likely, and I've got dribs and drabs to do, but sheesh, is it any wonder I don't get excited about waking up and writing? Once again, my life gets reduced to hunter-gatherer status, as I have to restrict my focus to the very most basic necessities of life: finding food, maintaining shelter.

It's bad enough that every penny I make other than what I need to feed myself goes to my landlord -- no chance for travel or recreation -- but with the horizons constricted, it's hard to dream, to come up with ideas for stuff I could be writing. When you spend two weeks writing a piece like my music-industry piece, filled with some fairly radical theorizing and lots of big ideas, and then it just sits there getting old, well, you don't have to be Pavlov to figure out where that kind of feedback gets you.

This is not a way to make a living. If you've ever fantasized doing it, forget it and find something useful to do. I'm about to turn 56 and I'm still writing for a dime a word. What a waste of whatever talent I may possess.

And see, this is another reason I haven't posted here much of late. I don't really think there's much to be gained by my whining about my life and work, when I should be writing stuff about what I see around me and how I feel about it, a supplement to the other stuff I'm writing for pay. So, confronted with that, I just don't post anything.

A sort of promise: I've been invited to the opening of the new Berlinische Galerie on Friday. Assuming they got my faxed RSVP, I'm going to take my notebook along and take notes -- if I can get close enough to any of the art to see it, of course, since these events tend to be packed -- and post the notes here over the weekend.

Wish me luck not starving to death before then.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Fall Again

I was talking (actually iChatting) with my friend Bob in California a couple of weeks ago, and he opined that it must look rather nice around here. Actually, at that moment, it was still pretty green, and we wound up having a couple of more days of warmish weather, but I remembered one October when a friend was visiting from America and we rented a car, and sort of drove off at random, winding up in Fürstenwalde, which, as its name implies, is surrounded by woods. There's definitely a foliage drive to be taken in Brandenburg, the province which surrounds Berlin, and we managed to hit this place at exactly the right time. It was already exotic, what with the stork nests on the church steeples and some bright, newly-restored old buildings, and although I understand that the city is something of a hotbed of neo-nazi activity, it was nice to drive through it.

Fall is when I first got to know Berlin, thanks to Berlin Independence Days, the music conference that (combined with the girlfriend) got me to visit here in the first place. Somehow it always managed to get held around this time of year, and what I got to see of Berlin was cold, grey, and rainy. That's how I thought of the place until I decided to move here and came that May and was shocked to see the streets shaded with large green trees. They're denuded so much of the year that it's easy to forget.

But I see by today's weather forecast that we're due for an overnight low of 30F, which is the first freeze. Some of the trees outside my windows have been turning yellowish, and this ought to accelerate the process of change. Lord knows, my poor basil, yellowish as it is, probably won't survive, and I'm torn between harvesting it all tonight and making some pesto or just letting it die. The one plant that actually got six inches high suddenly shed all of its leaves a couple of nights ago, and I wonder if the stuff is even healthy to eat.

More ominously, this marks the beginning of the next six months, which will be, for all intents and purposes, winter. It won't be long until it's pitch dark at 4pm, not light until just after 9, and all of my friends start to suffer from serious depression. Me, too, actually; with such a short photoperiod, it's hard not to be depressed, especially when what's around you is Berlin. I'm never prepared for how quickly this all comes on, either; just a week or so ago, I was debating whether or not to wear a jacket, or whether to throw on a Levi jacket. Now I know that's too thin, and I use a windbreaker, but even that won't provide protection for very long, and I'm going to have to start wearing the winter coat. And buy some new gloves: I had a marvellous pair I got from Land's End for years, but they disappeared last year, and nothing in the stores here comes close. I have to have gloves: we can let the psychologists debate what damage I inherited from my mother, but it's a stone fact that bad circulation in my hands is one of her gifts to me. Winter is six months of never having warm hands.

There's also something attractive about Berlin's constant penumbral state during this time, the sidewalks and streets always wet and reflecting the lights. Also, cold air magnifies cooking smells, so a Sunday afternoon can be an anthology of approaches to pork roast as you sniff your way down the block. The berries so beloved of the Germans vanish from the shops, but the pumpkins come in, and not just the kind used in that johnny-come-lately holiday which suddenly appeared here a couple of years ago, Halloween. No, these are ugly, lumpy things, cheap at the market, and subject to all kinds of interesting uses, and I'm determined to figure some of them out this year.

What hasn't happened yet is the first super-cold rain. We don't get all that much snow -- perhaps all the water in the rivers and canals here has something to do with that -- but we certainly do get more rain than anyone needs, which is yet another factor in the widespread depression. In fact, the sun is shining now, and I'm feeling bad about sitting at the computer, having done all the work that's due today and, with America not yet awake and at its desks, there's a hole in the middle of the afternoon that just cries for me to head outdoors and do something. And, with what'll be the normal weather starting next week or the week after and continuing through April, it's stupid to waste such nice days.

Maybe I'll take the camera out. Because although the leaves aren't falling from the trees, we've already lost two trees in my neighborhood, the ones in the picture below. For no discernable reason, they were scraped off of their site a few days ago. If the artist did it (I know where there are some more, so I can check), then hey, it's art. If not, it's a mystery. Still, seeing the fragments of paper on the ground did, somehow, seem to be a harbinger of fall. And now it's here.


Monday, October 04, 2004

More Miscellaneous

A couple of unrelated items to add today.

First, on both Saturday and Sunday, there were more anti-Harz IV marches. The first one drew 50,000 people, the second, apparently, considerably fewer. The second was advertised as a "Sternmarsch," or a "star-march," with several different starting points. That may have been too hard for the hard-core hungover unemployed, or else maybe everyone was pooped from marching the day before.

The ultimate reason for this is that Saturday is going to be a national holiday, perhaps the most hated one of all: the Day of German Unity, guaranteed to spawn a riot or two, and a lot of ill-will around the still unhealed wound between East and West. It's a good day to either leave town or else stay indoors. But they seem to be celebrating it all week, since there's a Ferris wheel set up at the Brandenburg Gate, and a lot of bratwurst stands.


The graffiti scene here continues to get wilder. From scrawling on a flat surface, to using a stencil, to pasting a sheet of paper, now we have the crochet graffitists! I'll have to post a picture of these, because they're just too weird to believe. A long, green, stemlike structure is anchored in a flower pot, leaves are meticulously added, and various stuff is integrated into this sort of vine-like plant of string. I've seen two so far, only formally similar, enough so that you can tell they're the work of the same person or people. I should photograph them before the inevitable vandal comes along.


And I don't want to leave the impression that I didn't get anything out of PopKommm, either. Taking the S-Bahn there in the mornings, I finally saw the huge Centro Italiano, the wholesale market for the Italian restaurant and deli trade, with retail prices for the rest of us. I went there today and was fairly impressed. Easy to get to from here, too.

The other thing I got:

A cold.

Off to honk some more.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Pop's Komm and Gone

Not that it's safe to walk the streets of Berlin again, but at least you can do it without bumping into some record-biz guy who's here visiting PopKomm, which closed its doors Friday evening. I know I said I was going to blog live from the event -- which would have been fun -- but although there were two wireless networks available, only one was available to event-goers for a price of (gasp) €350 for the event, more than I pay for a year of DSL service!

I got to attend thanks to the good folks at SXSW, who show up because it's a good opportunity for them to discuss next year's plans with the various national bodies which promote European countries' popular music. They all show up at PopKomm because it's the biggest event of its sort in Europe's biggest record market, and getting a toehold in the so-called GAS Territories (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) means you sell a lot more records and make a lot more from touring.

On the other hand, these bodies tend to be as conservative as any other governmental body, and they tend to play politics as much as any other governmental body. I've sat through hours of discussions about both the Danish and the Dutch organizations, mostly because I know performers in those countries who either are or aren't getting on with them, and, thus, are either getting to go to events like SXSW or not. I'm of two minds as to whether these organizations promote mediocrity or not. I have to say, I've yet to hear a first-rate band on any of the sampler CDs I've gotten from Finland, Holland, Denmark, and so on over the years, although I've heard first-rate bands from each of those countries. Sort of like the avant-garde music that the Staalplaat label releases, much of which is subsidized by the Dutch government. Subsidizing rock and roll, which is one of the most capitalist of all art-forms, is an inherent contradiction, isn't it? Subsidizing the avant-garde certainly is. (On the other hand, I've gotten tipped to a lot of good folk music from these agencies, but folk music isn't in quite the same situation).

Germany, though, doesn't have one, which may be one reason that PopKomm's been so successful. The main reason, up until recently, has been that it's been a love-fest for the German major labels, few of whom have to do anything more than just rubber-stamp decisions made in L.A. and London and sell Anglo-American rock music to the GAS territories. They put out a few home-brewed albums a year, but the real money comes from Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Norah Jones, and the usual suspects. Sure, in the next 60 days, the usual German rock stars will put out their annual albums and do their annual tours, but mostly people here buy what people buy everywhere there's Western pop music.

This year, though, PopKomm was a bit different. For one thing, the partners who founded it years ago in Cologne finally gave up on it and sold the name and the concept to Messe Berlin, the Berlin city organization which puts on the other trade fairs here: Grüne Woche, the big food show; the IFA, the biennial consumer electronics show; the ITB, the annual travel fair. It makes sense for the thing to be here, since Berlin is where Universal, the world's largest record company, has its German headquarters. (Sony did have its headquarters here, but moved to Munich after the merger with Bertelsmann, and I think they'd have to nuke Hamburg to get Warner's to leave there).

Lord knows if anything actually got done, although the first day was marked by an announcement (recounted here and here and here) that discussions were about to open to set a quota of German-language music on radio stations here.

This is exactly the kind of boneheaded thing I've come to expect from the industry giants who come to PopKomm. I remember one year I was walking past a fence, and there were a bunch of posters declaring that if you copied CDs on your computer for your friends, you were committing an illegal act. At that moment, I realized that PopKomm had ended the previous weekend. The fact is, setting a German-language quota isn't going to do much. There are already too many other sources of music around, so the radio has started to decline in importance, for one thing. For another, the example of France that's given in these arguments is off. The French weren't so much concerned about the language as about the local recording industry, so that a lot of the "French content" on the radio is made by immigrants: lots of hip-hop in French and other languages, Algerian singers, Moroccan singers, and all the many wonderful African acts who get sold as "world music" outside France. This has not only lifted the French record biz out of mediocrity (people still laugh at French rock music, but not at Angelique Kidjo or Khaled or Youssou N'Dour), it's also provided an image-polishing opportunity for the country to advertise itself as truly multicultural. Whether that's the case or not, that's the image.

But the conservative forces in Germany would never stand for that. At some point very, very soon, a European-based teen idol is going to emerge singing in Turkish. It's inevitable, with the number of Turks in Europe, and the increasing wealth they possess -- not to mention that there's now a third generation of European-born Turks growing up in European cities. The natural place for our Mehmet Superstar to emerge would be Germany, and the natural route would be his getting his singles played on German pop radio thanks to a quota like the French one. But if you restrict it to German-language records, he's not going to have a chance. (Of course, if he lives in Germany, he's also never going to be able to vote, despite the fact that his father and his grandfather both lived here and his father was born here: German citizenship is based on blood.) German teens are already comfortable enough with Turks to buy this record, and I'm certain MTV Europe would play the video. My money is on the label being Dutch, though.

Other than that, I'm not completely sure what, if anything, happened at PopKomm. I do know that the SXSW crew reported that they couldn't use their registration badges to get into showcases in the evening, even though the clubs weren't nearly full (good to see that some old PopKomm traditions made it over from Cologne!), but the majority of people who come to PopKomm aren't much interested in seeing showcases. A lot of the exhibitors in the trade show, where I spent my time at the SXSW booth, were support industries: manufacturers and the like. Very few indie labels exhibited, but then, they figured out long ago that they were just barely tolerated at this shindig. The best booking agent I know of in Germany, Berthold Seliger, boycotted it.

But one thing I can say for certain: having a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker right up front on our stand brought us a lot of smiles from passers-by.