Saturday, September 17, 2005

PopKomm, With Strange Interlude

I'm almost recovered from PopKomm, which started with the arrival of the SXSW crew on Tuesday afternoon and lasted through the end of yesterday afternoon as I sat at the stand at the trade show and they took meetings.

Caveat: What follows is strictly my own opinion, not that of SXSW. Got it? Okay.

We were stuck in the entry hall, the one you had to walk through to get to the rest of the stuff, and I have to say, it was empty most of the time. As far as trade shows go, it had hardly any traffic. But it got worse as you went further into the building. There were three halls, all in a row. Ours was on the ground-floor level, but as you left it you went through another of those damned forests of gauzy fabric like Sony had at the IFA (see previous posts), this one more white than black, fortunately, and came out at some stairs leading down to a hall which was mostly filled with national stands, including this year's featured country, Spain. Also Luxemboug. You may not know that Luxembourg has a pop music industry. Hell, I didn't.

The next hall was the most depressing, though: Label Camp. The fantasy is it's set up like a summer campground, and this is PopKomm's concession to the constant criticism it got over the years that the conference is hostile to indie labels. Which, back then, it was. Now, the majors need the indies so badly that they can't ignore them. But Label Camp was a gloomy place indeed, with many stands uninhabited, and the smell of awful German Chinese food drifting from the red-and-gold pagoda structure which was the only thing in the room that seemed to be doing any business. Can't get enough of that Chinapfanne and Chop Suey, these folks.

Since the three SXSWers had to take meetings -- an impressive schedule of them -- my job was to field questions from the casual visitors. There were some doozies: "How much do I pay you to showcase my band at your festival?" Boy, I had to rein in my impulses each time I heard that one. "You are label?" No, we are not label. "I need you to promote my band in America." Me, personally? I doubt it. "Let me just give you my CD." Well, I don't have anything to do with getting you accepted by SXSW, and I'm not interested in listening to it, because I'm just an underemployed journalist who lives in Berlin.

But the sad fact is, there weren't many people visiting PopKomm this year, as far as I could tell. Thus, I was mostly reduced to watching the folks who drifted by. Many, many unfortunate tattoos, the worst of which were on a dumpy woman from Brazil who, in a fit of irony, wore a skirt made out of what looked like a tablecloth from some '50s socialist country showing happy peasants doing agricultural things. I forget what her blouse was, but on the back of each calf she had a very poorly-rendered Betty Page-like pinup tattooed. What was she thinking? Was she thinking?

Many unfortunate fashion decisions, too. There's nothing like seeing a guy of about 45 toddling along in low-cut cargo shorts, the kind which go below the knee, an untucked white shirt, and a tuxedo jacket, clutching a briefcase and yakking into a cell phone. He probably thinks he's "down with the kids," but I would hope the kids run when they see him coming. Of course, many of the most unfortunate fashion victims were kids themselves. There was one pair from England, a seven-foot woman of frightening skinniness with her hair shaven and colored and twisted out in so many ways that she was hard to look at. Her partner wasn't quite so complicatedly made up, but aged facial tattoos, the kind you get in German jails, made him seem quite sinister: he'd clearly had them for over a decade. There was another woman, German, in her mid-40s, who had her hair shaven on either side and the rectangle remaining dyed deepest black. She complemented this with an array of facial piercings that was truly hard to look at, and finished it all off with standard '78 punk clothing.

PopKomm makes a very bad mistake by allowing live music in the trade show, and one booth near us, which declared that "Art is Packaging" and was selling a rather silly CD sleeve concept, had shows several times a day by a German Sting imitator. I had never thought there was much market for such a thing, but this guy came complete with bass, which he played live, and karaoke backing tracks and did a show of Sting's greatest hits to nobody in particular. On the third day he was replaced by an act I dubbed Afro-Pik and the White Brothers, three Germans and a very jive-ass Negro with a huge afro topped off by said pick, who did an incomprehensible mixture of awful stuff. The black guy, naturally (no pun intended), rapped.

Of course, there were some good moments, thanks to some of the Usual Suspects, people one always sees at these things, who dropped by to chat with the SXSW crew, and some of whom actually remembered me from the dim past. We also managed to get visited by some promising new people -- a woman who had a festival in Recife and who was interested in doing business with SXSW could turn out to be something good for the conference.

I was most taken by a couple who own Lo-Max Records, a British label which releases the Go-Betweens, the fine Australian band. One of them, Bernard MacMahon, has gone and acquired every single 78 represented on the famous Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, remastered them, and then found pictures of every artist on it! In addition, he's collected ephemera, memorabilia, and actual instruments played on these records, and is not only re-issuing the Anthology with his remastering, but also doing a film which will go straight to DVD, and mounting an exhibition of all of the photos and other things he's acquired. This is a mammoth undertaking, and if he'd said he was going to do all of this, I'd be supportive but skeptical. As it is, though, he's done it. I was supposed to meet up with him earlier today for the express purpose of seeing the photo of one of the Anthology's weirdest artists, Richard "Rabbit" Brown, one of the very few guitar-playing New Orleans bluesmen I can think of (in fact, the only other one I can think of is Snooks Eaglin, and he's an entirely different generation). Rabbit Brown's track on the Anthology, "James Alley Blues," is one of the scariest pieces of American music ever waxed. Sad to say, MacMahon was running late and had to get to the airport, but he'll be back here in a couple of weeks, so I'll see it then.

To be honest, though, most of the music on offer at PopKomm wasn't of interest to me at all. There's always been so much mediocre European rock music, and now that there are government subsidies in many countries for it, the mediocrity is getting to be the norm (and yes, I know that's contrary to the actual definition of mediocrity). I've tried to like this stuff, but I just can't, although I'm happy that so much of it comes to live-music-starved Berlin to play in hastily-constructed clubs. I met and had a chat with what is, I'm told by neutral parties, unquestionably the biggest band in Portugal, who were nice enough guys, but, in the end, what does it mean to be the biggest rock band in Portugal, especially to the wider world? (Also, I wonder how the Germans reacted to their name: the Gift. Check your German dictionary if you don't get the joke).

Not that I didn't get anything out of it. No, indeed, by the end of the first day, Wednesday, I began to feel odd. Thursday, I was definitely coming down with something, so I beat a quick retreat back to the house. A couple of glasses of wine after dinner, and I headed straight to bed: if I could get in nine hours' sleep before heading off to the ICC the next morning I'd be okay. I was gone by midnight.

I was roused out of a deep sleep by my doorbell ringing. This couldn't be happening, I thought. But it was. I got on the intercom, still pretty much asleep. "You've got to let me in," a voice said, "You're my last hope." Who is this? "It's Bill," said the voice [name changed to protect those who need protection]. Bill? I was still pretty much asleep. "Bill Bell." Oh, that Bill. I was conscious, by now, that it was raining like crazy. I buzzed him in and put on some clothes. He was standing at my front door, soaked to the skin, holding a beer bottle, dressed incongruously, given the cool temperature, in a white kurta. What on earth? "You try to please a woman..." he said, and started crying. "I'm sorry you have to be the lightning rod for all the weird expat..." He wasn't finishing sentences. "All I need is a place to sleep." Well, I have a couch, although it's not all that comfortable. You can sleep on it -- I do when I have a real bad cold and have to sleep sitting up -- but it ain't fun. "That's okay." So I left him on the couch, and went back to bed. I was almost asleep when I felt someone sitting on the foot of my bed. I woke up to see him there. "You can't go to sleep and not tell me stories about New Orleans," he said. What? Go back to the couch and go to sleep. I have to get up in the morning. "Oh, come on. I know you have stories about New Orleans." My adrenaline was starting to rise. What was going on here? Look, I said, go back to the couch. We'll talk in the morning. So he did. Some time later, I was awakened by a light somewhere in the house. It went out quickly and a few minutes later I heard the front door close. In the way you can tell when you live alone, I knew for certain he was gone. It was still raining hard enough that I remembered that I was going to take a shower in the morning. That's what it sounded like.

It was 5:15.

Needless to say, I didn't get to the ICC on time the next day, but I was able to alert the boss, and he was good about it. But I was sicker than ever, hacking, sneezing, blowing my nose. My sense of taste was kaput. And I had discovered the labels off of the beer bottle and a bag with a tambourine, a microphone, and a bag of sunflower seeds in it in my living room, so I knew I hadn't hallucinated the night before. I dragged myself through the day, and came home as soon as I could, after helping to pack up the SXSW stand. There was a message on my machine. "I know you're not out doing errands, so you're probably just ignoring my call. I don't blame you, but I need to pick up my bag." Strangely arrogant: how did he know what I was doing or not doing? Then the phone rang. "Ah, you're there. Will you be there for the next hour? I want to come by and pick up my stuff." I suppose so, but I may be going out with the SXSW folks and "That's not important," he cut in. "Will you be there around 8?" I said I would and he hung up. He came by at the appointed time, shook hands and apologized, then reached in his pocket and came out with two pieces of paper. "This is a flyer for my next gig," he said, and threw it onto the floor. "This place is such a mess I'll just leave it for your next guest to find. Oh, and here's a brochure about me." He turned on his heel and left.

Later, another friend dropped in for a minute and confirmed that this guy's been tearing a swath in the expat community in the past couple of days. I don't know what anyone can do about it, but I do remember the words of William Burroughs.

"Spare no sympathy for the mentally ill. It's a bottomless pit, and they have more time than you do."

Perhaps more sympathetically, I remember that last winter, this was how I was feeling, that I might join the ranks of those I've known here who've snapped. A little less work, a little less opportunity to get out of town, and it might well have happened. That it's started happening before the cold, dark, depressing winter doesn't bode well. But it does harden my resolve to get out of this place before I get dragged down, too.

1 comment:

David Adam Edelstein said...

That's quite a quote from Mr. Burroughs. I suppose he should know what for.

But what I'm really here to say is that of course your post sent me to Harry Smith to listen to that James Alley Blues track. I get that it's pretty odd, which I love, but I'm curious why you'd call it one of the scariest pieces of american music ever waxed.