Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Life In Berlin By The Numbers

As we all know, statistics lie, but sometimes not. While it's true that I take a pretty dark view of life in Berlin, I was quite amazed at what I consider the accuracy of this survey, done by the European Commission's Directorate-General of Regional Policy, measuring people's happiness with the city they live in.

75 cities in the EU, plus Croatia and Turkey, were surveyed by Gallup-Hungary, and the results tabulated into some very nice graphs. Maybe it's because the results match my prejudices, but I think this is a fasciating document.

Between 75 and 95 percent of the responses indicated that people were happy to live in the cities they lived in. First four places went to Groningen (NL), Krakow, Leipzig, and Alborg (DK). Berlin came in 57th, just below Rotterdam and Torino and just above Brussels, Warsaw, and Ankara. Even so, the results look like about 80% were happy.

Less positive were the responses to "It is easy to find a good job," with Berlin scoring over 75% in "somewhat disagree" and "strongly disagree." It's 68th from the top in this, below Dortmund and Leipzig and above Kosisce (Slovakia) and Bialystock, Poland. It looks like only about 10% strongly or somewhat agreed with this statement. Given the local unemployment figures, this is hardly a surprise.

Also unsurprising was Berlin's high rating in "It is easy to find good housing at a reasonable price," what with the current real-estate glut. We wound up near the top in this one, number seven under Leipzig, Aalborg, Braga (Portugal), Dortmund, Oviedo (Spain) and Bialystock, and above Newcastle Upon Tyne and Oulu (Finland). At the bottom? Again no surprise; Paris, with close to 100% of the respondents somewhat or strongly disagreeing. Other bad values are Dublin, Luxemburg, and Bucharest.

Next up was "Foreigners are well-integrated," and again Berlin dwells in the cellar, 73rd, above Stockholm and Malmö. A little over 50% disagreed here, and only a little over 25% seem to have agreed. On top? Cluj-Napoca, Romania; Miskolic, Hungary; Pietra Neamt, Romania; and Burgas, Bulgaria. I've never even heard of these places, to be honest, but I think it shows that the melange of cultures in these countries, absent the kind of tensions that tore the former Yugoslavia apart, plus the poverty that all inhabitants are likely to share, will bring people together, rather than apart. Certainly that was my experience in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, in the four or five days I spent there. Shortly after my arrival at the American University, where I did some journalism workshops, I was up on the roof of the building with two students waiting for my professor-friend's class to end, and the dark, swarthy one turned out to be Bulgarian and the red-headed freckled one turned out to be Turkish, and they pointed to the distant mountains and said "That's Macedonia over there, where people are killing each other over this. It just doesn't make sense to us." And, indeed, the rest of my time there bore that out splendidly. Berlin's poverty in the middle of a nation of affluence, though, plus the well-documented urge to blame the Other, doesn't bode well for this sort of unity.

"Air pollution is a big problem" is one where Berlin might have scored higher not very long ago, but here we wind up pretty much smack in the middle, with a little over 50% agreeing and about 30% disagreeing, wedged inbetween Ostrava (Czech Republic) and Glasgow. The continuing reduction of coal heating and (yes, Ostalgics, get over it) the disappearance of the Trabant have a lot to do with this, I'd say.

Next up is satisfaction with the public transportation system, and, flash strikes notwithstanding, Berlin's ninth-place position only makes me wonder how great getting around top-rated Helsinki must be. Do they have stewardesses serving refreshments? Vienna, Rennes, Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dortmund and...Frankfurt on Oder?... all beat us out, too, but all this says to me is Germany's pretty good with this stuff. I've never had any problem getting around any German city I've been in, which is more than I can say for Copenhagen or London, which are well below Berlin.

"Green spaces such as parks and gardens" is another place I'd expect good numbers for Berlin. We allegedly have more green space per square kilometer than any other city in Europe, thanks in part to huge forests like the Grunewald and Berliner Stadtforst being included in the city limits. And oddly, we only score 22 in this, perhaps because the rest of the city's so grim, but atop us are such hard-to-beat places as London, Vienna, Munich, Brussels, and Glasgow, who relentlessly promote their parks to their residents, which Berlin doesn't really do. Athens, Naples, and Sofia (without doubt the ugliest city I've seen on this continent) are the cellar-dwellers here.

"I feel safe in this city" was one I was curious about, given the fact that there's so little serious crime here, yet Berliners generally are paranoid beyond belief: do they lock the front door of your apartment building at 8? They used to where I lived, and it was a pain in the ass. Yet there we are at 47, although it looks like close to 80% agree with the statement, and something less than 20% disagree. But if you look at the chart, it seems that Europeans overwhelmingly feel safe, so the ranking isn't so important until you get to the very bottom, with significant fear being registered in Bucharest, Athens, Sofia, Naples and especially Istanbul.

Given Germans' hypochondriac tendencies, I wasn't overly optimistic for the graph of people satisfied with the health care offered by hospitals, but here's one where (knock on wood) I have absolutely no experience whatever. Berlin is at 28, which makes me feel better for all those folks who scream past in ambulances down Torstr. on their way to Charité.

And, finally, the one you've all been waiting for: "The city spends its resources in a responsible way." A whopping 75% negative on this, a 71 chart placement above such models of fiscal rectitude as Sofia, Naples, Bucharest and Frankfurt on Oder. Only a very tiny number seem to strongly agree with this, and if you're one of them, I suggest you get out of the house more often.

I certainly don't have the training to decipher What It All Means in any truly scientific way, but I do love charts like this, and was just astonished at the sort of intuitive accuracy I observed here.

Anyway, I guess I should be off to Alborg to look for some excuse to live there. Naaah, too cold. Maybe Groningen? Naaah, I hate how densely-packed Holland is. Hmmm, wonder why Montpellier isn't on this list...

Actually, I'm glad it isn't. Don't want the secret to get out before I can move there and find a nice apartment. And last I looked, I'm only $12,000 and change away from that...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Couple of E-Mails and a Photo

If you live in the U.S. and walk by newsstands regularly, you'll have noticed that Rolling Stone is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. I haven't seen any of the hoopla -- although I hear their Summer of Love issue is pretty good -- but I did get an e-mail a while back from a woman who's organizing a reunion of the San Francisco staff.

Staffs, I should say; in the early days Rolling Stone went through employees pretty often. I should know. I was one of them.

For a little over six months, from sometime in March to sometime in October, 1970, I worked at Rolling Stone. It was a very exciting time to be there, because it was exactly in that period that the magazine took off, that it printed some of the first pieces that put it on the map, and, not so coincidentally, that the record industry, whose ads it needed to survive, decided it was worth supporting.

Under the leadership of the managing editor, John Burks, we learned on our feet, most of us. I sure did; I'd joined the staff, barely 21, by far the youngest, with virtually no idea how to do anything. The first thing Burks asked me to do was to start double-spacing my copy. "The typesetters go blind if you don't," he said. That's right: we used hot type. In fact, for the first weeks I was there, we shared space with the print shop that typeset and printed the paper, at 746 Brannan Street. After that, we moved a few blocks to 625 Third Street, a brand new office building, where we had a whole floor.

That's where we worked, where we printed the stories of Janis Joplin's death, of Jimi Hendrix' death, of the student protests that summer, and of Charlie Manson, stories that won the magazine an award from the Columbia Journalism Review. By the time it arrived, pretty much everyone who'd been involved in those stories had been fired. Me, too. I was cleaning out my desk as two women from the circulation department wheeled in a big birthday cake for the fourth anniversary party. "Are you still here?" one of them asked. "Why don't you get out of here." I got out.

That's why I scratched my head when the woman organizing the reunion announced that there was a web page for it, because naturally I went right there and saw this photograph:

It's labelled "Rolling Stone staffers circa March 1971 at The Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco." Which is a hoot. Yes, it's from March, 1971, but the one thing it couldn't be is the staff of that particular magazine, because pretty much every person in that photo had been fired by October, 1970, when I left. There's Jon Goodchild, British design wunderkind, on the far left; someone I vaguely remember but can't name; Patty Hafferkamp, who'd been the receptionist; Burks in some weird floppy hat; Cindy Ehrlich, from the art department (although she often spelled Patty at reception) in her nurse's getup; Robert Altman, the photographer who succeeded Baron Wolman as the Rolling Stone photo guy (and with whose permission this photo is used); John Morthland, fired just before me, the guy who brought the Hendrix story in despite being sent down a million blind alleys -- and of course, despite not being in London; Michael Goodwin, the magazine's film writer, but also a bon-vivant and folkie; a guy whose name I forget but who was an expert in direct-mail advertising; Hal Aigner (thanks, Mike!), who never had a thing to do with RS, but was a fine writer; Phil Freund, who'd been the business manager at Wolman's Rags magazine, and Phil's wife, whose name I've forgotten.

It's a staff photo, all right (although I'm not sure why I'm not in it). It's just the staff of Flash.

Flash was all too aptly named. It blew up and never happened. We had big plans, but they came to nothing. Just why is explained much better than I could in a column by another guy who's not in the picture, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, who was responsible for our cover story, and, indirectly, for nearly getting Groucho Marx busted by the Secret Service for calling for Nixon's assassination. That made the front page of the New York Times, but, sadly, too late to save Flash. It revived Groucho's career, though, so maybe Flash didn't die in vain.

For a while, I was thinking of attending this staff reunion, although most of the folks I'd enjoy seeing again -- Burks, Goodwin, Wolman, Carroll, Morthland, Altman -- I can see any old time when I'm where they are, because we're more or less in touch with each other. It's also around the time that Village Music will be closing, and I'd really like to be around for that. But what really caused me to draw up short was when a follow-up e-mail disclosed that the events of the reunion will cost money -- $295, plus a 3.5% processing fee.

And that brought me back to SXSW this spring, and all the writers walking around wondering where the work had gone, and saying "Thank heavens my wife has a job." (It'll cost $295 plus the fee for your wife, too). In a way, it made me sad; the planned events involve catering and space rental, and a lot of care has gone into planning them. But we're also in an era where thousands of journalists are losing their jobs, where magazines are cutting back on space for writing because ads are disappearing. Maybe not many are as broke as I am, but most writers I know, even veterans -- maybe especially veterans, perceived as being "too old" or something -- are pretty broke these days.

This is going to continue. Things have been a bit better in England, a place where I have very few contacts, but the shadow is creeping up the wall there, too. This week I got an e-mail from a mailing list I seem to have gotten on for writers for two magazines I don't write for there. The one I might write for doesn't much like Americans, and I had my go-round with them years ago, so maybe that's how I got on the list. Anyway, some excerpts from the e-mail may be of interest to those of you contemplating a career in this vanishing industry.

"Dear All

"And first the bad news. For the first time in six years we were unable to negotiate an increase in freelance writers' pay rates this year.

"We had a couple of amiable and informative meetings with [management] as usual, but by the end of their budgeting process [they] explained they couldn't offer anything – likewise no annual increase for the staff.

"The background is a steep decline in advertising – "migrated" to the web and TV – alongside corporate demands to maintain or exceed the 30 per cent net profit gold standard. Consequently, three staff editorial jobs have been lost at the same time as writing for the websites has been offloaded on to the magazine staff and editorial budget cut by a large chunk. Also you may have noticed a reduction in paper quality."

And in case you think any freelancer gets rich writing for them, they posted the rates. (Quoted in pounds: double it for dollars, multiply by 1.5 for Euros).

"Features: minima 295/266; Reviews: short/standard review 43 (150 words); others, minimum 266 per thousand."

Given that this magazine is owned by a huge conglomerate which, as Jon wryly noted in that column, doesn't care about "good writing," but, rather, in the bottom line, there's even a question of whether, or how long, the magazine can be expected to keep up that 30% profit, and how quickly they'll kill it once it sinks to below that. One way to keep it profitable is to do what they've just done: give the staff more work to do. Which means give less work to freelancers. And more staff burnouts, another feature of life at this particular magazine.

It's a shame, but it's the reality of the situation right now; the profession I somewhat accidentally entered 42 years ago this coming September is in steep decline. I happen to think there'll be a correction at some point, because people will eventually discover that they don't actually like spending their lives staring into screens, and that the elegance and resolution of a plain old piece of paper is, actually, the highest and best use of the medium of words. But we'll have to struggle through the days to come first. And there will be fallout. I, for one, am trying to figure out another way of making a living. It's not easy, after all this time, and to be honest I haven't come up with a single answer. But then, I also don't want to be the last rat off the ship.

Anyway, I probably won't be making that reunion party. Not even to hear Ben Fong-Torres do karaoke. Hell, he used to sing around the office, and I still sometimes wake up in a cold sweat remembering that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Blog Is Born

What are the odds that two people, both named Ward, would live within a couple of blocks of each other in Berlin? Josh Ward and I aren't related, but we do share a deep interest in food and cooking, and a few weeks ago, Josh came up with an idea for a blog aimed at helping English-speakers in Berlin cope with reproducing their favorite things in Germany. The idea is to provide information on ingredients, report on sources, investigate what's at the markets, and in general make life easier for folks who like to cook. The emphasis will be on cooking, and not on restaurants, although you can bet that if we ever find edible Mexican food for sale somewhere here we'll make a big noise about it, and frankly, if that really is a Malian imbiss going in down the street from me -- as it seems to be -- where the old Chinese one was, I'm going to report on that, too.

The blog is very much still under construction, both graphically and conceptually, and Josh has been slightly hampered, too, by the birth of a daughter who's been variously described as "beautiful" and "looks just like Josh," which is certainly confusing.

At any rate, ladies and gentlemen, here it is, Hungry In Berlin

Neighborhood Ramblings

Berlin and fashion are mentioned in the same sentence about as often as Milan and Mettwurst, but over the past weekend, Berlin actually played host to something called Fashion Week, which played out in my 'hood as something called Projekt Galerie, in which a large number of the (be nice!) second- and third-tier galleries in the area pushed the art to the side and hauled in rack after rack of clothing from designers who presumably rented the space from them. Given the quality of the art in most of these galleries, this was probably the first time they'd made any money in a great long while, and given the taste of some of the designers, hell, maybe they bought some of the art on display, who knows?

Entry was by invitation only, and for some reason, the world of fashion doesn't consider me a player, so I didn't look in, but one odd thing I noted from what I could see through the windows was that all the clothes seemed to be black, with the occasional bit of white. Whether this is the result of the informal local ban on non-black clothing, some sort of scheme to make it easier to see the lines of the garments, or what I can't say, but I did find it appropriate that the poster for the event, which was plastered on just about every flat surface around here, features (as you can see on the website) an androgynous head, blindfolded by a tightly-wrapped cloth. Was s/he being protected from the sight of the clothes, or of the art, I wonder.

At any rate, the fashionistas, who'd been rushing around clutching street maps and notebooks and wearing worried expressions, all vanished on Sunday, and I'd like to thank them for taking down all the posters, too; they were a unique form of pollution, and pretty annoying. I'm sure some money was thrown around; I saw some of these folks dining at local places, and the former copy-shop run by hostile Ossis on my block was transformed into a showroom for some designer whose sign is still in the window.

Ah, well, at least we didn't have the Love Parade this year...

* * *

It looks like street art is really in the forefront of people's minds these days. A few weeks ago, I was showing a visitor from Texas around, and noted that one of those funny alien dolls had appeared overnight on a wall by my place. "Gotta shoot that," I said, and made a note to do it. Two days later, here's all that remained:

Below, the component parts of the doll, which had horns or ears, and a tongue sticking out -- clearly the best of all of this person's work I've yet seen -- were strewn all over the vacant lot, torn apart violently. Just why anyone would want to do this is beyond me, but then, I tend to respect other people's work in the hopes that they'll respect mine. I also remember Berliners' penchant for the "if I can't make art, I sure as hell can destroy it" meme, back when Keith Haring did a section of the Wall and within two hours it had had an orange line drawn across it (as every piece documenting it that I've seen has shown).

However, it wasn't as if the lot was devoid of art, because this had appeared:

Given the amount of unexploded ordnance that keeps popping up here (anyone remember some years back when a bulldozer hitting a buried bomb took out the better part of a block in Friedrichshain and nobody but the bulldozer driver -- who was vaporized -- was hurt because they were all at work?)(Too bad that was before all the hipsters moved there, eh?) that's a pretty grim piece of art.

But it's not like the doll-maker's been silent; s/he's just learned to position the dolls so they're harder to mess with, and a couple of days ago, this showed up in a location I won't disclose (but I'm sure many can figure out):

Not a great picture, but not all that easy to shoot, given the altitude and the intricacy of the face. Anybody know of any of these outside Mitte? I think I've tracked down all the ones here at one time or another.

And this post was going to include a photo of another amusing piece of street art which appeared a couple of days ago, showing Rambo as a Renaissance Madonna, but the one nearest me has vanished. The one at KW may still be up, though. It was also going to have a demented tiny doll someone stuck to the face of Hello Kitty on the sign on the shop on Rosenthaler Str., but it, too, was gone. Gotta move fast both to put this stuff up and to document it, I guess, and the cold rain last week just made me too lazy.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Pain Hurts

I'll admit it, I'm weak. I've been looking for someone who's interested in art to go to museums and galleries with ever since the last person I knew who liked to do that moved, so when I noticed that the Hamburger Bahnhof has a free admission policy from 2 til closing at 6 on Thursdays, I mentioned it to a young woman I knew and she actually seemed enthusiastic, so we made a date for this past week.

My interest was primarily in the Brice Marden retrospective because I'd read a great review of it by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, yet I've never "gotten" Marden at all. (True trivia fact: for a number of years he was married to Pauline, Joan Baez' older sister.)

Her interest, though, was in pain. Or, rather, Pain, the current blockbuster occupying both the Hamburger Bahnhof and the Charité's Medical-Historical Museum. Well, she's a health professional, I said. At any rate, we got there at 4 on Thursday, and went in first to the Marden, which she didn't get, either, and which is so large that I knew I'd have to dedicate a whole trip to it in order to break through the surface.

Thus, we clomped up the stairs to Pain. Now, at its heart, this is a good idea. Western art is filled with images of pain, from warriors slicing into their foes to probably the most famous and universally-distributed image of pain, Christ on the cross. It's this image which the show starts with, cleverly mixing art history with science -- or at least pseudo-science. Apparently there have been dozens of works written over the centuries about Christ's wounds, and certainly there have been plenty of representations, not only of the crucifixion itself, but the scourging beforehand, the lancing of his side on the cross, and, of course, the procession to Golgotha, wearing the crown of thorns.

Right down to the present day, there have been scientists -- or perhaps "scientists" is a better way to put it -- investigating the exact method by which a crucified person dies. In the past, they've used cadavers, but there's a guy in upstate New York who's invented a painless cross on which he can fix his volunteer subjects and wire them to measure their stress levels in various organs and muscle groups. Some of his apparatus is on display here, and it looks like something out of a very specialzed S&M club.

The Bahnhof wusses out, however, when it comes to presenting an actual crucifix. If you want to see pain and agony represented, you go directly to the experts, the Spanish. Their crucified Christs bleed, drip with gore, twist in agony, and wear facial expressions that are disturbing. The closest this show comes to that is a tiny wax model whose chest comes off to serve as a kind of guide to the internal organs for the medieval doctors it was created for; it isn't even as big as it appears on your screen on the exhibition's website. But in order to get a Spanish example, the museum would have had to engage in a loan, and pay for transportation and insurance, and, as we all know, the city's culture funds are broke. Hence, there not being a Spanish crucifix in Berlin, apparently, we get a German one. Small potatoes. Further (and more salutary) Germanness is a room in which Dürer's engravings of the Stations of the Cross are on display with little stands containing a miniature score of Bach's St. Matthew Passion showing how Bach indicated pain in his score, which excerpts you can listen to on headphones. I will, however, take exception to the wall caption stating that the Passion is universally regarded as the greatest piece of music ever written, or some such balderdash.

It could hardly be said that the show wusses out much more, however. The end of the Christian part has Francis Bacon's renowned Crucifixion, a sordid, gory piece of self-loathing that is nonetheless extraordinarily powerful, once one works out its iconography. (In case you're having trouble, the cross has apparently toppled over, and Christ is lying on his back on the ground, still attached). You won't miss the Nazi armbands or the two guys sitting at the bar, either. More subtle is Bill Viola's video Observance, in which actors slowly move to the foreground, looking at something tragic, which is a cousin to the piece of his I saw in Rotterdam six years ago which re-enacts Hieronymous Bosch's painting of the crowd mocking Christ as he carries the cross, and was similarly extraordinary thanks to the actors' skills of facial representation of emotions.

Then it's on to the rest of it, and a painfully mixed bag it turns out to be. A room-length spread of surgical instruments. Votive offerings, little wax representations of "where it hurts" which were left at shrines or in churches, so that divine intercession might relieve the pain. A film about scarification. A cartoon from the DDR about a guy with a pain in his knee. A vitrine with medical specimens preserved in formaldehyde. And the hard-core room, in which we get to see police photos of men who've died in auto-erotic situations, more photos of devices confiscated from S&M clubs, a rather sedate martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Tiepolo's Martyrdom of St. Agatha, whose breasts were sliced off (she's pressing a bloody cloth to her chest, but the breasts are sitting on a plate like twin puddings), and Rudolf Schwarzkogler's Aktion Nr. 6, which may or may not show the artist slicing off his penis (all of the online sources I've found are coy about this, although all debunk the story that it caused his death, which was actually from jumping out a window). Oh, and a video of Josef Beuys boxing a television screen. I have no idea why this is included, except there's probably a law in Berlin that no major art show can be mounted without something by one of my nemeses, and its connection with pain is probably explained somewhere in a 75,000-word essay referencing loads of arcane theory. (At least there's nothing by Pippilotti Rist, who is a pain).

On the way out, you can try your skill at the Painstation, a Pong game rigged so that it ceases to operate if either player moves his hand from a metal plate. Keeping your hand there, though, subjects you to whipping by a rubber-clad piece of wire or heat from the plate when you miss a shot. People were thronged around it, waiting to try. I saw it at Ars Electronica some years ago, and passed then, too.

All in all, I thought the show more sensationalistic -- and meretricious -- than enlightening. That the crowds were thick didn't surprise me in a city which celebrates guilt and punishment as much as this one does, and I left, convinced that next year's blockbuster will be Suicide, with guest performance artists from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Sri Lanka all competing for a posthumous prize. And nobody, no matter how good-looking she is, will get me to go to that.

Anyone up for Brice Marden?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Short Technical Notice

I seem to have abgeficked my e-mail. If you write me on an address not the one posted here and not my Well address (if you do, you know what I mean), please have patience. The best minds in Australia and India are working on moving my e-mail from the evil GoDaddy folks, who've been losing my e-mails, to a decent e-mail provider that's not trying to sell you stuff all the time and, as far as I know, does not run a NASCAR car. However, this apparently takes time, especially when the client (me) is a total idiot when it comes to things like virtual domains and aliases and stuff, so please be patient.

Friday, July 06, 2007


I had the pleasure last week of playing host to Baron Wolman, who was Rolling Stone's first staff photographer, helping to found the magazine with Jann Wenner 40 years ago. Wolman was an "old guy" back then -- 30 freakin' years old! -- and he turned 70 last Monday, the day he arrived in Berlin from an exhibition of his work in a tiny German town called Nordhorn.

The reason he was here was that this is where his career started. As a young soldier stationed in Berlin and assigned to Military Intelligence, he'd taken some pictures of the Berlin Wall being built and on an impulse sent them to the newspaper in his home town of Columbus, Ohio. They printed them on the front page and sent him $50 -- and he was astonished that he could get good money -- and that was good money in 1961 -- for doing something he'd fooled around with since he was a kid. After he mustered out, he became a photojournalist for big-name magazines like Life and Look. Living in San Francisco, he gravitated towards the exploding music scene there, and already had a good book of photos when he and Wenner joined up.

In the years that followed, he became one of America's top music photographers, and, after he and Wenner quarrelled after Wenner shut down Earth Times, the ahead-of-its-time environmental magazine Wollman started under the Rolling Stone umbrella, he, along with several other former staffers and some rebel fashion writers in New York, started Rags, which was, improbably, a hippie fashion magazine. If that seems an oxymoron, consider this: the day Rags was shut down -- I was present when it happened, although I'd only recently come to the magazine -- it was, in the words of either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal -- I can never remember which -- "the fastest growing magazine in the history of American magazine publishing." I'll never forget the business manager, Phil Freund, coming out of his office to read those words and then declare that because the bills from advertisers weren't being paid fast enough to pay the printer, he was, after consultation with Baron, shutting the magazine down, effective immediately.

I lost touch with him after that, but he continued to photograph, gradually getting out of music photography because access to both performances and musicians was increasingly being limited by record companies and artist management. But because he still owned his images, he's continued to make a good living, because the photos he shot have become icons of their subjects. Check out the gallery on his website, or the one Rolling Stone put up recently, and I'm sure you'll see what I mean.

At any rate, he hasn't lost his verve or his sense of humor, as he demonstrated all last week, and he was avid to explore the side of town his last gig here prevented him from visiting, and we had a great time. True to his maxim of "mixing business with pleasure," he sat down with the folks at the /pool gallery to talk about their then-upcoming show of photos sponsored by Gibson Guitars, called Gibson Through the Lens. He's got three shots in the show, including one of Jimi Hendrix playing a left-handed Flying V at his debut performance at the Fillmore Ballroom in 1968 which was being used to promote the show.

The vernissage was last night, and, since the gallery's only a couple of blocks away, and because I told Baron I'd report on it, I went down. Given the large number of photos and the gallery's limited wall-space, they've done a good job hanging the show. It takes a little work to look at: the photos don't have quite enough room to breathe, for the most part, as can be easily demonstrated by looking at the few which have their own chunk of wall to hang on. The rest have to be concentrated on individually, because they're chock-a-block up against one another, and because inevitably, mixing color shots with black and white means that the colors draw your attention quicker. Once you learn to isolate them, though, they'll come into focus a lot better.

The show should also be looked at for what it is, not what it's not. What it's not is a "rock photography's greatest hits" or a history of the guitar in rock and roll, where Fender's Stratocaster and Telecaster would have at least equal footing. It's Gibson showing how many of rock's important guitarists used their products, plain and simple. Elvis? In his Vegas period, with a Gibson acoustic. Look at the early shots and you'll see he was playing a Martin acoustic -- and almost never played electric. The Beatles? Also the later period, because, as everyone back then knew, they played Hofners and Rickenbackers, which were cheap, and, in the case of the Hofner, not all that good. You're on solider ground with people like the Stones and, especially, Eric Clapton, who took Gibson's biggest flop, the Les Paul, notorious for feeding back and being way too loud, and turned those "defects" into features that defined his style. He made the Les Paul so famous, in fact, that 24 out of the 66 photos in this show feature them -- if you include the knockoff that Kurt Cobain's diving with in the parody of their Nevermind album cover. (There's even a picture of Les Paul with a Les Paul!)

The photographers themselves are a who's who of rock lensmen (yes, men: Jill Furmanovsky and Kate Simon have one shot each, but that's the rock press for you). Besides Baron Wolman, there are pictures from Henry Diltz, Bob Gruen, Jim Marshall, Neal Preston, Barrie Wentzell, Mick Rock, and many others. Plus, there are two autographed guitars (one by Slash, and I couldn't figure out who the other one was from), and one lonely amp in the corner.

The gallery itself is sort of the new kid on the block (almost literally, given that the block also contains one of the neighborhood's eminences grises, Wohnmachine, which used to occupy the space next door), and seems to be an outgrowth of a magazine, also named Pool, which seems to be targeted towards the fashion industry. But it's also already given something back to the neighborhood: during the course of the meeting Baron and photo-rep Dave Brolan and a Berlin-based photo rep and Gibson's German guy had in the gallery's basement, Baron noted that he'd had a remarkable meal the night before at a strange Chinese fusion joint just up the street. "Oh," said Sascha, the gallery's manager, "do you mean Toca Rouge? I designed that place."

Damn, this is a small town...

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Loneliest Street In Berlin

Because my mind only works intermittently, particularly as the weekend approaches, I often find myself having to buy one or two grocery items on Sunday, having spaced them out in the Saturday shopping, which I still approach with the same panic as when everything shut up at 2pm on Saturdays, as it did when I first moved here.

This means a trip to a train station, as generously defined by Deutsche Bahn. There's an Edeka market in the Friedrichstr. station which has a lot of stuff my regular supermarket doesn't, but is often so jammed that security guards close it down until it empties out some, resulting in a huge line in the station. The other alternative is the Kaiser's in the Hauptbahnhof, which doesn't have as much stuff, but isn't such a mob scene most of the time.

When I go there, I usually walk down Invalidenstr., but after I do my shopping, I generally walk back another way, a discipline I learned long ago driving through Italy with a friend who repeated the mantra "never go back the way you came," which I find excellent advice. So since there's always something to see, I generally head back by way of Reinhardtstr., the lonliest street in Berlin. I also use it when I walk to the ARD studios on Reichstagufer to record my stuff for Fresh Air, so I've been watching it for a while.

All in all, it's a pretty depressing walk, particularly if you approach it from the Hauptbahnhof. You cross the (re-channeled) Spree via a bridge, and then approach an intersection which gives you the option of heading south towards Unter den Linden or east on Reinhardtstr. Right there at the corner is a large, modern office building with a huge poster on it offering, as it has for over a year, offices for rent. "Here's where decisions are made!" it says, not forgetting to mention the stunning views of the government quarter, the Reichstag and the Spreebogen complex. But mostly, it looks like the decision has been made to rent somewhere else.

The first block is desolate, even during the week. It's kind of an orphan, not too accessible by public transportation, and with one empty apartment and office building after the other. One or two of the streetside apartments appears to have a tenant, but I also know that real-estate folks hang curtains in empty apartments to make it look like they're inhabited. There's a nice store selling 20th Century antiques, Art Deco and Art Nouveau, from Vienna, a tiny car-rental company, and a "design center" with occasional exhibits. Then you hit the corner of Luisenstr. and there's a restaurant called Kanzlereck, "Chancellor's Corner," serving up German cuisine in a room in which photographic transparancies of past and present Chancellors of Germany are printed onto the window glass. This is probably a ploy to keep people from overeating.

On an island stands a statue of a naked guy wrestling a dragon down, in honor of Rudolf Virchow, who, with Robert Koch, put the adjacent Charité Hospital on the map by pretty much inventing the germ theory of disease and the science of pathology.

Keep going and you'll see that the Kanzlereck was the gateway to Little Bonn. Actually, the whole area south of Reinhardtstr., particularly along Albrechtstr. and continuing to Schiffbauerdamm, can bear this title. Most of the restaurants are branches of popular ones in Bonn, and they and the bars hang out signs for Kölsch, the beer of choice for transplanted Bonners. Those Bonners are supposed to be living in these apartments, but as you continue to walk to Friedrichstr., it becomes evident that not very many are. The parade of empty buildings and "For Rent" signs just continues.

Which is not to say that nobody's rented. There's a store specializing in ostrich products (non-edible ones) like novelties made from ostrich eggs. There's a very tiny musical-instrument repair shop. There was a brave Persian restaurant, with an authentic-looking menu, but it closed for lack of customers and is now a "Thai" restaurant. There's the headquarters of the FDP, Germany's Liberal party, and branches of a dozen or so media companies from around the world, Switzerland, Japan, and Frankfurt among them. Probably weirdest of all is a huge store that sells nothing but glowing balls. How they pay the rent is beyond me. And almost at Friedrichstr. is another mind-twister, a cellar store selling Luxembourg wine and Persian groceries. I didn't even know Luxembourg was big enough to support a vineyard. And, inevitably, there are a few businesses that have hung on, probably since the DDR: a couple of cafes, a keymaker, an ancient stamp shop.

But mostly, Reinhardtstr. is about failure. The "Residence at the Deutsches Theater" was one such grandiose project, a gleaming white complex of luxury flats which is now, at least partially, an apartment hotel. It's depressing to see the dust bunnies through the plate glass windows of the stores which remain empty despite every effort to rent them, the way their For Rent signs have yellowed around the edges. The sad fact is, a sizeable percentage of government workers never wanted to move to Berlin in the first place, and those who did go home for the weekend. They don't like Berlin and they don't like Berliners. They have their own restaurants, bars, and clubs, but mostly, I suspect, they do their jobs and pine for retirement.

It's almost a relief to get off the street and start heading home, although as I pass the corner of Oranienburger Str. I always remember that line about tourism being like prostitution, in that you make your most attractive features available to all for a price and hope you don't invite disease or destruction.

But that's a rant for another day.