Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Death In The Family And (Maybe) Some Hope

Last year, the United States Postal Service, working with Warners and Murdoch and other media giants, pushed through new second-class postage rates. Hardly a sexy issue to protest, what with the war in Iraq, the collapse of the U.S. economy, the destruction of the Constitution, and the sabre-rattling against Iran, so it may have escaped your notice.

It sure didn't escape mine: as someone who's worked with magazines my whole life, second-class postage is a big, big deal. It's the mechanism which allows you to send your print-run to your subscribers for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to mail them first class, and it carries a bunch of restrictions: you've only got a couple of days to get your magazines out, for one thing, and missing a couple of those deadlines means you lose your second-class license.

The new rates, though, were bizarre: the more magazines you shipped, the less each unit cost, and smaller-circulation magazines were burdened with unreasonably higher per-unit costs, instead of everyone paying the same rate. But that's what happens when you allow big business to write the laws.

And on Tuesday, the fallout began. I don't know what Resonance was all about -- the avant-garde of the pop spectrum, I suspect from a cursory glance -- but its editor circulated a letter saying the current issue, which it couldn't even afford to print, would be its last.

But they weren't alone. On the same day, No Depression, a magazine I have read since its first issue and contributed to for years, also announced that it was calling it quits. Many of the same reasons Resonance mentioned were there: cost of paper, declining ad revenues, and, dammit, that second-class postage hike.

Now, I think this is a tragedy from a number of aspects, and not just because of the loss of income and ability to write stuff which pleases me. As No Depression co-editor Grant Alden notes on his blog, "it's important to provide homes for magazines which offer up ideas, for we need an informed democracy if we're to continue having anything which resembles a democracy." He's talking about Wal-Mart's decision to pare back the number of titles they sell, but the "homes" of which he speaks are also the homes of people who subscribe to magazines which espouse unpopular ideas or champion minority cultures, which both Resonance and No Depression did. It's simplistic and obvious to say it, but if print media becomes reduced to People and Rolling Stone, then America is doomed to unspeakable mediocrity.

Oh, but people are reading all kinds of stuff on the web! Yeah, well. I'm a paper guy (and it's worth noting that the price of paper, too, is helping run these magazines out of business). I just can't stare at a screen all day, and I can say that with some degree of certainty because I do stare at a screen all day these days, and have for a number of years. You can read on your laptop on the train, maybe, and if your battery holds out, you can read on it for some of a transatlantic or crosscountry flight, but...why? Why lug a thousand-dollar machine when you can spend a couple of bucks for something you can fold up, or throw out, or clip stuff out of? And I'm no eye doctor, but I suspect the way the eye handles light makes print a healthier alternative. I know that I had excellent eyesight until I started using a computer, and now I use glasses when I read or write. Some of that is aging, but I think some of it is staring at screens.

But beyond the medium -- although that's a crucial part of this story -- is the ability to disseminate ideas. Never have there been more ideas, and more need to spread them to receptive people. The current Bush presidency has resulted in most of the world becoming a counter-culture, a paradox only if you equate that term with being a minority. Most of these counter-cultures have nothing in common except their rejection of the way the world is going, and a lot of them -- radical Islam comes to mind -- are hardly constructive.

No Depression did its little bit. It started shortly after I moved here, and early on co-editor Peter Blackstock, whom I'd known in Austin, visited and stayed with me while on a story about the Walkabouts, an American band far more popular in Germany than at home. Its focus was clear, although back then it didn't have a name, really, but eventually (the music business must have labels!) someone (not on the ND side of things) decided it would be known as "Americana," which was a loaded term if there ever was one. But...there was an extent to which it made sense: if the musicians and performers (and writers and filmmakers) it covered had any commonality at all it was in their examination of the roots of American folk and folk-derived culture, which culture included country music, although in recent years the magazine took a salutary turn in beginning to investigate lesser-known African-American traditions (neglected soul singers, gospel) in its pages.

And, as those of us who lived through the great Folk Scare of the '60s realized, it's hard to dig into those traditions without uncovering some political content, some of which can come as a shock, especially to a generation that became conscious of the wider world during the Reagan years -- a generation which was ND's base. Learning that America had had a Left, that the labor unions once were opponents of, rather than collaborators with, their employers -- these were shocks, especially when an individual found the ideas resonating with half-formed suspicions of the way the world worked and not-quite-articulated ideas about why things weren't right. But making those connections, as a lot of the magazine's readers did, made these young people stronger once it dawned on them that they were part of a chain stretching back decades. Nobody likes to re-invent the wheel, after all.

During the dozen years of ND's existence, it helped give birth to a cultural change which I -- and lots of other people -- believe is just around the corner. Oh, George Bush helped, no doubt about that, and so did the Internet, and probably Paris Hilton did, too, pushing the culture of celebrity into such a caricature of itself that its seams became all too obvious. But for people who live in America, and are invested in its future (as all of us, Americans or not, are, by dint of the country's size and position in the world), and are aware of and in some cases participating in its culture, this continuity with the past, which is so easily forgotten in the onrush of the Now, has become precious. After all, the Constitution the current administration has savaged is no less a part of the cultural fabric as the odd banjo-playing musician Dock Boggs.

And -- funny I should think of him. Because he's been in my thoughts recently, too.

Last week, I got a phone call from a friend in Philadelphia I hadn't heard from in far too long. She was alerting me that a guy named Sam Amidon, whom I'd last seen years ago when he was a teenager on a ramble though Europe, and is the son of friends of hers in Vermont, was going to be playing a gig in Berlin last Sunday. Sam as a teenager was frighteningly smart, a fiddler who was also studying with Leroy Jenkins, the free-jazz violinist whose work I loved, and a kid with a lot of exciting potential. Now he was performing, had a MySpace page and a website, and was going to do a show at a place I'd never heard of in Kreuzberg. I had to go.

Oh, and did I mention that Sam's parents are folksingers?

So off I went, through the mobs of excited Albanians (and who knew there were so many of them in Berlin?) celebrating Kosovo's independence, and rang a doorbell on a nondescript apartment building. Buzzed in, I found a freestanding house in the Hinterhof, in which the downstairs was filled with 20-somethings talking and listening to a copy of The Lily Brothers With Don Stover, a fairly crucial document of the aforementioned Folk Scare. Sam found me, we caught up briefly, and pretty soon, everyone filed upstairs, where there were some chairs and stools.

When Sam finally was ready, he said something memorable: "I don't write songs. I don't know how to write songs. So these are some traditional songs I know." Already I was impressed: if there's anything that the masses of CDs I'd gotten over the years thanks to being listed as a contributor on No Depression's website had taught me, it's that there are way too many people writing way too many songs that don't matter at all.

Not that he performed them traditionally. No, his show would have given most old folkies hives; I watched one older couple, one of whom has an Americana-oriented show on local radio, stalk out halfway through. But since I knew about his connection to American avant-garde music as well as his connection to folk music, I was entranced. So were the young people, his peers, who were watching. Many of them, I suspect, were Americans attracted by hip! edgy! Berlin. Others were Germans attracted to American culture. It was great.

After the show, I hung around some, talking to the woman who'd organized the show, which was part of a series of "house concerts" (she and her husband live in this house) she'd been putting on each Sunday for a few months. Hmm, I thought, this is an article for No Depression. Or maybe Sam is. I'll have to contact Peter and Grant once I'm through with this guidebook-writing project that's eaten up all my time (and is the reason I haven't been able to blog for most of this month).

But before I could do that, I got the bad news.

It's not at total tragedy. I think there's more where Sam came from. Not a lot of them are like him, except in their commitment to exploring American traditions. And, I think, the rise in support for Barack Obama is not unrelated to this, the feeling, which I perceive in a wide spectrum of Americans, that not only political change, but cultural change, is in the air. In speaking of this, I feel like I'm in the presence of a baby: fragile, easily damaged, at risk of infection. But babies grow up quickly, and small rockslides sometimes turn into avalanches. Sometimes.

And I think that, in its not-so-modest way, No Depression has played its part in this. I'm honored to have brought my old-guy, Folk Scare-era perceptions to its pages over the years of its existence, and happy they thought them worth seeking out and encouraging. I'm sorry that the institution won't survive to see this if it happens, but I scarcely think Peter and Grant are going to just slink away. Grant wrote me this week that he's going to keep blogging, because "it may be my only writing outlet for a while." I know the feeling.

Sam gave me a copy of his new record at the gig. It's dedicated to Dock Boggs. A tiny thing to hang on to, maybe, but in times when I have so very little else to be optimistic about, I'd like to ask you to allow me this possibly impossible shard of optimism.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

No More Mr. Nice Guy And Other Crumbs

Man, I just don't know. I used to think that being a nice guy was a good idea. I'm beginning to change my mind.

My first mistake this week resulted, I'm happy to say, in a save. I hadn't seen the dancer in nearly a month. We'd both been busy, since all of a sudden I have a ton of work to do, and she's been writing on her novel when she wasn't at her job. So we got together, and in a fit of generosity, I offered to buy her dinner at this Japanese-Korean place down the street that I love and am overdue for reviewing on Hungry In Berlin.

In part, it was a gesture of thanks for helping me with the move. She hadn't lifted a single box, but she helped me get Telekom to switch my number over here and then to get them to turn on the number, and she dealt with the heating firm which spoke such thick Berlinisch I couldn't understand them. The guy came on December 27, before I moved in, and got two of the three heaters going. "I gotta talk to my boss about this other one. I'll be back later," he said and vanished. Nor has he reappeared. Which wouldn't be so bad except that it's the heater in my main room, the one where I read at night and write during the day. In other words, the one I'm in most of the time.

But because of this calling the heating firm, they had her number instead of mine, and the day after I'd taken her to dinner, they called her up, saying they needed to get into the apartment so they could check on how to connect me with the building's central heating. There's central heating here? Who knew? She couldn't reach me, though: I was running around in Potsdam for this guidebook I'm working on with some other folks. So she just made an appointment for the next day.

For 7am.

Fortunately, a panicked call to the firm's answering machine in my garbled German put an end to that, but they haven't called to make another appointment and I figure it'll be summer before they show up and then I won't need them.

We'll deal with the Potsdam trip below. Mistakes were made.

Anyway, yesterday I was sitting here innocently doing something and the phone rang. It was Katchita, who'd been in India for five weeks. She was calling from the Munich airport, distraught because the woman she'd sublet the apartment from wasn't going to be able to hand her off the key until the next day. Given that this woman had had plenty of notice that she was coming back, this seemed careless at best, thoughtless at the worst, but that didn't matter because in a few hours she'd be back here and didn't have anywhere to sleep. Could she use my couch? Why, certainly, I said, gentlemanliness being one of my many virtues. She offered to buy me dinner. I, being nearly penniless because none of the work I'd done in December and January had paid off yet, accepted.

She showed up, and after she'd railed against the woman whose apartment she wasn't in for a while, she asked if she could take a shower. I showed her how the thing worked (not all that well), cautioned her it would be short, found a clean towle for her to use, made the de rigeur leering statement about thinking of her soaped-up naked body in the steam, and went back to my desk. In about three minutes, she was out, a towel around her hair, happy to be clean again. "Oh, by the way," she said, "you're going to need a new shower head. I dropped it and it snapped off." In fact, this is exactly what had happened. I have no idea how she did it, but there was no fixing it that I could figure out.

Anyway, we had dinner, came back here, she crashed on the couch and I retreated to my bedroom and read, and by the time I was awake this morning she was gone. I got an e-mail thanking me for putting her up and offering to help fix the shower next weekend, but I realized I'm going to need to take a shower before then.

So I went out a few minutes ago and bought a new shower head and hose. It cost about €25. I now realize I need a wrench to get the old one off and secure the new one. That's going to cost money, too.

The Bird makes good burgers, but I should have ordered a steak.

* * *

Potsdam turned out to be pretty nice. Well, it would have been nicer if it had been warmer, and it would have been much nicer if any of the palaces at Sanssouci were open, but I also got to explore the whole historic downtown on Brandenburger Str. past Potsdam's own Brandenburg Gate and also the weird Holländisches Viertel, built to look like Holland, nearby. I had good company in Ms. Vinyl, who's recently moved here from New York and has a healthy degree of skepticism about staying here, and we were in good spirits when we got back to the train station, ready to take a Regionalbahn back to Berlin.

Which is what we wound up doing. But a word of warning for potential Potsdam tourists: there are a couple of routes. The one we took, which loads of trains take, goes along the S-Bahn route without stopping at all the stations, and gets you back to Berlin in about 20 minutes. But there's another route, one which leaves from Potsdam, heads west, then south, and finally winds up at Schönefeld Airport. Having gotten on this, I realized that there was only one track, meaning that this was a spur line which went to the end, then came back on the same track. So there was no getting off and catching something back to Potsdam to erase the mistake.

Observation from the journey: lots of radish fields and cement factories. Boy, is it grim out there. Saarmund, Gensenhagen, all the way to Schönefeld. As we asked ourselves: what do people do out there, anyway? Pull radishes and make cement, I guess.

* * *

One thing I'll say for my new neighborhood: the beggars sure are creative. Oh, we have our usual ration of green-skinned junkies pushing paper cups at you and murmuring about "Kleengelt," but the other day outside the bank, I saw a well-dressed woman of apparently Mongolian heritage, quite tall, with a very odd little dog on a leash wearing a muzzle. She had her hand out and she was crying. Water was pouring out of her eyes and her shoulders shook each time she sobbed. Someone would hand her money and she'd stop immediately, count the change, stick it in her pocket, stick her hand out again and turn on the waterworks. It was very disturbing. Even weirder, the other day I saw a couple with a black-and-white llama on the sidewalk, complete with a folding sign that said "Circus animals need feed." I haven't seen any circus posters up -- it's not really the season -- and one would assume that feed for the animals was part of a circus' basic costs. I found myself wondering how they got to where they were (the U-Bahn? a taxi?) and where they stashed the beast when they weren't begging.