Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Thin White Duke was Here

I was the first person in line for the Beck show at Columbiahalle. Other German hipsters may boast, may have the lie tattooed across their biceps. But it was I, standing on the kerb, ticket in hand, who was uncool enough to show up two hours before the bouncers did. It had been years since I'd attended a concert where you actually had to buy tickets beforehand, so I'd grown accustomed to waltzing through the doors in an altered state midway through the third opener, sidling up with whomever I knew at the bar and slugging my way to the front after the lights had dimmed. But this was Beck and this was Berlin: I erred on the anal side and showed up three hours before the doors opened. I had to ask a wino whether I was at the right place. Then it started to rain, so I ducked into a nearby pub whose clientele reminded me of American war vets, though they were probably just retired Krautrock scenesters. I sat and ate a pickle and langenscheidted my way through Die Andere Seite and waited for the rain to stop.

When I returned to Columbiahalle, I was no longer the first person in line. There was a German girl with Beck pins covering both lapels of her frockcoat and a Spaniard wearing the Beck t-shirt that I had left at home.

"So, ehh, you guys like Beck much?" I asked.
As they talked about Him, their eyes glazed over in a way that mine did not. But like all music buffs, I nurtured the belief that they didn't appreciate Beck the way I did, and like the rest, I was probably right about that.

The bouncer let us in and we pressed as far forward as the guardrails allowed. We sent the Spaniard out for drinks and we sat injun-style on the floor and waited.

There may have been an opening act, but I have no memory of it. I remember Beck walking out on stage - already some Germans were chanting "Loser" - and I was surprised to see him sporting his Loser-era locks, his Mellow Gold shades, and the sneer to match.

It was an underwhelming show, or perhaps it was just me who was underwhelmed. I hadn't slept in a fortnight and after a month in Berlin, my body was turning to Nutella and currywurst. I remember little about the concert, just that Beck was surly and anhedonic, that I was dissecting the performance too much to enjoy it, and that the German girl in the frockcoat had fallen in love with me, but I dissected her to bits and so lost her to an autistic Swede. The whole night would have been a wash if a German graphic designer hadn't adopted me after the show and paid for me to dance at the rockabilly club until the sun came up over Kreuzberg.

A week later, Radiohead came to town. This was, for me, the mother of all shows; was, in fact, the reason I had allowed myself to linger in Berlin for so long. The night before the concert, I tried to get a good night's sleep, and so I stayed up 'til five. I tried to get geared up in the hours before kickoff, and so I found myself listless and lifeless as I slipped through the turnstile.

There was an opener, the much-hyped Modeselektor. I was able to cut through the crowd with unexpected ease, so I was close enough to the stage that Jonny Greenwood's hair was whipping me in the face. And yet I can't say I enjoyed the show. They played songs - i.e. all of them - that always put me in a visionary trance when I listen to them at home on my oversized headphones, but there, live and in the moment, I couldn't build an enthusiasm that wasn't false. In truth, I wanted to go home and see what Ben was up to.

Through incredibly dumb luck, I scored a free ticket to see R.E.M. the following week. I figured that expectations were at the root of my rock show impotence, that perhaps a band whose lyrics weren't already tattooed across my cortex might stir me out of my slumber. And R.E.M. did, but not as much as I'd led myself to expect. I'd never heard "Electrolite" before, which remains a staple on any mixes I make for girls. And Michael Stipe was lively and carefree on stage, as Michael Stipes are wont to be. But as the drunken hordes pushed through the black forest towards the nearest U-Bahn station, I was haunted by the suspicion that I had missed something.

I was crashing in Schöneberg at the time, which is where David Bowie lived while he was recording the Berlin Trilogy. Twice I set out to find his old digs, where one imagines the Thin White Duke lavishing himself with a spongebath in a porcelain tub overflowing with Nutella and cocaine. On my first expedition, I walked in the complete opposite direction and found myself merging onto the autobahn. The second time, I grew confused by the apartment numbers and gave up, settling instead for a döner kebab and a Franziskaner for the road.

And then my cash ran out and I was ejected from Germany like a bad organ. I wasn't disappointed, not exactly. I had expected Berlin - and at least two of those performances - to transform me. And in some way they had. Everything always transforms you. But the moment has a way of eluding me. The attempt to measure the moment renders the moment, like the electron, nonexistent: a smear in time and space. The moment only becomes a moment after the moment has passed, often years and years later.

If I am to be honest with myself, and to my readership (who will judge me), the only rock show I ever enjoyed the way a rock show should be enjoyed was the Counting Crows concert I saw when I was sixteen. It was my first show. For me, the electric guitar was a recent discovery. I remember standing in a garage with one of my cronies as he plugged his amp into the wall. There was a screech of feedback, then the unexpected power of the non-chord he strummed, the disproportionate relationship between the sheer volume generated and the 106-pound nerd who had so amateurishly generated it. The electric guitar, for me, was the first great equalizer between brawn and intellect, though I would discover others as I went along in life.

At that young age, live music thrilled me. It wasn't something to be dissected or inspected for quality. The sound of a savage beat on a thrift store trap set was enough to set my legs joggling against their caucasian will. And so the Counting Crows show was a spiritual experience for me, though I would cringe and probably vomit to see something like it now. Adam Duritz - I believe he was wearing pleather pants - tightroped along a stack of amplifiers with his arms outstretched and his head thrown back in an unabashed Christ imitation. The band broke into seemingly impromptu interludes in which Duritz sang what was glossolalia to me then, though I know now that they were just Byrds lyrics. And on the drive home, there was no debate as to whether what we had just seen was three hours of contrived bullshit: we knew the mind of God and were content to say "Wow" over and over again. We were also buzzing to be in a car - a 1992 Plymouth Acclaim - driving back on the interstate from a rock show in Iowa with no adult supervision. It is hard to tell whether the enthusiasm of youth is misguided, or whether it is more pure than anything we will ever experience again.

There were other good shows, of course. I saw The Fiery Furnaces four years ago and I appreciated the performance several months later, though I struggled to understand it in the moment. Devendra Banhart came to Omaha a while back with his band of sleepy-eyed beards, and he suspended us between sleep and waking for two wonderful hours. I saw Low once and the Sokol Underground was unusually sepulchral for the occasion: nobody spoke, and people shooshed you when you did. We were hyped up on something, laughing way too much, and Will was acting goofy, so we removed ourselves from the show before it got too sublime. I have seen Bright Eyes on three occasions. The first time, Conor was so hopped up on quaaludes that he smashed his guitar midway through the second song. The other two shows were in Council Bluffs, and though they were four years apart, I found myself in the same predicament: drinking with Will, about to leave my main squeeze for the weird, wild East. Strangely, perhaps cruelly, life functions like a broken elevator and, despite an infinity of other possibilities, will deliver you to the same floor several times in a row: step in, please - sixth floor - women's hats and coats, lingerie and perfume - step in, please ...

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