Wednesday, April 14, 2010


So, apologies for the long absence. It's been pointed out by faithful reader Mr. Pity (and I don't call him that merely because of his awesome Mr. T impression) that I've been radio silent long enough to raise the suspicion that either I'm dead or this blog is. I've neither excuse nor satisfying explanation, really, so instead I'll try to make it up to you by posting a bunch of stuff right quick.

It was a dark and stormy night. This ain't the worst introduction in the history of the written language; it actually was a dark and stormy night. My memory is foggy on a number of details, but my underwear is still immediately soggy. My pants and shirt, too, and probably my socks, although of course I can't tell for sure, as they were stripped and lain over the radiator as soon as I stepped through the front door.

The lovely and talented, youthful and connected, charming and gracious, considerate and ... why is she friends with me, again?  anyway, the always-appreciated Miss XYZ was unfortunately out of town tonight, when Matisyahu came to town, so her six comped tickets were scattered, like so much seed upon the wind, to several of her quite fortunate friends, including "Pat Martigan plus one."  (My German's still regrettably shitty, so while I probably could have stammered out something to the effect of "That's Mrs. Plus One to you, buddy," the joke I've always wanted to make still was beyond me:  "No, Ms. Plus One is unable to make it tonight.  Nights like this she usually stays home, polishing our wedding rings and weeping.") I tried to make a joke about getting to see him "gratis-yahu," but the combination of Latinite and Semetic roots seemed too clumsy. Plus, while they mean slightly different things, the word "gratis," meaning "complimentary," sort of suggests the Hebrew sorce of the name "Nathan," which means "gift," which already can attach to "yahu," a conjugation of "yahweh." So I was kind of afraid I'd be taken to suggesting a link to Netanyahu, whose name literally means "gift of God." And that would have just brought every good non-Likudnik down, which wasn't what I'm about, man.

Because I'm broke, or cheap, or dumb, and also because BVG didn't have convenient routes to Columbia Hall, I had decided to take my bike. Right away my mistake was evident, and I pedaled through a light Berlin rain that seems these days not so much part of the climate as a deliberate aspect of urban design, like if some city planner had decided that vague meteorological hostility was as important to promoting good civic behavior as walkability-friendly zoning and resilient electrical grids. I was listening to the "To the Best of Our Knowledge" podcast on the mythical city of Shangri-La, and for a brief white shining moment it seemed there was something poetic about listening to the search for a mythical city hidden amid a range of inscrutable, imposing mountains while I was pedaling toward a vaguely messianic rap/rock act through a really quite inhospitable Berlin autumn storm. But then I just decided that was stupid.

I got there early enough that the floor lights were still on, so I walked about the back of the hall, listening to the recorded music and wishing I'd remembered to bring earplugs. Concert tshirts started for twenty-five euros, or closer to forty bucks American than to thirty-five.  Most things here are cheaper than in the States; a few go the other way.  As far as I can tell it's mostly consumer goods where the EU's better workers' rights and/or a floor of quality make it economically impossible for the Germans to reach American levels of cheapness.  Starbucks costs a ton, but it's the kind of coffee you couldn't buy in the States with the proverbial fistful of fifties.  And then there's the American cultural stuff that simply commands a ransom here; American sneakers, Yankees caps, or anything seen recently on MTV can get pricey right quick.  The irony of course being that anyone from the States wants nothing at all to do with such crass emblems of American consumerism (excepting comment for the moment on Yankee fans, other than to note that the people who wear such gear here aren't fans of the team or even the sport, instead just liking the City of New York and electing the interlocking letters as the most economical way to advertise such).  

A brief word on the venue: For the New Yorkers reading, it's maybe half as big as Webster Hall's upstairs? The closest I can come is the 9:30 club in DC, if it didn't have balconies. It certainly doesn't have any particular Berlin feel that I can tell, and I spend a bit feeling ashamed that after almost half a year here I don't know enough about my new hometown to begin mendacious sentences like "the peculiar Berlin aesthetic, at first apparently generic but gradually yielding to the attentive visitor such obvious giveaways as..." I spend a few moments worrying that I'm missing the real city that I'm supposed to be here to see, but then again I spend most of my time worrying about that.

The first act comes on and is generally ignored by the crowd. They perform the particular strain of heavy metal, or at least of very loud rock and roll, that remains somewhat concordant with hip hop beats thumping beneath and rap lyrics spit over-top. It inspires the question, half inquisitive and the rest masochistic, what sort of vocal stylings is likely to be paired with it, and I guess it'll either be a white guy trying to emcee like Zack de la Roche or merely shriek along, which I recall being the default option for bands of the sort. However, whether because of faulty microphones or out of a spirit of mercy, they've elected to leave the vocals out.

A guy in the crowd walks up to me and introduces himself. I'm writing notes to myself in a brown Moleskine, and it's not until later I realize he must have thought I was a reporter. He's from New Jersey, short, and obviously Jewish even before you catch the heavy Star of David buoyed cheerily by his chest hair. He's dressed in the kind of white-guy hip-hop attire that used to spark entire fashion lines in rejection of the gross appropriation, but somehow it doesn't seem too offensive, on him at least. He's really friendly and I'm embarrassed when I forget his name two minutes after he says he has to go and pushes through the crowd toward the stage.

This is my first visit to the particular venue, and there's something tickling the back of my brain that feels not-wrong but somehow off, as if there's a song playing in the background I subliminally recognize but haven't consciously realized I'm even listening to yet. For the first hour I think it's something unfamiliar about the venue, perhaps the weather still making me feel slightly off. And then I take a second look at two thick-ish women in dark sweaters and long skirts over black tights and realize: There are Jews here. A lot of Jews. Sure, there's a black dude over there, and I think I heard him speak English in an American accent; there's a girl who's too blond next to her boyfriend who's too tall for them to be landtsmen, but for most part it's like Christmas Eve on the Upper West side. The vague sense of something being off vanishes in the shock of recognition, and I start seeing in the crowd the particular slices of Jewishness that you get to know entirely in New York but I never expected to see in Berlin. The tall nebbishy guy in wireframe glasses with a generic last name who was raised secular and never particularly thought about religion at all until he started going to Hillel in college. A guy who would never wear a yarmulke but won't take four steps without his sloping jazzman's fedora, either. I see slices of myself everywhere: there a corporate lawyer trying to look like one of the crowd of young twentysomethings at a hip-hop show, here a wannabe writer faking it with the lifestyle until he can make it with the work, there again an American trying to be an expat and failing. I look again at the dark-sweatered, plain skirted women and realize they're Orthodox girls, the kind I'm pretty sure they don't. Elsewhere a shock of carefully drawn lipstick beneath a tight shiny-dark ponytail, a leather jacket and high boots that end just beneath the hem of a skirt: Orthodox girls, the kind I wonder maybe they do.

There's an energy to crowds that defies logic.  This is not a unique insight, but it remains humbly true.  No one knows what's happening, exactly, and it's easier to behave as just one of a crowd, taking your cues from the crush and flow around you. Everyone's here for the same reason, anyway, so why not act like a herd?  There's a swell and a rush, and the noise level of the audience rises and falls, building until it reaches a critical mass and then---well, the main act hasn't made it on yet, so it just sort of fades away.  The problem is that everyone assumes someone else has a better view than they have. The energy of the crowd feeds on itself until folks think that others in the crowd have seen Matisyahu take stage; their reaction in turn prompts others elsewhere to think the same; and eventually the wave of gasping reaches a peak, just before a technician reworks a guitar and the crowd's excitement falls away into a low groan. It doesn't change the reaction the next time one bit, and I count three false alarms before the lights finally go down.  

When Matisyahu does take the stage, the lights are still down, and it's almost impossible to see a think until the background lights turn up slightly and he's standing there, enormously tall and silhouetted in green. He stands in one spot for the first song, moving only to do that swaying-bowing thing that certain more observant Jews do in synagogue or during prayer. It's a cool effect, although he's a practiced enough showman to start dancing for the rest of the set. I haven't seen him live before, and for his live act he alters even those songs I do sort of know, so that I'm mostly lost as to what I'm listening to. I'm pretty sure "King Without a Crown" was played, as was the song I remembered as being called "Because You Believe in Me" but is actually titled "Indestructible." I'm self-conscious during the songs I don't recognize, though. I don't know if he has a new album or if I'm just a half-assed fan, and when I can't mouth the lyrics I nod along and hope no one can tell.

Towards the end of the set Matisyahu brings out a special guest artist, and it takes me a few seconds before I recognize the guy who talked to me in the crowd earlier. Apparently the two of them are friends, and Matisyahu has brought him along on this tour. He joins him for a song and gets his own verse to freestyle. He's not bad, but I'm not exactly pained that I didn't remember his name and can't buy his mixtape.

He closes with "Jerusalem," as you knew he must have. I've heard perhaps four or five studio versions of this song by now, each of them radically different from the others, but the way he performs it this time nevertheless impresses. A mostly rock version, with guitars and bass turned up, the band infuses it with a steady, compelling, rolling sort of rhythm. Everyone sings along, and although I get most of the words wrong except during the chorus. At some point, and I can't tell when, I realized: Damn, I really feel it. I don't know a thing about the art of being a stage musician, nor am I even particularly an experienced concertgoer. I will say this, though, that sometimes when a show goes really well, it can convince you for as long as it lasts that this is the greatest concert you've ever seen. When it really goes right, it can leave you wanting still more while not making you sorry it's over. It's really amazing, when it happens, and it's strange, but I don't really remember it raining during the ride home. I'm sure it must have, but all I remember from pedaling home is relistening to "Youth," singing along.  

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