Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Twenty years ago, or a little more, on 9. November 1989, the Berlin Wall, which for a generation had prevented East Berliners from traveling to the West and vice versa, and which was patrolled by guards who shot and killed hundreds of Germans trying to escape, became at once porous with a miscommunicated order from the Politburo opened die Grenze and permitted Easterners to travel West openly for the first time since 1961.  Pieces from the wall were chipped away that night, and although demolition did not begin until later, the ninth of November is remembered as the day the Wall came down.

I should resist the urge to bring this back to the American perspective, but I'm starting to think there's no universal perspective on this event, perhaps on any event, only a relatively close constellation of different national or regional interpretations. Living abroad, one discovers—and this is perhaps for the first time, or at least it was in my case—just how differently the rest of the world sometimes sees part of our shared history that one used to think was uncomplicated, or universally accepted by all to have happened the ways the American textbooks teach it.  In her speech at the commemoration, Chancellor Merkel explicitly recognized the Soviet leadership, namely Mikhail Gorbachev, for "courageously let[ting] things happen."  Would that, I wonder, not amount to minor-league blasphemy in the United States?  We Americans have the enforced narrative, written into history's early drafts by Reagan hagiographers and parroted by our, ahem, learned political class, that the USSR remained malignant and hostile to the end, that only Reagan's courageous defiance and brinksmanship .  Reality, of course, is far more complicated; Gorbachev had proposed glasnost and perestroika already by 1989, and although the East German government remained obstinately committed to the political ideology that the Soviet system would eventually triumph over the west, the government in Moscow had already made strides that, well I suppose they weren't unmistakeable, since a lot in the west had quite queer opinions of them, but were nonetheless enormous, and in the direction of a laying down of arms in the cold war, of acknowledging defeat rather than declaring surrender. (I should note that these historical judgments all come footnoted with the asterisk that means "as best as I can tell"; it's something of a murky field made no clearer by my utter lack of any particular knowledge.)

Actually, can I digress for a second? My German textbook just had a section on politics, wherein there was a frank, not uncritical, and open discussion of Marxism in the 1970s. Totally uncontroversial, right? After all, Marxism, while certainly not without its legitimate detractors, was one of two or three fundamental political ideologies that shaped the twentieth century and was responsible for a handful of major advancements and a share of significant abuses. Should have been a nothing-call; I was floored. I went to public school for thirteen years, and there was never an acknowledgment of the existence of Marxism other than in the obituary of the occasional hanged anarcho-syndicalist. It simply wasn't mentioned. To anyone who's lived in the United States, neither the entire omission of Marxism from public education is news, nor is the entirely transparent reasons for that exclusion. And to think, all this time I've been sneering at the poor biology students in Kansas, or what contortions must be being pulled during history class in Texas, and... I absolutely had no less of an ideologically filtered education than they had.  Or not one so markedly better that I'm in a position to sneer.  

My German instructor mentioned an event? a thing? a commemorative display? no, that last one is surely wrong---that would be taking place, a few hours after out class ended.  It sounded like a good idea, so I went to the library, did some grocery shopping, and at the appointed time, went to where I thought I would be able to see it.  I saw only crowds like I'd expect to see there any day of the week, and an art installation I'd seen being constructed earlier but not since it had been finished.  Otherwise there was no trace of any grand event, and I pedaled home, trying not to dwell on the fact that I should have gone to Potsdamer Platz instead, where at least I could have lied and said I was close enough to the front of the crowd to see the giant dominoes fall.

I don't mean to suggest that I was disappointed not to have seen first-hand my little slice of world history, only underwhelmed at the reaction I did see in the city where I'd expected to find it. That's the surprise, though, when you're in it; that's another of the things I'm discovering while living elsewhere.  When you're growing up, watching the world turn on the television, it's inconceivable that people out there, living their lives where the teevee cameras were, could possibly have any other concerns or cares than those than have you, the noble and enlightened television viewer.  What else could someone be interested in!  It's on television!  When you grow up and move out into the world and maybe into one of the world's great cities, where these things tend to happen, you learn one day---or perhaps one day realize that you never learned it---that living through major events without noticing exactly them going on is the most ordinary damn thing in the world, that it happens to you a thousand times before you get change for the paper and a coffee at the newstand outside the stairs to the subway. I was in New York on September 11th and watched everything happen---except a neverending plume of smoke from somewhere to the south---on cable t.v. I worked for the Obama campaign by trying to counteract any potential voter-suppression schemes by the other party in a state where no voter-suppression ever happened and which the candidate anyway eventually won by double digits. History happens, and it even happens next to you, but you've got to be joking if you thought you were entitled to advance notice with date and time; unless it's far closer than you'd ever wish, you learn about history the same way as everyone else does, in the headlines the day after.

[Update from the post-date: My currents, to resurrect an old habit. This post being written quite after-the-fact, these come with the same asterisk as my recollection of history, that they're as best as I can tell:

reading: Koestler's Darkness at Noon, at long last. Recommended by a cherished reader of the blog who, and I'm just going to say it, seems more in love with things German than he does about anything about his own country, other than a perplexing, lingering [ed.note: two consecutive participles? sorry] allegiance to our horrifying sellout failure of a president, and who even insists that it's only the Berliners who know a damn thing about techno. It was invented, developed, and perfected, as was pretty much all western music, by urban African Americans, although it took members of my own race to over-commercialize it and drain it of its soul. Namely black deejays in Detroit and Chicago. All I'm sayin'.

listening: deadmau5, "Faxing Berlin." Topical and booty-shaking. And to think, a North American recorded it. You hear me? I'm talking to you, nameless cherished reader!!!

obsessed with: how many got-damn blog posts I have to write now. Wow, I have let this thing go, huh?]


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.