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Vignette, Berlin

Our show in Berlin is the best yet, and even though we’re tired we agree that the night must go on. We have a hot tip from local opener Vadoinmessico: a basement party, not too far from where we’re staying. The DJ is their friend, and will be spinning J-Pop. I could care less about J-Pop on the merits, but this seems like exactly the sort of night one is supposed to have when one is young and out in Europe on a Friday night. We loved their set, so we trust their judgment, and this thing seems far enough out of the comfort zone to be interesting. I’m still young, right? 28? We get an address and directions via subway. Just a quick stop to drop off our bags, and we’ll be off. Our lodging tonight is at a hostel, and it is a great mercy that we have a room to ourselves. This place is a shitshow, a college dorm without the college. The entrance is mobbed with wasted young people smoking cigarettes; conversing in English, French, German, and some others I don’t recognize. They all seem to be in for the night, content to just hang. Wherever they are, that’s the place to be. So much sex is going to happen tonight, in rooms where other people are asleep. We are going out.

I get an immediately good vibe from the Berlin subway, and my admiration only grows when I am told it is 24 hours, just like home. Even though it’s late, we can see other people in full weekend regalia who are clearly headed out rather than home. I should note that “full weekend regalia” for me tonight is jeans and my Big Snow shirt, as I have only brought t-shirts on this trip and this one is clean. We get on at Heinrich-Heine-Strasse, and I am reminded of Professor Bailey’s German Romanticism class freshman year. The German Romantics occupy a special place in my aesthetic life. Lieder are a good gateway format for getting into older music, as they are often structured very similarly to pop music. Schubert and Schumann were the first pre-20th century music I really loved. They would have been so pleased to see a train station named after Heine, who inspired so much of their work. I know what I’ll be listening to as I doze off tonight. If you haven’t heard the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recording of Liederkreis, Op. 39, do yourself a favor. Okay, so the text is Eichendorff rather than Heine, but it’s my favorite. That turnaround at the end of “Wehmut” is one of the most elegant and evocative harmonic progressions I can name. It is jazz almost a century early. Robert Schumann was the guy at your party you’d keep checking on to make sure he was okay. “I am fine,” he would say. You would not be convinced. And you’d be right, he was not okay. But this sad sack sure was onto something.

We easily find the party. Upstairs is a bar, and downstairs is a room with comfy chairs and another room with dancing. I dance. I am sure I look ridiculous. My back is stiff from sleeping in various ill-advised positions in the van, and I’m exhausted, and rather drunk. I’ve never really know what to do with my hands when I dance, I’m all hips; but every now and then I have a night of not giving a shit, and tonight is one of those. Becca and Felicia can always be relied upon for companionship in these situations, so there are enough of us looking potentially silly and foreign to form a crew. They’re better dancers, and better-dressed, and I look better by association. I see one of the guys from the band who invited us, and some people from the show. This is the place to be. It is a low-key crowd, and it feels welcoming rather than intimidating, even though we are in what appears to be objectively a kind of under-the-radar venue. There is a slight but persistent smell of mildew. Everyone is smoking. Our clothes are going to smell like a cigarette’s asshole in the morning. An occupational hazard; worth it.

The good vibes dissipate rather abruptly when two cops come down to bust up the party. Or rather, they request that the DJ turn down the music to an unacceptably low volume, and the party begins to dissipate. It is the most polite and cordial police interaction I have ever witnessed. We don’t want to leave just yet, and it seems like we don’t have to. Other people are staying, and the bar upstairs is still serving drinks. We have a seat in the room with the comfy chairs. I notice after I sit down that almost everyone else in the room is an older Japanese man carrying some sort of horn. I get the sense that we arrived too late and missed something special. A man on a chair next to me starts playing “Donna Lee” on a trumpet, while the man across from him drums lightly on the arm of the chair. His phrasing is impeccable. The proprietor comes downstairs to shush him. He doesn’t want any more cop action tonight. They were gracious the first time, and they might not be the second time. The man puts a mute on his trumpet and continues to play. It’s still pretty loud, and the host shushes him again. He continues to play at a still-lower volume, just loud enough to produce sound, and this seems to satisfy everyone involved. I am in Berlin and a Japanese man is playing American jazz. There was a time when, if someone had a bass on hand, I would have been able to join in. But jazz chops are separate from normal-music chops, and mine are long gone. I am content to just listen and appreciate. I am nursing a big dark beer in a grimy basement. I am at peace.

It is at this point that I notice the baby. A Japanese woman with some sort of luminescent paint covering her entire face is holding a baby, gently rocking it at her chest. The baby is not asleep, but appears happy and relaxed. The musicians all take turns smiling at the baby and making soothing noises. One of them appears to be the dad. Mom had taken it upstairs to get away from the smoke and the noise, but it wanted to hang out with dad, so they have come downstairs to visit. This appears to be a seasoned road baby. It feels perfectly at home in a smoky basement party full of strange adults. It has its mom and dad and people it knows, and they have formed a safe space for it in the mildewed basement. The whole scene radiates beatific calm. I feel a strong sense-memory of my own childhood: being rocked to sleep in an assortment of dark rooms awash with music; meeting all manner of strange people; finding out later that some of those people were the very same people on our records at home. I feel a kinship with this baby, just beginning to come into human consciousness so far from the straight world. All the other parents at the PTA meeting will laugh and shake their heads, and the joke is on them. I wish I could tell this baby how lucky it is. Not every baby gets to have what we have.

Eventually, we remember how tired we are and decide to head back. We passed by some promising-looking doner spots on our way, but they are all closed now. We’ll just have to get on the train and hope there’s something near the hotel. If all else fails, we can snack on some bread and fruit scavenged from the green room, but we want a substantial meal. Right outside the station, we see a beacon of hope: Doner Box. It is clearly the drunk-food of last resort, but it is also the only place open and we are going for it. I am surprised to find that it is amazing; not merely acceptable, but transcendent. It’s not on a pita, but rather a sort of crispy grilled square bread, almost like a foccacia. In addition to the savory, paper-thin meat, there is an assortment of pickled vegetables, augmented with three complementary sauces. There is a garlicky one and a spicy one and a sort of tangy mayo-based one. Unlike most late night foods of this nature, it is neither heavy nor greasy, and leaves the body feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. I would go out of my way to eat this if I lived near it; it is divine. In Midtown it would cost nine dollars instead of three euros, which is roughly four dollars, and you’d be happy to have it. It is all I can do not to order and summarily destroy another one. Cooler heads prevail.

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