Good-bye to all that. Well, not good-bye, but here’s the stack with just about every CD I played in 2006 in it, from which I drew the last two posts. Exceptions are the box sets and the discs I’ve used for radio pieces, which got filed elsewhere. As impressive as this stack is, it’s not nearly as large as you’d think, especially once you subtract the many CDs with similar spines you see in there, which are CDs burned from downloaded Indian classical music, which I played a lot of this year, for some reason.
Sometime in the next couple of days, these will be filed away and a new stack will start.
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Now, here’s a campaign I can get behind! On Jan. 21, there’ll be a vote as to whether to re-name a part of Kochstr. Rudi-Dutschke-Str. For those of you who don’t know who he was, there’s a decent bio of the charismatic left-wing rabble-rouser who later became a committed Green here in German. The really edgy thing about this proposal is the segment’s propinquity to the Springer Verlag building, where Germany’s right-wing press lord printed lies about the youth culture of the ’60s and fostered the climate that saw Dutschke take three bullets to the head during a demonstration. He lived, but he was never the same again, and died after an epileptic seizure in his bathtub in 1979, aged 39. I’m not eligible to vote, but I’d be proud to if I could. Dutschke was the kind of thoughtful West Berlin politico this city needed more of, which, I guess, is why he was eventually driven to exile in Denmark.
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I thought I’d seen the end of stupid brand-names with the Puky bicycles and the SMEG refrigerators, but no: visiting some website the other day, I saw an ad from Neckermann, a big German mail-order house, for their hip new line of footwear: Re-Ject Sneakers. Uhhh, guys? Sneakers are supposed to be a prestige item, not something for losers. Try again.
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Okay, it’s a cliche to talk about what the search engines are looking for when they hit your blog, but ever since someone in Turkey found me by searching for “fried tits,” I’ve done my best to check out what’s going on out there. I guess the search for “Berliner luft cake recipe” was pretty odd; I’ve never understood the obsession with the air here, and why it’s supposed to be so special, but there really are songs about the “Berliner Luft.” But a cake? I wouldn’t touch it!
Still, this all fades into normality in the face of the person about a week ago who landed here after Googling “Mayonnaise spread on one’s lawn to attract the zombies.”
Not that I’m going to try that, understand.
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And finally, one nice addition to the neighborhood that I discovered while walking around on New Year’s Day: a new Nike! This is good because a number of her pieces have disappeared: the three identical women doing yoga, which was the first of hers I saw, the one outside Cafe Burger, and the fat girl by Friedrichstr. station, among others. I found another in Kreuzberg that I haven’t shot yet, but it may no longer be there, because it had signs of having been attacked from below by a crowbar, and I found a couple yesterday in a part of Prenzlauer Berg I hadn’t visited in about a year that I’m going back up to shoot soon. But, not very far from the mad installation Invalid Beach on Invalidenstr. here’s Nike’s new year present:
As I said last time, I spent more time listening to old music this year than I did to new music — when I bothered listening to music at all. Part of this is due to the fact that I have writing commitments to a couple of magazines and a radio show, all of which have to do with reissues or older music. Part of it, though, I have to admit, is that at least I knew what I was getting, and it wasn’t all confessional songwriting, which seems to have taken over these last few years — or at least taken over what shows up in my mailbox. At least there was some diversity in the reissues, and I appreciate that.
So, in no particular order, here are some of my faves. And, as with last time, remember that clicking on the link and ordering from it brings me a whopping 4% of the money, bringing me ever closer to getting out of Berlin — a worthy cause if there ever was one. Or, well, of course, that’s what I think…
: Amateur rock historians always talk about how Elvis pioneered the vital fusion between black and white popular music, but that’s hooey. Bob Wills was there first. So were a lot of other people, but none of them was as successful, and as successful for so long, as Wills and his parade of brilliant instrumentalists. West Texas fiddle tunes and hot swing jazz only sounds like a weird idea until you drop the needle on some, and this collection is by far the finest assembling of Wills’ output ever. And although Legacy has the jump on others who’d compile this stuff, since most of Wills’ best music was made for Columbia, Gregg Geller and Rich Kienzle, who put this together, managed to come up with a whole disc’s worth of stuff made after he left that’s top-drawer. This set is not only an education in itself, it’s some of the greatest American music ever recorded. You need it.
: It was a total shock for the young folkies who’d been listening to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music that not only could some of these people still be alive, but that a lot of them actually were. After a number of them were located — and others, who’d never recorded, also showed up — there was a mad scramble to record them and present them live in concert. Probably the most notable concert series was run out of Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on McDougal Street in New York, by a group calling itself Friends of Old Time Music. True to their mission, they recorded every show, and the compilers of this three-disc set had their work cut out for them culling it down to what you see and hear here. What’s most remarkable — and, in a way, discouraging — is that most of what’s on this set is previously unissued; it’s discouraging in that the FOTM albums Folkways put out in the ’60s had some amazing stuff on them, and I don’t know where to point you to it. That said, this is heartwarming stuff, from Dock Boggs unveiling a new song to Mississippi John Hurt’s totally engaging on-stage presence. It’s a document of something that won’t pass this way again, captured when it was in its full flowering. Essential.
: It was only a short step from the folk revival to the birth of country rock, where various California cowpersons, would-be cowpersons, hippies, and Bakersfield malcontents — not to mention dissident folkies like Jim McGuinn — conspired to bring about a change in rock no less important than the one the Beatles had sparked. It wasn’t an easy transition, but it succeeded — all too well, as the birth of the Eagles attests. Compiler Alec Palao has done his homework, and this set not only includes some of the obvious — the Byrds, the Burritos, et al — but some worthy obscurities. Me, I’m really hoping for a Volume Two, but until then, this will continue to satisfy.
: Another byproduct of the folk boom was the eventual concession by the folkies that maybe electricity was okay after all, and the subsequent discovery by the rock crowd of the great electric bluesmen who were still among them. None benefited from this quite so much as B.B. King, whose guitar style was one of the touchstones of the electric blues revival. But one of the things people have always missed about him was that it was his voice as much as his guitar virtuosity which had made him popular with black audiences from the beginning. On this album, Lucille takes a bit of a rest — although she’s by no means silent — and the result is an album that King has always said is his favorite of all of his extensive catalogue. Fans have long clamored for a second one, and maybe now that he’s retiring, we’ll get one. Meanwhile, this more than does the trick. No, the blues isn’t the devil’s music.
and Hard Workin’ Man: The Jack Nitzche Story, Vol. 2: Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound? That was Jack Nitzche. Phil had the idea, but it was his arranger who put it on paper for all those musicians. Naturally, an ambitious guy like Nitzche wasn’t going to stay in Spector’s shadow for long, and he went on to produce and arrange albums by a huge number of people, from Doris Day to Willy de Ville, before moving to the even more lucrative field of film scores. These two records document a wide variety of his work, from his early single “The Lonely Surfer,” through an absolutely radiant arrangement of Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” for the Everly Brothers, to his work with Neil Young (and his playing in Crazy Horse), all the way up to his last work, with the obscenely talented young Louisianan C. C. Adcock. Two of my most-played discs of the year. Incredible stuff.
: Another piece of good homework. Rockabilly can be terribly tedious, as we listen to washed-up or never-was country singers attempting to get down with the kids, or kids thrashing around trying to be as cool as Elvis. By recasting this movement as “punk and rockabilly,” complier James Austin not only builds a bridge to the present, but clarifies the past, so that the hillbilly component is only part of the mix, and outright zaniness comes to the fore where it belongs. I’ve got some quibbles with the selection, but overall, this is a wonderful presentation of an era in American popular music when nobody knew what the formula was, but didn’t figure that was any reason to stop.
: A figure in both rockabilly and country rock, Waylon Jennings was yet another of those Texas guys whose music didn’t fit in anywhere but refused to let that stop him. This four-disc collection is exhaustive, and I bet most of you will be satisfied with The Ultimate Waylon Jennings, which is a tidier selection, but then you’d miss Lenny Kaye’s liner notes and the version of “Jole Blon” Buddy Holly produced for him.
: Damn those Brits! When you think you’ve discovered all the great soul singers there ever were, they go and launch another CD full of astounding vocal work backed with great arrangements at you! Wiggins was from New Orleans, which figures, although his work didn’t partake of any of the Meters/Toussaint brand of exotica but went straight for fine country soul, which was what Goldwax did best. This is as fine a collection of his stuff as you’ll find, and I recommend you get it before the next amazing soul singer’s CD slides into my mailbox.
: Wanda Jackson wasn’t fazed by the fact that she didn’t become the female Elvis — at least in sales, since artistically she more than met her goal. She slid gracefully into a career as a country singer, and she sure had the pipes for it. So it’s hardly surprising that this collection is as good as it is, since the compilers were able to omit the so-so stuff that was a fact of life for every Nashville-based entertainer at the time and concentrate on stuff which extends her legacy. And when the new tough-girl Nashville gals — read Loretta Lynn — started happening, Wanda was ready: check out the bizarre “This Gun Don’t Care (Who It Shoots).”
: Can I hear the congregation say, “Just plain weird?” Amen! This actually takes me back to the gospel shows I wrote about in my post about Village Music. The headliners would be in the grand tradition, but somewhere down the bill would always be a couple of groups of ambitious young local kids who just loved to jam, and, I bet, later wound up working the secular side of the street. But this, like most of the Numero Group’s releases, is completely idiosyncratic and bizarre, a collection of releases on private labels and limited pressings by funky gospeleers working a style that never took off and was eventually crushed by the ’80s mass choir movement. This has shown up on a lot of year-end best-ofs, and no wonder.
: You know that “Funky Broadway” Dyke and the Blazers were singing about? It wasn’t in New York. It was — of all places — in Phoenix, Arizona, and Dyke was just the most successful of a whole bunch of funky guys, many of whom were captured on wax by — who else? — a white guy from Liverpool, who seems to have considered it his mission in life to document the Phoenix Scene. Some of these recordings are rough, but some are exquisite. Eccentric soul, indeed.
: Oh, go ahead, listen to this. You won’t turn gay. I haven’t, anyway, although this does bring back the days when gay taste ruled the dance music scene in New York and the rock kids would gingerly approach clubs like the Paradise Garage, where Levan ruled the decks, if they were feeling adventurous. This collection is pretty much a primer of New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and ought to get any intelligent person re-thinking the opprobrium levelled at “disco” — or even whether such a label makes sense or ever did.
: She was too old when she started, her career had a disastrous start with a jazz album (included here) that’s all but unlistenable, and then she cut a single that couldn’t be topped — by anybody, let alone herself. Lorraine Ellison had rough luck, if you want to look at it that way. But she also had the great good luck to hook up with one of the greatest soul music producers of all time, Jerry Ragovoy, for that single, “Stay With Me,” and then to make one more excellent album with Ted Templeman, a producer I’ve never liked. It’s all here, along with a whole disc of her demos, recorded with members of her family gospel group. Soul was giving way to funk when Ms. Ellison was doing her best work, but this is definitely worth hearing. Well, except for the jazz album. Jerry, what were you thinking?
: Yeah, we lost him this year, but here’s how we got him in the first place. He burst onto the scene with “Please, Please, Please,” described by his ever-articulate label-owner, Syd Nathan, as “the worst shit I ever heard,” and then sold so many copies of it that he had to cut pale imitations of it for Nathan for four years in the hopes of achieving another blockbuster success. It wasn’t until he used his own money to cut a demo of a ballad, “Try Me,” and convinced them to let him record it that he had another hit. But then he was on his way, inventing a whole new kind of music. This starts slow, but Disc 2 takes off like a rocket.
: Motown Select has now gotten to the real nitty-gritty. 1964 was the year of the Supremes’ “Baby Love” and the beginning of the Motown juggernaut. You can still hear them tinkering with the formula here, but this is where they found it. Even the flops are hits. I’m most of the way through the 1965 box and have the ’66 sitting waiting to be heard. This series has its occasional bad tracks (less so after this volume, when Gordy finally abandoned his — yes! — country label, Mel-O-Dy), but this is a project no student of American music can pass up.
That’s just the best; I’m out of energy for the rest. Anyway, this’ll give you lots of listening pleasure, and I’ve got to get busy with next year’s batch. I mean this year’s. Enjoy.
In which I try to recommend some newly-created albums in a year when I pretty much gave up listening to music completely. The reasons for that will have to wait — I’m going to write about it at some point, but it’s not a priority at the moment and so I’m putting it off — but suffice it to say that I’ve never listened to less new music in the course of a year than I did in 2006. And only part of that is because a lot of what I heard just plain wasn’t very good.
At any rate, the small list below will be dwarfed by the reissues I’ll be posting next — I listened to far more old music than new, and not just for work-related reasons — and it’s always appropriate to remind readers that if you click most of these links, you’ll be taken to Amazon.com, and buying any of these records through this blog causes them to cut me a check, which will bring me a millimeter or two closer to getting out of Berlin. So it’s for a good cause.
: Okay, so I’m a classicist. This isn’t insurgent country, Americana, or any of that other stuff, it’s just plain country music, played by a hand-picked band of stellar old-school pickers steeped in the Nashville and Texas traditions, sung by a great interpreter. Given all the idiotic costumes country music’s been forced to wear since it’s become the pop genre of choice for suburban 25+-year-old religious females (which is its current demographic), I sometimes need to be reminded that I once loved it. This is the kind of record that reminds me. Walker was a top-quality writer of lyrics, and not half bad with a melody, either, and it’s no wonder that so many of the songs here were classics. And good on Willie for being able to get this record out before Ms. Walker passed away this year. I’m tempted to say that even people who don’t much like country music will like this, but I underestimate their dislike most of the time. And it does, yes, have steel guitar. Excellent steel guitar.
: Charanga Cakewalk is Michael Ramos, a percussionist I used to see in some of the better Austin bands, and this album is a testament to the anybody-can-make-an-album ethos which has resulted in so very much terrible product being released. Ramos used time off on the road, playing as a hired hand with various outfits, to sketch this stuff on his laptop, after which he took it back to Austin and added a few things, most notably vocals from some of his friends. This is “Americana,” in the very best sense of the word, for those of us who don’t believe “America” is restricted to the United States. Atmospheric, almost abstract in places, yet also rooted, this is an album I’d like to see do well enough that Michael can make a couple more of them, if he wants to.
: Dave Alvin is grumpy, irascible, passionate about a lot of things that have nothing to do with what he does for a living — enough like me that I mistrust my own reactions to his records. Not all of this collection of under-known songs by California songwriters is up to his usual high standards — a doo-wop group doing the Beach Boys’ parts on “Surfer Girl” is a notable miscalculation — but he also manages to remind us of how wonderful John Stewart’s “California Bloodlines” is, as well as reminding us that Kevin “Blackie” Farrell, a criminally neglected songwriter I happen to know about because he used to run with the Commander Cody/Asleep At the Wheel crowd and write songs for them, is worthy of further investigation. And anyone who can get me to sit through an entire Jackson Browne song — and like it — has definitely still got something going for himself.
: It’s been years since I’ve been to Louisiana, and even longer since I’ve relaxed with one of those tiny beers in Richard’s Club just outside of Eunice, but it appears that zydeco is still a contemporary, living, kind of music. Buckwheat’s been one of my favorites — okay, so I’m a little old-fashioned that way, although I was also a great fan of the late Beau Joque — ever since I used to see him in Houston’s Third Ward at the church dances back in the early ’80s. The great thing about Jackpot! is it’s not Buck trying to cross over. Been there, done that, didn’t, apparently, much like it. Homefolks are forgiving, though, and this is an album for them. Maybe not the best place to start with zydeco if you’re not used to it, but for those of us who’ve been on board a while, a nice enough way to pass a good time.
: It’s a jam band! It’s a bluegrass band! Awww, who cares? As long as the musicianship’s this good, the communication between the players so utterly clear, and the songwriting’s not obtrusively bad, it’s fine with me. A guilty pleasure, and, admittedly, something of a lesser one in terms of number of spins, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be going back to this again some more.
: I have no idea who these guys are, but I suspect I’d enjoy seeing them live. Once again, California and Americana, but with a weird overlay of darkness that’s perfectly expressed by the nighttime gas station on the cover. They’re a bit of a throwback — I could see them as some tangential Byrds spinoff that I’d have to use one of Pete Frame’s family trees to decipher, but that’s not a bad thing at all. I might try to rustle up their previous record next time I’m in the States. They’re that interesting.
: Again, not a perfect record, but an interesting one without a doubt. Two amplified harmonicas, a tuba player, drummer, guitarist, and trumpet player. Oh, and the occasional Tuvan throat singing. There are lots of things you could say about this if all you wanted to do is crack wise — the Delta Blues goes to Mars, world music from another world — but although the eclecticism wears over the course of an album that’s a bit longer than it absolutely needs to be, the elements which are brought together are approached without too much reverence, but a lot of respect, if that makes sense to you. Another outfit I’d like to see live, but maybe only for one set.
: Whut th’?!? Sorry, but there’d be more stuff like this on this list if I’d been exposed to it. I love pop, and I love smart people, and there’s certainly no doubt in my mind that Neil Tennant shares my sentiments. Tennant’s at his best when he’s pissed off or downcast, at least to my taste, and I’d like to see another songwriter this year who came up with something as wrenching as “I Made My Excuses and Left,” or as nuanced as “Twentieth Century.” You may think you’ve outgrown this sort of thing, or you may only know the PSB through “Go West” or the campy like, but this is the other side of the picture. The nearly all-black cover is quite appropriate. As (heh) is the shocking pink disc inside.
: No-brainer: Jon Dee Graham puts out an album, it winds up here at the end of the appropriate year. Yeah, it’s not as good as his last one, and I’d have been shocked if it had been because then it’d be tempting to think he wasn’t human. It’s not as boisterous, not as wide-open personal, and yet it’s still him because nobody else in the world writes songs like this. I’m looking forward to seeing him in Texas (or maybe over here, since he does well in Holland), and I’m sure he’ll make better and lesser records for years to come.
Jon Hardy and the Public: Observances: Another no-brainer, from a guy who I think — and I seem to be the only person in the world who’s aware of his existence — is one of America’s great songwriters. You can’t even get his stuff on Amazon (although you can on eMusic), but you can get it from his website. As with Jon Dee’s album, this ep isn’t quite as good as his debut album, but I suspect he’s been frustrated by lack of gigs and lack of opportunity to record, and I’ve been dragging my heels on getting some music he asked for to him, so I’m guilty, too. But maybe this year his application to SXSW will come through and someone else will figure out what I hear in this guy’s writing and playing and he’ll get to make another full-length album and maybe even tour outside of St. Louis. He’s too good to get lost in the torrent of mediocrity, but man, swimming that stream is tough.
: Possibly the only album out of all of these which’ll show up on anyone else’s list, this, I suspect, fulfills a long-time dream of Al’s: to make a John Cale record. I know, the sensitive chronicler of the Mexican-American family and the bittersweet edges of love gained and lost and the guy who screamed “They say FEAR is a man’s best FRIEND!” seem one hell of an odd couple, but Al’s been doing Cale’s “Amsterdam” pretty much ever since he broke up the True Believers, and we should never forget that he’s had a nasty, loud, hard-rocking side to him since he started. Yes, the story this year has been his remarkable uphill climb from almost dying from Hepatitis C, but for me the news has been this wonderful Cale-produced bunch of songs, with Al letting Cale run riot in the studio and keeping up with him every step of the way. Now, Al, about doing one with Oontah…
So that’s it. Pretty anemic, huh? Mind you, I stand behind every one of those choices, and there were a lot of albums that hit the toss stack, but I’d have liked more rawk, more British stuff, more variety last year. Ah, well, there’s always this year. If I get around to listening to anything, that is.
We seem to be experiencing technical difficulties in the archive since the move to the New! Improved! Blogger. None of the photos are showing up. Our team of seasoned experts (oregano, basil, some thyme) are hard at work. Sorry for any inconvenience.
Very shortly, my summary of this past year’s music. Please be patient.
One of America’s best record stores — hell, one of the world’s best record stores — will close on Sept. 30, 2007. Village Music, in Mill Valley, California, has fallen victim to the high price of doing business in Marin County, and proprietor John Goddard has decided to sell off his stock, as well as the mind-boggling array of memorabilia which covers his walls.
Actually, it’s not just the expense. As John notes in a press release I got the day after I got my annual (and treasured) Christmas card from him, this year’s featuring a photo of Little Jimmy Scott and Ruth Brown standing in front of the shop, “While the deciding factor in this decision has been the rent levels necessary to maintain a business in Mill Valley, this is only one of several reasons I’ve reached this decision. Basically — it’s time. I’ve had a great time here for a great many years. The things I’ve learned, the people I’ve met, and the ways in which my musical horizons have expanded (and, on some levels, solidified) have been probably the major focus of my life for 40 years. It has been, for the most part, wonderful.”
I’ll say. When I moved to California to work at Rolling Stone, it was my great good luck to rent an apartment in Sausalito, the town which lies at the other end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not on the tourist side, but on the side overlooking the Bay where the fishing fleet (what was left of it), the houseboat community, and the residents’ shopping district on Caledonia Avenue were. My place had a stunning view of Mt. Tamalpais, at the foot of which Mill Valley sits.
Naturally, being in the business I was in, I got loads and loads of records, many of which I didn’t want. Just as I was about to be choked out of my home, one of the record reviewers I worked with mentioned a place where I could unload them, just a few miles away. That place was Village Music. John’s policy was simple: you got credit, or you could take cash. He bought stuff for half what he sold it for. New albums in the store were $3.88, three for $10. Used albums went from a dime to quite a lot of money if they were rare enough. And there were lots and lots of albums.
Not only that, John knew a lot about most of them. He seemed to treasure American musical history more than anyone I’d met to that point, and he was evangelical about the stuff he liked. “You’ve never heard that? Take that home today!” But John, I’ve only got $16 credit, and I’ve got this other stuff… And out would come one of the mysterious pieces of paper that lived in and around the cash register. “Okay, now you owe me.” And accounts would, inevitably, get settled. But this music wasn’t just something that lived on round pieces of vinyl for John. He had an unbelievable network of people alerting him to out-of-the-way clubs and concerts and churches where the people who’d recorded those records were playing. You’d get a telephone call if you were among the lucky inner circle: “Mighty Clouds of Joy, Tuesday evening, church in Oakland. Interested?” “Ernest Tubb is playing in Morgan City tonight. It’s kind of a haul, but I’m going.” And, of course, if you heard of something, you’d call him. I was plugged into the zydeco circuit and always passed that news along.
Eventually, his knowledge and his stash of records increased to where expansion was inevitable. One night, I cooked a big pot of gumbo at his house and we drove it to the store, where a number of people waited with sledgehammers and a case of beer to knock down one of the walls. He’d acquired a lease on the store next door, and was going to double his space. It took about a week for that to fill up, but it did relieve the congestion somewhat. Nor were these just record collectors with the sledgehammers. John’s clientele included a great number of people for whom access to the information in the grooves he sold was a matter of vital interest: professional musicians. And, this being Marin County and the ’70s, the great majority of them could be filed under “rock stars.” It wasn’t at all unusual to be shopping with Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, Marty Balin, Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, or Maria Muldaur. I’m still pissed off at Bloomfield, whom I met when we both reached for the same Barbara Lynn album at the same time. “I need this,” he said. But I saw it first! “Well, I’m Mike Bloomfield and you’re not and I need this.” We eventually became friendly, but that was also the only copy of that album I ever had a chance to own. I still haven’t heard it. And, just as with the live music, these people passed on the knowledge they got: one day I walked in on a warm spring day and the most beautiful acoustic guitar music was playing. I asked what it was and he said “Slack key. Ry Cooder found a bunch of it in Hawaii and brought some back for me. I don’t have any for sale, but I’ve got some ordered. Want me to save you some when it comes in? It’s expensive…” It was, but it was worth it.
The knowledge that performers existed who didn’t perform in California got John to thinking, and this led him to start throwing his famous parties. There was a bar at the other end of town called the Sweetwater where a lot of the local musicians hung out and sometimes performed, and John started renting it twice a year for private invitation-only parties. One was for the store’s birthday in September, and the other was a Christmas party. Customers clamored to perform, and were nearly always routinely turned down; John had an iron-clad idea of who he wanted every time. Sometimes, of course, this meant building a backup band, so there was never any trouble finding musicians for that. But other times, the performers brought their own bands. The parties would be catered by barbeque joints or some of John’s customers in the food business, and there’d be a cash bar.
John sought out performers down on their luck, performers who he felt should have wider exposure, and he cannily invited people who could improve their fortunes to these parties. Within weeks of a story appearing in the Village Voice about the all-but-forgotten jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott playing rat-holes in Newark, he was on the stage at the Sweetwater astonishing a crowd that had never heard of him. Six months later, his first Warner Bros. album appeared to a swarm of enthusiastic, I-didn’t-know-he-was-still-alive reviews. The Christmas parties always featured Charles Brown, who, before Michael Jackson appeared on the scene, had the best-selling single by a black artist ever, “Merry Christmas, Baby,” recorded in 1947, and selling seasonally every year thereafter. Mr. Brown hadn’t been such a good businessman, and when he made his first Sweetwater appearance, he was eking out a living in Oakland teaching piano lessons. He, too, was amazed that this crowd knew him, and played one after another of his hits. Finally, he said “A very long time ago, we recorded a song that’s been very good to us ever since. It’s called ‘Merry Christmas, Baby.’ Would you like to hear it?” The crowd roared. Mr. Brown faked a double take. “Really? You do?” Pandemonium. His career saw an uptick, too, not long afterwards.
Not that contemporary performers were neglected. There was always something good to drink there, but I swear I wasn’t hallucinating when I saw Elvis Costello backed by Commander Cody, James Burton, Jerry Garcia, Sammy Hagar, Austin de Lone, “Teenage” Steve Douglas, and one or two others I’m spacing on at the moment. The audience was just as diverse. Carlos Santana and John Lee Hooker always shared a table, and I saw one show from a seat at the bar, where I was between Tanita Tikaram and Pearl Harbor — babe city!
The main thing, though, was that John has never thought of music as a product. Records, yes. Music, no. He’s always been a fan, which is why he nearly passed out the first time B.B. King (a major record collector himself) or Cab Calloway walked into the store. I can’t speculate on what he’ll do next, but I bet he’ll be doing something to do with his passionate love of American roots music.
As for me, I’m hoping I can get there once more before the place closes, and maybe even treat myself to a souvenir. The real souvenir — the word is, of course, the French verb “to remember” — is the education I got in that store and through knowing John Goddard all these years. You can’t put a dollar figure on that, but if you want, we can figure out a way to do it with credit.
I suppose it wasn’t a total surprise to wake up this morning and read that James Brown had left the building. He was, after all, 73 years old, and when you advertise yourself as the hardest working man in show business, you, well, you work hard at it. And there was never any doubt that James worked hard.
I got to see him up close once, in one of those random moments that happen when you least expect them. My friend TV Tom used to be the publicist for the Parliament-Funkadelic organization in their heyday, around 1977-78, which meant that there were several James Brown alumni on the bus: bassist Bootsy Collins, who fronted his own amazing band which included his brother Catfish (who’d played alongside Bootsy in the Brown band), saxophonist Maceo Parker, and trombonist Fred Wesley. Bootsy was always grateful for the protection the man he called “Mr. Brown” had given him as a young, green, but phenomenally gifted 16-year-old bass player, on the road with the “Sex Machine”-era Brown band. Catfish, Maceo, and Fred, however, would just give you the evil eye if you asked them about “Mr. Brown.”
Anyway, Tom and I had flown in from the East Coast, since I was doing a story on the band and, with Tom, would follow them from Savannah, Georgia to Washington D.C. over the course of four or five days. We’d flown non-stop from L.A. to Atlanta, and were going to get some tiny plane to cover the last leg, but the weather coming in had been very unpleasant, and I’m a fearful flyer at the best of times. (Almost Famous wouldn’t be made for years, but I am so there during that airplane scene.) Tom and I looked at the map, saw how close Savannah was, and decided to blow off the flight and pick up a rental car instead. We were going to have to do this anyway, and the chances were better that Atlanta would have a “floater,” a car not assigned to a pool, and, thus, not subject to dropoff charges. And hey, it was the record company’s money.
So we approached the Avis counter, which was next to the Hertz counter and maybe one or two others. As we were standing in line, Tom gripped my arm. “Don’t look, but that’s James Brown standing over there in the Hertz line!” So I casually rolled my eyes, and there he was. He was very short, very black, and had ridiculous hair. James Brown, all right.
Our line moved pretty quickly, and it became evident, the closer we got to the counter, that the black guy at the next counter was working for James Brown, because the dialogue was repetitive. Clerk: “I’m sorry, sir, but the card’s not going through.” Guy: “I’m certain there’s some mistake. We always use you people. The name is Brown, James Brown.” Clerk: “Yes, that’s the name I show, but the card’s not going through.” Guy: “Could you please try again?” Clerk: “Yes, sir. Let’s give it a minute.” And there would be some more business, and the card wouldn’t go through. “Do you suppose we should go vouch for him?” Tom wondered, more idly than asking a serious question. “Naaah, it’s the card that’s the problem, not the Godfather.”
Our business took a while, because we insisted on a floater, and civilians aren’t supposed to know about them. And we got to hear that dialogue several more times. The guy was just not going to give up. I think Tom was on the verge of taking his card over and putting it down for the beleaguered star when the clerk said “Well, how about that? It came up fine this time! I don’t know what the problem was, but it’s solved now.” At this point, James hustled up to the counter and said “It’s the car we always have reserved for us. The Lincoln. The purple Lincoln.” Tom made a face and tried not to laugh.
But I’ll tell you one thing: as we walked with our keys to the car we’d rented, we passed James Brown and the guy in the hall, and neither Tom nor I was brave enough to open our mouths and say a thing. Short, black, ridiculous hair, but the man had one powerful aura around him.
Actually, in the middle of writing that, I remembered the time I didn’t meet James Brown. In the early ’70s, John Goddard of Village Music, arguably America’s greatest record store, bought a warehouse full of King Records, and I discovered, through him, a goldmine of American music. I bought dozens of them, and one thing they all had in common was the address: 1540 Brewster Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio. I became obsessed with King and its amazing hillbilly and R&B artists, although I didn’t bother to pick up any of the albums John stocked by the man who had saved the company’s life in the late ’50s by being the only person on the label to have substantial hits: James Brown.
A lucky gig found me working in Chicago and picking up a nice check for it, so I arranged (back in the days of “triangle fares,” which let you add on a destination to a round-trip ticket for a negligible amount) to visit friends living near Dayton, Ohio. And, I reasoned, while I was there, I could drive to Cincinnati and visit 1540 Brewster.
Which, of course, I did. And found nothing. Well, not literally nothing, but the huge space was empty except for a little lady behind a desk. John had asked me to find any memorabilia, particularly photos, but also press releases, point-of-sale material, anything they might have, and, if there was a lot of it, to call him collect so he could arrange to pay for it and have it shipped. Naturally, I asked her about that first. “Oh, we got rid of all of that. Just threw it out. We saved some of the more important stuff, though.” Oh? I brightened up. “Like Steve Lawrence’s first contract. Did you know he started with us?” I almost passed out. Threw it out???
Just at this moment a string-bean with an explosion of orange hair walked into the room, obviously back from lunch, asking if he’d had any messages. “No, but there’s this young man who’s come asking about King. Maybe you folks have something he’s interested in?” “Sure,” the guy said, and said “Come with me.” We walked down a hall, and he stuck a key in a door labelled James Brown Enterprises.
Even with that warning, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The room froze as I walked in, and the redhead said “It’s okay, he’s with me.” He then introduced himself as James Brown’s road manager. (Note for historians: I remember his last name as Jaffee, although I note that Alan Leeds was Brown’s tour director at this time. Anyone out there can straighten this out?)
He showed me to a seat, and everyone went back to what they’d been doing. In the case of the couple over at the next desk, that was (him) counting $20 bills into an attache case and (her) languidly puffing on a cigarette. This action was even more noticeable than it might have been because of the very short skirt she was wearing and the huge emerald that had been pierced into her left nostril.
“Those people out there,” the roadie said, “they don’t care about anything! We were the only asset they had, and now James is with Polygram, and they had to give James Brown Enterprises all his files but the rest of it? Pfffft! They don’t have any idea what they’ve got, they don’t know what to do with it, and it’s driving everyone crazy. All I can say is, it’s great your friend got all those albums, because if they weren’t pressed on such cheap plastic, they’d probably already have recycled them, too. Sorry, I’d like to help, but…” and he shrugged.
As a naive white kid in my mid-20s, I was freaked out enough by the scene around me, so I thanked him, shook his hand, and went back to my car. The last I saw of 1540 Brewster was in my rear-view mirror.
The good news, incidentally, is that a lot of the King tapes and acetates were, in fact, saved, and are being sorted through by people who do know what they’re doing. The bad news is, the people who own the label still don’t have a clue. But James Brown’s legacy is safe, thanks to the aforementioned Alan Leeds.
The very bad news, though, is that his legacy is now at an end. Thanks for everything, Godfather.
Had my third annual Christmas dinner at the dancer’s last night — kabocha squash soup followed by an excellent wild-hare ragout — followed by a troll through German television looking at Christmas stuff (and a remarkable documentary about people who escaped over the Berlin Wall — or tried to — on what must’ve been the Burden of History Channel, since what’s that got to do with Christmas?) but, alas, nothing on the way home to match the delightful aftermath of our first annual dinner, which I recounted here.
Actually, this Christmas had a weird edge to it. Saturday, walking to stock up at the store (Berlin doesn’t open again until Wednesday morning), I heard rapid footsteps approaching me from behind. My New York instincts took over, and I looked over my shoulder to see a little guy in a green hooded windbreaker, arms filled with boxes of awful Glühwein, running like crazy. His face was flushed, and he had a full beard, which, as he passed me, made me think of a garden troll, since he had his hood up. I heard more footsteps, and saw a skinny young guy running after him. It was too late for me to do anything, and I’m not sure I would have if I could have, because the situation looked pretty ambiguous. At Bergstr., the little guy hung a right, and the skinny guy passed me, panting audibly. (New Year’s resolution for you, dude: it involves cigarettes). As I turned left, I saw the skinny guy, almost doubled-over, grab a cell phone and make a call. I guess it was just a larcenous wino and maybe a guy from the store where he stole the wine, but it was an odd sight.
Not to mention that last night, getting out of the U-Bahn by the dancer’s, there was what appeared to be a flaming cocktail parasol burning brightly on the platform and some Arab-looking guys walking away from it. I took the wrong exit, which was fortunate, because by the time I got to where I saw the exit I should have taken, it was awash with police cars and vans, and cops interrogating a large crowd of these same Arab-looking guys, who might have been rousted out of the Internet cafe on the corner. Guess this year was Crimesmas.
But I did have a story for today in readiness, something that happened to me about ten years ago. It doesn’t make me look particularly smart, for the most part, but it does have a weird ending.
I was walking to the store, along the same route as Saturday, when a white van pulled up and the passenger-side window rolled down. A youngish guy asked me, in German, if I needed speakers. Well, it just so happened I did, since the ones I’d cobbled out of a defunct stereo system a friend had given me had crapped out. One didn’t work at all, and the other was iffy. What luck! But…what was going on?
The guy started speaking rapid-fire German, and I asked him to slow down because my German wasn’t that good. “English?” he asked, and I said sure. “Wow, that’s good; we’re from Holland and our German’s not so hot either. Listen, we’ve been working on a club here in town, setting up the sound system, and this guy’s not sparing anything; it’s a great system, and he’s paid a lot for it. Anyway, we ordered the equipment, and somehow they shipped us double the number of speakers we needed, so we’re making a little extra Christmas money on this job and we’re selling them super-cheap. These are great speakers: look at this.” He pulled a loose-leaf notebook out from somewhere and showed me an article from some high-end stereo magazine I’d never heard of. The speakers he had had come in third, just beneath two brands I’d heard of. Interesting!
“Look, every penny we make on this deal is free money, so we’re not going to rip you off,” he said. “We’ll sell them to you for DM 200 a pair. Hey, you have any friends who need speakers?” In fact, I did. I’d been bitching about mine going out while I was at the radio station where I worked, and one of the guys there said he’d just blown one of his and didn’t know if it’d be cheaper to get it fixed or just buy new ones. “So why not buy two pairs and sell him the other? That way, you make money on the deal, too.”
I looked at them, and the address on the boxes was a company in South Carolina. But I wasn’t sure. They might have been stolen, for one thing, but by Dutch guys with their own van? That didn’t seem plausible. But the facts were the facts: I had some extra money, I needed speakers because mine were dead, and here was an opportunity. So they drove me to my bank around the corner and, at my insistence, stayed in the van while I hit the cash machine. We drove back to my place, I paid them, and they helped me unload the speakers into my front door. I asked for a receipt, since it was a professional expense, and got one, with an address in far north Berlin on it. “Just remember,” the guy said, “if for any reason you’re dissatisfied, just bring them back, opened or not, and we’ll refund 100% of your money.” So…how could I lose?
After I got back from my trip to the store — I still had to eat, after all — I hooked them up. They sounded okay, but I was suddenly feeling weird about the whole thing. There was one person I knew who’d have the skinny on these things, a guy in Austin who had sold high-end stuff to unimaginably wealthy Texans, so I fired off an e-mail to him. Almost immediately, he wrote back. “Were the guys who sold you this in a white van?” he asked. How bizarre, I thought. How could he know that? I said yes, and he sent me back a URL for something called the White Van Speaker Scam. From looking at it, it seemed like I was the only person in the world who didn’t know about this. I’d let my greed and my desire to get my stereo working again — and, let’s face it, my wanting to buy myself a Christmas present, since nobody else was going to — cloud my better judgement. I felt like a moron.
So I packed the speaker back up, and looked at the receipt, then checked the map. It was in Wittenau, which was a long ways away, and I’d have to take a cab, but I was going to do it. The next morning, I hailed a cab, and the driver let me load all four speakers into the car. About DM 20 later, I was at an industrial park of some sort out in the middle of nowhere. It took some doing, but we found the “suite” listed on the receipt — by now, the cabbie had gotten into it and was hoping I’d get my revenge on the scamsters. Anyway, I knocked on the door, and guy opened it and said “We’re holding a meeting. We’re not open.” I responded in English and told him that I had a receipt in my pocket that said I’d get a 100% refund within three days, and I was returning the speakers. “You’re returning them?” he said, amazed. “You’re the first person who’s ever done that!” Yeah, well, I was returning them. We hauled them into the space, and sure enough, there was one of the guys who’d sold them to me, dressed in a suit, standing in front of a blackboard with diagrams labelled in English: “Sales Talk,” “Customer Satisfaction,” stuff like that. “You’re not returning the speakers?” he said. “What was wrong? Were they defective? We’ll replace them.” No, I said, I just got a better deal. He goggled. “You did? Where?” Ah, I lied, my little secret.
At that point, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a couple of bills. Just a couple, but high-denomination. “Man, this is all the money that’s in the place. You’re going to leave us penniless.” Like, by then, I cared. It was exactly enough, and I thanked him and left. The cabbie was still there, although I’d paid him. “You got your money back?” he said. “Great! I’ll drive you to the U-Bahn for free. It’s good to see that sometimes you can stand up to the gangsters and win!”
Two days later, the guy who buys my used CDs showed up at my house. I told him the story, and even he had heard about the White Van Speaker Scam! “If you want good speakers, though, I know where you can get JBL studio monitors for 1/3 their normal price.” Oh, yeah? “Sure,” he said, and named a huge electronics chain. “They price them cheap to get you in there and hope you buy more stuff. But this price is only for 24 hours.” And a couple of hours later, I had a new pair of excellent speakers, made by a firm I’d heard of, set up and working in my house. I’m still using them, in fact.
Remember, this was ten years ago. Today, all you have to do is Google “white van speaker” and you get a handful of pages. I’m still very grateful to the guy in Texas for making the connection. Not to mention the righteous cabbie and the honest scammer.
I just came back from a brisk walk, stockpiling coffee before our coming 4-day weekend (after Saturday, nothing will be open until Wednesday morning, at which point there’ll be nothing in the shops because they won’t have re-stocked yet), and on my way back up Friedrichstr., almost to Torstr., I saw that a new business had opened in a bad-luck location that’s been a half-dozen things in the past few years. This one, though, might make it.
Its predecessor was a store called Come In, which sold, uh, jewelry and stuff, just another un-thought-out business waiting to get pounded into the ground, which happened in due time. The new joint has just as cute a name: Yum Mee. Irritating as that is, it both advertises what’s for sale and shows off the horrid Orientalism which holds forth here in those two words. However, what it sells (in part) could be a godsend to the ‘hood: bánh mi. Half the menu is regular baguette sandwiches, the other half a somewhat timid approach to this classic Vietnamese snack.
My own introduction to bánh mi came in Honolulu, whence I’d gone to do a story on Hawaiian music, which is a much harder assignment than you’d think. Still, I had a motivated researcher in the person of my friend Margaret, who’d moved there with her new husband, Rollo Banks, one of America’s leading tattoo artists. (Please note this was before every idiot teenager in the world had a tattoo. Rollo had inherited the designs of Sailor Jerry, and was still poking them out at China Sea Tattoo on Army Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown.) The day I’d arrived in Honolulu, I’d done something very smart: not fought the jetlag. This was Margaret’s idea: “If you wake up at 6 and go to bed at 10, you’ll be keeping local time, and you’ll never see the tourists.” She was right.
One morning, then, Rollo offered to take me on a tour of Chinatown at 6 in the morning, and I of course jumped at the opportunity. They tell tourists Chinatown is dangerous, and if you’re asked, you should echo that opinion. It’s not, of course, true, but Chinatown is sleazy — or it was back in 1990. at any rate. Rollo was an inspired guide to the sleaze, too; we went to a dime-a-dance place where there was a live orchestra of Filipinos. The drummer — and I can swear to this, having stood right next to him — was asleep, keeping perfect time (all he needed to do was whack the snare), and picking a scab on his neck in his sleep. On the periphery of the dance-floor were little booths where the dance-hall girls — Okinawans, Rollo said — gave blow-jobs for five bucks. There was an antique shop (and why was this open at 6am?) where I bet someone who knew his Chinese or Japanese stuff might well uncover a bargain: it looked like the stock hadn’t been added to since about 1920. Various closed bars were passed and their legends commented upon, and then we went to the wholesale fish market, where multi-ton tuna were being wheeled in straight off the boat while the sushi chefs from the best hotels in the state swarmed over them bidding on the choicest bits. Outside the fish market was a fruit and vegetable market, and Rollo bought a perfectly ripe mango, whereupon he pulled out his knife, stabbed it, and started carving it with careful in-and-out motions. He withdrew the knife, wiped the blade on his jeans and popped the mango open, its flesh falling apart into discrete bite-sized chunks, much to the admiration of the young Vietnamese woman who’d sold it to him. “I learned that trick from a teenaged whore in Bangkok,” he said, and she turned a very unusual color.
We ended the tour in a Vietnamese coffee-shop whose name I carefully wrote down, only to discover later that the two words meant “coffee shop” in Vietnamese. And there, for breakfast, I had a paté, shredded daikon, shredded green chile, homemade mayonnaise, cilantro, shredded carrot and lettuce bánh mi on a perfect baguette, with two cups of that rocket-fuel Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk to wake me up. By the time we got back to Army Street, there was a line in front of China Sea that led around the block. “Oh, hell,” Rollo sighed. “Fleet’s in.”
Anyway, with that kind of intro to bánh mi, no wonder I’ve been waiting for them to show up here. I doubt Yum Mee will be that good, but I’m also intending to head down there tomorrow at lunchtime.
Today, partially goaded by a blitz of recent postering, I headed to Berlin’s brand-new DDR Museum, located in a truly odd underground bunker beneath the Radisson SAS Hotel on Karl-Liebknecht Str., with a branch of the Spree River separating it from the Berliner Dom. It’s a brand-new, wired kind of bunker, though, with a flat-screen displaying the museum’s logo to catch the eye of anyone who might be walking alongside the Spree in the rain these days. (A noodle restaurant a little further along had tables set for about 150 people and was completely empty).
It’s an odd place. To call the lighting “muted” would be an understatement. It’s not quite gloomy, but it sort of forces the eyes towards the exhibits, not all of which are on eye-level. Some of its displays aren’t very intuitive, either: I walked in and saw a very good model of the Berlin Wall, with all of its between-the-wall barriers and security devices, and wanted to know more. It wasn’t until I’d spent some time in the museum that I noted that these bars fixed onto the wall with captions on them were actually handles for various drawers and cabinets which contained exhibits, so I had to head back and check the one by the Wall model. It’s a good way to conserve space, but it can also block aisles and cause congestion.
But what’s even odder is that it doesn’t really seem to take a stand on the DDR — which I admire. (For you Americans, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the name given to the East German nation. The museum has it as GDR, German Democratic Republic, in the captions, but I’ve always preferred the German abbreviation). It may be a bit naive to assert, as they do, that “the DDR never knew misery and poverty,” since that sure wasn’t the case if you lived outside a handful of cities which were kept (relatively) well-provisioned by the central government, but they give equal treatment to the upside and the downside. There’s a Stasi secret-police listening-post in an obscure corner as well as an exquisitely fitted-out model apartment, its TV showing a nice sample-reel of DDR TV shows, and all of its cabinets and drawers filled with artifacts and consumer goods. One wall of the kitchen has some great old DDR cartoons dealing with women’s place in the daily life of the country, and the bookshop has a DDR cookbook for the very brave. There’s also a couple of exhibits about resistance to the regime, from the rather apolitical punks to the “environmental” magazine (really part of a nationwide movement centered in Leipzig) that was secretly printed in the basement of the Zionist movement’s office. The sports section has a drawer which opens to show one box of anabolic steroids, the killer drug which the nation’s sports officials used to try to bring their athletes to Olympic glory, but backfired into cancers and weird gender-altering problems.
One particularly educational exhibit is a Trabant automobile, which you can wedge yourself into if you’re so inclined, with an unsentimental account of the problems of ownership (mechanics were apt to ask, if you brought yours in, whether you’d brought the parts; they were apparently very difficult to obtain). There’s also an unusually large part of the museum given over to the FKK (nude beach) movement. Was the DDR really so big on nudism?
All in all, it’s an odd thing to see this impeccably preserved collection of artifacts so lovingly assembled, and then to step outside, gaze slightly to your left, and see the skeleton of the soon-to-vanish Palast der Republik, the DDR’s main administrative building, in its last throes of demolition. And to walk back home, musing on the things you didn’t see: the DDR and foreigners, the DDR and minority groups (including Jews), the DDR army… In some ways it’s a counterweight to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In others, it’s yet another odd statement of the Burden of History.
Since I realized the other day that I’ve already made one of my New Year’s resolutions — not to get involved in any more magazine startups — and since the morass of comments on those last two posts got into this area, I thought it might be time to expound my basic theory of how to do an English-language magazine in another country.
The following is based on my experience here in Europe, specifically — although not totally — in Berlin. There might be other variables which would make this advice not as applicable in the Far East or South America, I don’t know. But this is what I’ve learned in the past decade.
Earlier, even: when I first moved here in 1993, Checkpoint magazine was already publishing. Co-funded by Zitty, Time Out, and some private funds, it had been running for about a year when I first approached it. It wasn’t very successful for a number of reasons, not least of which was appalling art direction. Eventually, Time Out pulled out, and Zitty took it over, forming a new subsidiary of their company to do so. Since the old name was owned by the previous entity, a new one had to be found, and, casting about for suggestions, I liked one from a friend, Metropolis. True, this was also claimed by an American architecture magazine, but doing our title search (something every magazine should do…hello, ExBerliner!) we discovered it hadn’t been registered in Germany, so we were clear to use it as long as it didn’t look like we were putting out an architecture magazine. It didn’t.
Zitty proved to be an unreliable partner, to say the least. They’d withdraw or hold back funds, and they’d “suspend publication” for a couple of months at a time — once, most disastrously, over the three summer months, the very time when Berlin got most of its English-language tourist trade, and thus, a perfect opportunity for advertisers. In late 1996, though, they’d convinced Metropolis‘ editor, Kevin Cote, to join Zitty as editor-in-chief, and he handed the magazine over to me. I made a couple of changes: the magazine became free, thereby freeing it from having to compete for space with newsstands which hated to display non-Turkish and non-Russian foreign-language publications; and editorial focus was redirected from tourists, never a stable market, to residents.
Having taken our editor, though, Zitty lost all interest in the magazine, and killed it after two issues. Oh, excuse me, “suspended publication.” Weirdly, the two issues I’d put out, with the free distribution network still in its infancy, made money, something the magazine had never done in its earlier incarnations. I was plenty angry about the “suspension,” and announced that the next editorial meeting would take place as scheduled, with an eye towards continuing English-language magazine publication in Berlin. Out of this grew a project known as the Berlin Information Group (BIG), one of whose elements was a newsprint magazine called b. The other elements, and the story of how and why it failed, aren’t part of what I’m focusing on, though.
The two big changes at Metropolis remain essential to the success of a magazine like this today. And yes, I mean magazine. Webpages are great, blogs are great, but even though you can read the web on your cell phone on the U-Bahn, do you really want to? I’m still convinced that a well-designed magazine with great graphics is a fine thing, portable, browsable, and, if it’s free, disposable without guilt. (You do recycle, don’t you?)
Making the magazine free puts a larger burden on the ad staff to get ads (and another burden on the editorial staff not to go all advertorial, which seems a temptation too many yield to these days), but it also means you can target your distribution points far more precisely, and hit your readers where they actually exist. I remember seeing Checkpoint in U-Bahn kiosks, forced upon them by the Zitty distribution guy. Nobody looked twice at them. If you try to sell the magazine at your distribution points — English-language cinemas, bookstores, video rentals, bars, restaurants, etc. — you’re asking each merchant to keep track of each copy sold and segregate the proceeds from his own intake. Fahgeddaboudit. Running a business is hard enough without that kind of headache. Free is free. And free means a huge number of them get picked up and a huge percentage of them get read. Work out the economics of the advertising — we actually had people approaching us at b towards the end of our three-month run, so anxious were they to reach our readership — and keep it free.
The second point, though, is far more subtle, and the one we had the hardest time making the few prospective investors understand. Locals, approached with our projections, would trot out the figures from the Ausländerbehörde and tell us there were only 35,000 Americans in Berlin, only X hundred Australians, New Zealanders, and an unknown number of British people and Irish people. There was, they said with a certain amount of Schadenfreude, no way we could make money with those kind of numbers. Which, as far as it went, was true. With so few residents forming a base, we would only enjoy a small increase when the tourism figures — not so hot in those days, better now — were added on. Then we would hear the German investor’s mantra: Wo ist der Sicherheit? Where is the security? As if investing were a 100% secure proposition anyway. Ask those poor people who lost their shirts on Deutsche Telekom.
But that figure — for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s 60,000 — is only a start. There are two more readerships, as I learned at Metropolis and as the BIG project got underway. The second readership is people whose native language isn’t English, but whose English is better than their German: Indians, Japanese, even some Europeans like Scandinavians, Dutch, and French. These people live and work here, too, and they’re happy to have help understanding what’s going on. I estimated their numbers at around half the core readership’s. The third readership is the most nebulous — and, potentially, populous — of all: those native German-speakers whose desire to improve their English (not to mention see their home from a totally different viewpoint than the German media presents) would drive them to seek out such a publication. This may be just a data-point, but when I put an ad in Metropolis looking for a new apartment, with an office phone number on it, I got twelve calls, nine of which were from Germans who apologized for their bad English as soon as we started talking. That seemed telling to me: I expected to hear from the expat community with offers they’d picked up on the jungle telegraph. There is no way to research this number in advance, but it’s there, and once you’re in business, you encounter it repeatedly.
The other thing to remember about all three segments of the readership is that it’s demographically diverse. If you want to focus on the hip! edgy! college kids on junior year abroad, be my guest, but you’re not going to make any money. Consider the executives at Anglo-American companies here on contracts of a couple of years. Consider the academic and diplomatic communities. Consider the older people who’ve washed up here because of everything from the military to DAAD. Consider those Germans who became Anglophiles or Americanophiles during the occupation. We heard from every one of these groups and more as we tried to make b a reality. They haven’t gone away, and they’re not being served.
Of course, one advantage we had back in ’96 was that Deutsche Telekom was making access to the Internet almost impossible, so any kind of online presence was a nice fantasy (and one we were planning for), but nothing we could do much about right at the moment. Today, the online presence and the print presence would have to be complementary to each other, and the success of the enterprise would come out of the synergy.
But like I said, I’m walking away from all of this. I’d mostly walked away from it at the beginning of this year, when I helped someone start a project in France. My advice was all ignored, with the result that the magazine is mostly aimed at retired British people, which is a shame, since the constituency is much larger. I’ve had it: I’m going to concentrate on book projects (since magazines are a losing proposition for writers) and try to make as much money as I can as quickly as I can so I can get out of here as soon as I can. I don’t exactly feel like I’ve wasted my time on this, and I’m glad I learned what I did. But this is a risk-averse society that’s hostile to entrepreneurship, and just a bit more so when that entrepreneurship comes from an outsider. Someone else can beat their head against that particular wall. Good luck.