Berlin. We arrived late at the Regenbogen Hostel in Kreuzberg, a chaotic, hip, heavily Turkish area affectionately known to locals “Kreuztanbul.” Located in a former squatter building with a large, muddy courtyard surrounded by concrete walls tattooed with loving rainbow-themed graffitti, checking in was like entering a different hyper-urban post-apocalyptic world. After consuming platefuls of the local Turkish pastes and salads, we wandered over to the heart of Kreuzburg’s punk rock scene. Our Berlin booking agent, Marieke, and her French friend Jean led us to a stripped-down rock and roll bar called the Franken. An American, tattooed, dreadlocked woman manned the bar, looking like Lisa Bonet’s angry man-handed sister. I ordered a Jameson, Jack Daniels for our Francophone friend and a beer for Marieke. I handed Lisa Man-et my credit card and she very nearly spit on it. “We don’t do that here, dude. This is Kreuzburg.” She pointed to her WWII-era metal cash box, sneering “this is our cash register, okay?” I apologized for trying to introduce the idea of credit in Berlin, and paid in cash. Gabe, who hadn’t witnessed this interaction, strolled up to the bar unsuspectingly and ordered a gimlet. Out came the bonerkiller sneer. “Look,” she gathered her last pitying energy to address Gabe, “this is a proletariat beer bar. We don’t do fancy drinks.” Gabe locked in with a well-honed yogi stare. “It’s just vodka and lime juice.” Our anti-capitalist friend was unimpressed. “Then just fucking tell me vodka and lime. Don’t say you want a gimlet.” Gabe decided it would be better to look elsewhere for refreshments. I didn’t blame him. Surely Berlin couldn’t just be filled with American bohemians who hate – but probably rely financially on – their parents?
The next night, the rest of the world arrived to redeem our Berlin experience. We busked around town as the Fete de la Musique ramped up, without the spectre of breakdancers. Still, the limits of unamplified busking in a city filled with noise, movement and color became clear quickly. A well-miked first-year Suzuki violin student would gather a bigger crowd on the street than the unamplified reunified Kinks. After a few relatively fruitless but pleasant hours of wandering and playing, we headed back to prepare for our evening gig at Atlelier Uberall, an artist squat in Kreuzburg run by Ludovic, another of Marieke’s French coterie. A small makeshift space with a bar and a minimal PA, we weren’t sure what to expect. In the event, we had one of my favorite shows ever. People packed in to hear the show, including one chemically-saturated guitar player in a green hoodie who kept trying to grab my mic and scream about Kurt Cobain and Elliot Smith. He seemed poised to join their ranks, and soon. Then he settled down onto the floor at the base of my mic stand and proceeded to pour a side-salad sized pile of weed onto my setlist to start sorting out the seeds. The rest of the room was filled with Italians, Spanish, Hungarians, Germans, French, Brits, Romanians, Australians, Swedes, Columbians, and even a couple of Americans who’d heard us in the States (one told me he’d graduated from UNC and had seen our “Talk Straight” video in film prof Hap Kimden’s class nine or ten times; another from New York requested “Poison Pen”).
This was still Kreuzburg but there was no sign of proletariat posturing. It was a proletariat of good vibes. Our friend Martin Graefe from the Dresden band Die Nierentische jumped onstage to sing “Til My Voice is Gone” in German. The crowd sang along with the chorus of “Talk Straight.” The room filled with smoke and sweat and, well, love. Berlin was a wide open city after all, not a self-conscious rehashing of stereotypes as our bartender would have had us believe. I’ve rarely felt so far from home and so familiar and comfortable at the same time. I would rather play a small, chaotic, packed room of sweaty, joyful ex-pats than a stadium of disconnected fans any day. Even though a JBL speaker fell from the loft above our stage onto my neck during “Get to Love,” I couldn’t have hoped for more. If we ended the tour after last night, it would have already been worth the trip.
Today we’re on our way to Prague, where we’ll see our buddy Greg Humphries and play the United Islands Festival.