03/10/2005: "berlin part 3."
Graffiti in the SO36 bathrooms
I went to Berlin for the first time when I was 19, almost by accident. I was in Amsterdam with a few friends, and got thoroughly bored of the scene there after a few days. Then I decided to hell with everyone--I was gonna take a night train to Berlin. When I got to Berlin, it was cold and a little dreary, but the coldness and stark monochrome dreariness of it somehow made it feel more romantic, like being trapped inside of a black-and-white movie from the '20s. I had this real sense that I was somewhere alien, unlike Amsterdam which was crammed to the gills with English-speaking tourists. Plus everything in Berlin was under construction or looked unfinished, which added to this deep and crushing sense of pathos (could've just been that I was a depressive teenager at the time). Construction cranes were literally everywhere. Potsdamer Platz looked like one big hole, basically; the gleaming Sony monstrosity was almost done, but none of the surrounding noise that's there now (chain stores, fancy shops, impressive glass-and-concrete structures) was. Just construction cranes in all their rigid geometric glory, looming in cold grey sky. I'd just taken my first art history class in college and fantasized in the typical style of some wide-eyed teenager who'd just read Baudelaire for the first time that I was this flaneur, drifting aimlessly through this strange, weird city, isolated and anonymous.
I developed a real fondness for Berlin, and one of the places I loved in my walks through the Kreuzberg district was this place I stumbled upon randomly called SO36. It's not a very big space; it's really just a bar with a little stage area and some videos projected on shreds of fabric hanging from the ceiling. And techno DJs and Turkish drag queens as bouncers and extremely intriguing graffiti in the bathroom stalls. It wasn't til about a year and a half ago, while doing some research for an excellent upcoming post-punk book, that I realized that SO36 had this whole backstory as a cradle for the German punk and post-punk scenes back in the late '70s and early '80s.
Every time I go back to Berlin now, it feels more finished; I don't see nearly as many construction cranes there now. But every time I saw one when I was there a few weeks ago, I snapped a photo of it:
My dancing buddy Tim Finney and I were searching for something to do on a Monday night in Berlin. Even in a place as happening as Berlin, Monday nights are really not all that happening. Ah! A Monday night bash at SO36. I really wanted to check it out after all these years. When we got out there, I was kind of surprised. The block it was on looked completely transformed, a lot cuter and friendlier--not dotted with the seedy bars and leather shops I remembered, though there were still a few.
SO36 was closed that night--fuckers!--and it was cold, cold, cold. We wandered around, looking for something to do, and then we met two kids from Oslo on a street corner, who were also searching for something to do. Ended up one of them was originally from Perth, so he and Tim struck up a conversation about Australia while I looked clueless. They were super-cool and amiable, and soon we were drinking beer with them at some Kreuzberg bar and scouring the listings of whatever German alt-weekly paper we could get our hands on. We ended up at another bar, this time in Mitte, called Delicious Doughnuts. (Don't ask me about the name; there were no baked goods on tap, just some somewhat baked people.) The Perth kid, whose hair was dyed flaming red, said he was training to be in the circus. A fire-breather! The other dude from Oslo was pretty shy and soft-spoken, but after a few drinks he told this amazing story of how he dropped out of a top medical school in Berlin to work as a bartender in Oslo, and was now studying to be an archaeologist! Granted, the two of them could've been making all this stuff up, but they were very compelling conversationalists, and really knew their stuff when it came to fire-swallowing practices and ancient Greek archaeology. We totally bonded.
The Oslo crew headed back to Norway the next morning, so I never saw them again.
Here's a pic of my pal Tim - looking like a total dreamboat, of course - and me, on a particularly blustery Berlin day:
Aw! Back to DJs and venues and stuff. There was Maria, which is kind of like the late Volume in Brooklyn except a little bigger and more cavernous. Warehousey feel, lots of video projections, consistently good bookings. (My friend Tobias took me there to see LCD Soundsystem when I was there this past summer; I got to see a bunch of German people go totally bananas to LCD. Like completely. A dance riot.) Here's a shot of the main floor:
I went there for a Transmediale party featuring DJ Marlboro, DJ/Rupture, and Mad Professor, and again a few days later for Steve Bug. I can't comment on DJ Marlboro because I missed him, unfortunately, but Rupture was tight. I finally got to meet him--he's a really nice dude--and his set was a nice breakbeaty sampling of everything from jungle to grime to Hindi music to (yes) M.I.A. The Germans were groovin' to everything he played, but I could sense an "I'm confused, what do I do with my body" feeling among some people in the crowd (myself included) whenever he played grime. No one seems to know how to dance to that stuff in a way that that music seems to demand. The tunes that you can't really match to a loping hip-hop swagger or to d'n'b or jungle moves or garage moves but just have those weird, aggressively jumbly rhythms...they make you want to contort yourself in non-Newtonian ways. Or just stand there:
Next post goes back to the 4/4 oonce-oonce-oonce, as the final chapter a.k.a. Berlin part 4 will be all about visiting Tresor, and Steve Bug's sensational set at Maria. Coming soon!