I wasn’t so sure if I needed to write anything concerning Prince’s life and death, since I felt everything I wanted to say concerning the man had already been said by so many others, and probably better than anything I could reasonably attempt. When I found out about it, I was deeply disturbed by it.
To start with, I was never a fan of his music. At all. He did not operate in my idiom, and still does not. I am a jazz, ragtime, blues and (sometimes) gospel head. I would rather listen to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto than Raspberry Beret, which frankly, I can’t stand. I remember Prince all too well. When he was at his height in the mid-eighties he was also at his most commercial and accessible with hits like 1999, Purple Rain and Kiss. I thought he was very campy and over-the-top.Me and my friends used to make fun of him while most of us dug his music…yet slyly, I found something strangely moving in his music, especially Purple Rain.
All of this is coming from someone who hated 80s music and 80s culture with a passion when he was growing up. And still does, when I think back on it. For it was in the Eighties that I decided to become a writer, a radical and a bohemian. I have not changed.
Many people who never lived through that MTV nightmare called the eighties thinks it was a wonderful time. It was not. Of course seen in retrospect the eighties was a hell of a lot more creative and off-beat than today’s decade. But that isn’t saying much. We have simply fallen so far down the toilet historically and culturally speaking that the Eighties, in retrospect, seems like a cultural height.
May I repeat: it was not.
Personally, I would prefer not to relive the eighties. The music was brittle. The clothes were ugly. The art was nasty. Sex was AIDS and drugs were crack. Politics was even grosser than usual. –Stephen Marche, GQ Magazine, June 10, 2010
You had to have been there, I guess, to see what an ugly, shallow, racist, marginalizing scene it really was. I guess you needed to have a bit of melanin in your skin, too. Celebrities said things on national television that they would not dare say now. Islamophobia? It was normal. Nobody thought anything about it.
The Eighties: described once by Stephen Marche as “the shittiest of decades,” in which the “music was brittle” and the “art was nasty.” All true. Totally true. And the reverse–“the art was brittle and the music was nasty”–summed up the 80s culture even more so. Romeo Void? Please. The late David Bowie? China Girl, Dancing with the Big Boys, etc. etc. Sorry sir, you’re time was up c. 1977 or so. Wham!? Fuck you. Duran Duran? Cyndi Lauper? Boy George and the Culture Club (and all that other slop from England)? Miles Davis’ inauspicious comeback doing some seriously light-weight things in contrast to even his seventies experiments? Art of Noise? UTFO? Ice T? NWA, the negro nightmare that spawned an entire generation of jungle-bunny chest-beating bojangling sambo thugs? Or Ghostbusters, The Other Woman (Ray Parker Jr.–no offense, but I could not stand this motherfucker’s music, not one track: from Jack and Jill to The Other Woman to Ghostbusters, it was so corny that (to quote Mezz Mezzrow) the husks were still on that shit). To think that many people think this shit is hip literally makes me cringe, though it shouldn’t: many people get off on being whipped and shitted on, so what can I say?
The Eighties wasn’t simply the Reagan Era, or the MTV Era, or what the hell have you: it was the age of AIDS. Born in 1967, I remember rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of joining the still-ongoing sexual revolution of 1980-3…and being bitterly disheartened to watch the country to an about-face when it came to carnality in the proceeding years. The freewheeling sexual revolution (which probably never even existed outside of TV and movies and songs) dried up like old prunes, and horny young men like me were left with less than the crumbs from what we imagined was a sexual feast. Mini-skirts were back in but thanks to this hysterically inflated AIDS scare, they didn’t mean shit. According to its creator, Mary Quant, the mini-skirt represented precisely sexual liberation. In the 80s and beyond the mini-skirt represented nothing but a huge middle-finger to those of us who’d hoped we could have some sixties sunshine.
Michael Jackson. Yes, his death was disturbing, a shock, but one could see it coming; it was just a question of when: would he make it his life’s goal to make himself back into a black man again, I often thought. Michael was universally worshiped and reviled by the same jackasses that made him into a god. But Michael Jackson was corny. Michael seemed, at least, a safely packaged little black eunuch for the masses of people everywhere to drool over–a perpetual Toys R Us kid, the man from Neverland, who never wanted to grow up and subsequently became idolized just for that specific reason, in my opinion: here was a black superstar who seemed not to have any balls, basically safe and tame, until he was suspected of sniffing up young white boy’s butts.
Prince, on the other hand, was a spade of another color. Only an inspired lunatic like Prince Rogers Nelson would dare to walk out on stage with his goddamn hair fried (wearing conks was not exactly popular among black men in the seventies), and with a perm and eyeliner that made him look like a Cuban transsexual. And on top of that, huge hooped earrings, a g-string, fishnet stockings, and spin-off bands like Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 prancing about on stage singing Sex Shooter and Nasty Girl: the music was not great, but I dug the message. I, who went to an uptight Catholic parochial school, where girls were non-existent, where teachers tried to instruct us on the evils of masturbation, “fornication” and the terror of looking into Playboy and getting sexually aroused and where half the fucking school, it seemed, was on the down-low. When my fellow students tried grabbing my crotch or touching my thighs, I naively thought that this was something that also went on in sexually integrated high schools. It didn’t.
Prince was the only pop idol I recall from that time who, even remotely, had a healthy slant on sex.* With Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, UTFO and the lot, sex seemed shrouded with the usual American hangups. With Prince it was different. Sex was not evil; it was good, it was healthy. It was a reason for being-in-the-world. Prince sang about erotic cities and I began to dream of Berlin and Bangkok. The square popsters tipped their hats to the AIDS hysteria and sang “That’s What Friends are For”; Prince responded with “Erotic City,” “Kiss” and “Jack U Off.” Subconsciously Prince shaped many of my attitudes toward sexuality, along with Burroughs and Henry Miller. Subconsciously I developed a begrudging admiration for Prince. Prince was one of the few pop idols who I found to be a hepcat in disguise. Maybe he was not too hip in my cynical adolescent eyes–Miles, Duke, Louis, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Parker, Hawkins, etc. were and still are my musical idols–but even within the brittle nastiness of eighties synth-driven junk music I could still sense Prince as head and shoulders above the majority of them. One could feel his music. Prince put 101 percent into virtually everything he put out.
Even I could not be sure if I really hated Let’s go Crazy or not. I did not “like” it, in the same way that I so obviously liked Potato Head Blues or Shanghai Shuffle. But I knew I didn’t hate it. in fact it was a relief to my ears after the synth-driven cacophony of Art of Noise or Wham or Men at Work or Romeo Void or some other asshole New Wave shit band–after hour upon hour of hysterically overwrought lyrics and shitty melodies, and almost always backed up by some hideously squawking saxophone: some were so bad they sounded like busted kazoos. Not Prince. Even “When Doves Cry” was like a mild balm to my ears. And I could listen to Purple Rain without sneering because I heard something in his music that I didn’t hear in Wham!: humanity.
You don’t have to like any form of music to hear the humanity in it. Hopefully, the humanity in music and art forms that are not to our taste can lead us to listen a little harder, not dismiss it outright because it uses chord changes that we are not familiar with, because it is in a style we are prone to sneer at, because it is pop music and may well be shot through with silliness and artifice. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where we are obliged to look and listen past what appears on the surface. With Prince’s music, this is possible. One can NOT say the same for most of Michael Jackson’s work. Unlike Michael Jackson, Prince, even at his most tasteless, mediocre and meretricious, was never corny. Even those songs of his I despise the most are never corny. My ear for music is fairly sharp; I can compose music myself.
Ironically Prince hit his musical peak long after the party died down: say, mid-1990s, when he got fed up with picking Warner Brother’s cotton and scrawled slave on his face–just to let everybody know that the big media party of the previous decade (Graffiti Bridge, Cherry Moon and Purple Rain) was not nearly as fancy-free as MTV made it out to be. For a time he even got rid of his name.
No popular music figure I knew of in that culturally benighted decade–not even the old warhorse Miles Davis, reduced to rehashing Cyndi Lauper and a few of MJ’s less cheesy pieces–could hold a candle to Prince. Prince stood for something else besides the music. As I said, the man did not give a damn what other people thought about him. No man today, let alone a black man, could get away with such shameless gender-bending (and apparently just for the sheer hell of it, since Mr. Nelson was apparently straight). Oh, no. Minstrel rap performers today take great pains to let you know they are “no homo,” to the point where the idiotic phrase has entered the vocabulary. The phrase is as much an insult to heteros as it is to “homos”: if you really weren’t a fucking “homo” you would not need to obsessively remind everyone that you are not. The sexual insecurities of today’s rap-tards is getting old already. They should be lucky enough to live in an age where nobody shits their pants in fear at the sight of a bare buttock. For when I was turning eighteen, today’s crude, ugly parade of mafia strip-club sexuality was unthinkable; a Nicki Minaj or a Lil Kim or Foxy Brown or Miley Cyrus was equally out of the question.
And like Jimi Hendrix, an obvious influence, Prince was very much in the tradition of African-American music. He could play the blues. He was no B.B. King but by my ear he’s authentic and If I Had a Harem is in the sexual boasting tradition (“I got 49 women and only need one more”). In fact his signature tune “Purple Rain” is a mere re-working and updating of two old tunes: “Blueberry Hill” and the traditional “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”. It takes careful listening, of course, to hear that the chord progressions between these three tunes are nearly identical. Prince in fact operated in the shadows of Jimi, Sly Stone, Little Richard, Esquerita, Cab Calloway, all the way back to old-timers such as Frankie “Half-Pint” Jackson, and possibly even Jelly Roll Morton, Tony Jackson and Louis Chauvin, the three masters of whorehouse piano. So maybe this is why, unlike when I heard of the death of Michael Jackson, I felt deeply troubled that this scrawny little high-yellow kid from Minneapolis, who set the whole musical world on its ear for four decades, ended his life on the floor of an elevator, sick and all by himself. When it is all over, and people stop painting their asses purple in heart-felt tributes to Prince (he has already been cremated!), we will go back to wringing our hands over talentless assholes like Kanye West or Miss Sticky-Fingers Minaj and her escort-service antics. (As I write this, the media is pissing all over themselves about Justin Bieber’s dick–Justin Bieber, the talentless little bimbo-boy who can’t write or sing a decent line about anything–not even himself:
“This past Tuesday night before my show I was picking out an outfit…I was so tired from the past week of endless traveling and gigging that I grabbed my Prince shirt and said fuck it I’m gonna channel the purple one tonight…I didn’t shower after the gig out of pure exhaustion…I went to sleep in that shirt and then I wore it again all day yesterday…today waking up to this news I am truly beside myself…devastated…the last of the greatest living performers…my guitar idol…his connection to ALL his instruments yielded a sexual transcending aura and the world is just less fucking cool without him walking on it… ‘Electric word life — It means forever and that’s a mighty long time — But I’m here to tell you — There’s something else… The after world’ #RIPPRINCE,” Andrew wrote on Instagram April 21.
Sadly, I have to report that Justin Bieber is alive and well and still churning out corny hit tunes like his pals Kanye, Jay Z, Miley Cyrus and all the rest of them. Vanity, who never had much talent, yet oozed a sensuality and eroticism that Miss Kay’s cakes can’t even touch, is dead, too. Mercifully, however, so is the brain-dead and thoughtless Eighties, where no one dared say what they really thought about America’s endless problems. I am starting to feel old. But not that old.
*Sorry, George Michael, but I Want Your Sex didn’t quite cut it.
On February 12, 2016, an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, wrote a perceptive article on the obscene levels of sexual repression in the Arab World. As someone who has traveled and lived in at least five of them between 1987 and 2003, I would have to concur with what Mr. Daoud has written, for the most part. Egypt I would agree with; the country has lost its soul. Morocco, Tunisia and even Algeria–at least in 1989–were exceptions, somewhat.
The responses to the article were predictable, nearly all of them coming from Westerners, many of whom had traveled to the Gulf States. My personal response was NO SHIT. The Gulf Region is the armpit of Islam itself. Everything they practice and preach goes tangent to reality and sanity, and even the Koran itself. The satraps of the Gulf States, as well as their ISIS henchmen who cannibalize children and slice off women’s breasts for kicks, are in the business of grabbing power from ignorant, frustrated and uneducated people; they don’t give a shit about religion, Islamic or otherwise. Islam is a pretext, a smokescreen for implementing some misguided Nietzschean Superman ideal of controlling the masses. It is not hyperbole to say this, especially when one notes that these fat, greasy oil sheiks and Arabian princes have carte blanche within and without the Gulf Region to do absolutely anything they want. And with few exceptions, they usually do just that. Rarely do they get arrested, save for this notable incident, which is most likely the tip of the iceberg.
Those who read and commented on Daoud’s article put the blame on 1,500 years of Islam and Arabism, while blissfully forgetting that the salacious Thousand and One Nights came out of that exact same Arab Islamic milieu. The Perfumed Garden, admittedly a piece of racist pornographic drivel, was crafted over 500 years ago in benighted, super-repressed North Africa–most specifically Tunisia, where frustrated and confused young men occasionally blow themselves to shit with misguided Wahhabi notions swirling around in their skulls.
A book such as Leg over Leg, written by a Lebanese writer in the late 19th century, would have never seen the light of publication in the New York or London of that time. (It was published in Paris in 1855, however.) While Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq wrote extensively about female genitalia, and in the most graphic detail imaginable; while Andre Gide found his sexual awakening with teenage Tunisian boys in isolated sand dunes, Oscar Wilde was getting raked over the coals for his homosexuality in “enlightened” England. And Walt Whitman was repeatedly ostracised and held in contempt for pinning sexually coy poems such as “Calamus” or “Children of Adam.” Well, “limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous” and “love-flesh swelling” aren’t that coy, but it’s still a far cry from Leg over Leg.
Those who are chiming in with this article forget what the U.S. was like 70 years ago, when a black man could and did get his balls cut out of him (and worse) for whistling at a white woman (Emmett Till??), when being gay was considered a mental illness and grounds for imprisonment, when oral sex could land you in jail for a number of years, when possessing and distributing pornography could also land you in jail for a number of years…and where, by contrast, in Egypt, pornography was turned out by the truckloads, and where the social life was so licentious that Lawrence Durrell forever immortalized it in his Alexandria Quartet. The white West whines about the hysterical prudery of Saudi Arabia while forgetting that 150 years ago (and at the outset of Wahhabism!) prostitutes used to tempt pilgrims regularly while attempting to do the Hajj. What happened? European colonialism happened. It was the Europeans and more significantly the Americans and their old-fashioned, uptight Protestant views on sexuality that did the most significant damage to the Muslim world’s views concerning sex. And even today, sex is less of a hassle in places like Morocco or certain parts of Tunisia or Lebanon than it is in my stuffy-assed hometown of Adelphi, Maryland, let alone some asshole state such as Utah or Alabama. So it is good to put all of this insanity into some historical perspective.
This link, and the pictures below should give the lie to the notion that today’s “Islam,” which is an absolute abomination funded by CIA stooges (shades of Naked Lunch and Islam, Inc.), has anything to do with what Islam once was. Especially concerning sexuality. Note: these pics are not for the squeamish!!
The above examples are from modern-day Iran and Pakistan. How things have changed since the good old days.
Something has been bothering me for the past three or four years while stuck here in the bowels of Berlin. I have already accepted the fact that Berlin is incapable of making itself into a true cultural mecca because it doesn’t really know what the fuck “culture” really is. Actually it has a set idea of “culture”–spelled with a “K” and minus the “e” on the end–an idea set in stone and worshiped at special shrines throughout Berlin. You know–the Deutsche Oper or the Volksbuehne or some aging gallery where one can see what the greats of decades and centuries past once achieved. In other words, people here subconsciously (or even consciously) think that true cultural achievement, cultural greatness, is yesterday’s news. Today, we’re lead to believe that everything “cultural”–and not just in Berlin–is just fucking finger-painting, mental masturbation, funny clothes and house/techno/rap crap, or gypsy swing minus the soul, to say nothing of the swing, much less the funk.
But the thing that has me irritated is not so much this phony-assed Berlin art scene. One can easily write that off. In fact mocking Berlin’s shortcomings is easier than shooting fish in a fucking barrel. One can get so wrapped up in making fun of this place that one can forget a more pertinent question, which is: how in the hell are we–we being SERIOUS artists, and not hipster/poser assclowns–going to go about creating a new, living, distinctive and vibrant culture of the TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY?
And another question–exactly which culture? A national culture? Or an international culture–a TRUE international culture, as opposed to fake mass-manufactured “global” kitsch-culture designed by Sony and Seagram’s and imposed upon us?
I can’t answer that question right now, and won’t try to.
Instead I’ll just throw some ideas around. Most of them are scribbled from my notebooks.
First off: what the hell is “culture,” anyway? It’s funny that in the whole time I have been preoccupied in trying to redefine (in my own way) Afro-American culture and identity through my own art, I really haven’t taken time to define just what “culture” means. So I simply looked it up on Google and came up with this:
A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
Well hell, if what we have now is a “culture” then we’re fucking finished as a species!! Everything has to be changed fundamentally. Practically nothing of what we are doing now in America (especially) should be passed down to the next generation. As an artist I am responsible for either changing or redefining the behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols of my own group of people–Americans, and not just Afro-Americans. (After all, the American majority is always dick-riding off the African minority.) These changes and re-definitions are done on paper, canvas and keyboard. As for the current cultural ugliness, one has to examine it closely from afar, in order to turn it upside down and inside out, and make it irrelevant.
American architecture is UGLY. The street layout is UGLY. Everything about an American city–well, just about everything–screams cheap, makeshift, brutalist, inelegant, stupid and just fucking ugly. Like in some ex-commie country, everything is strictly functional in design with virtually no thought at all to beauty. Somebody should consider rebuilding ruined cities in America in a truly elegant and dignified way, like a medieval African, European or Asian city. But I guess that’s a tall order for an American city (outside of San Francisco).
Speaking of behaviors: the current snarky, falsely ironic “hipster” pose has nothing whatsoever to do with the true “hipster,” who is a hep-cat and usually black. The old “hep-cat” had a hard-won cool and detachment if he didn’t get it through shooting smack (heroin). The detachment was necessary to not lose your cool in a society that was (and still is) always trying to grind you down into nothing.
The same rule would apply today. Don’t get involved in mainstream shit if you are serious about making a 21st century culture. Culture is not about money. Cultural arbiters’ main goal is not to sell units–it is to help shape people’s minds and attitudes in such a way that is spiritually beneficial to them, individually and collectively…unlike these coons running around snapping at each other about the number of “units” 50 Cent sold in contrast to fat, greasy-ass Rick “Warden” Ross. Who fucking cares? I can’t listen to royalty statements!!
The “mainstream” Kanye West/Pharrell Williams/Will.I.am stuff is not hip. When the mainstream co-opts something (duhh) it isn’t hip anymore–it’s square. You want something hip? Make it your goddamned self, and do it right. Be creative and put feeling into it. And as usual, you need to keep your eyes and ears open; you need to see things as they are and not the way you wish to see them. You have to do the hard work of looking past the gaudy curtain (re: Milan Kundera) and observe what is really going in America and the rest of the world. You need to know people and what makes them tick; don’t just assume you know them based on stupid stereotypes or hearsay.
Of course if you don’t have any feeling or drive to do these things, you should get into a different line of work.
American “art” music has already crossed a certain threshold, pushing it some ways beyond the limitations of European classicism and Romanticism. Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen and Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge in spots merely hint at the possibilities of what Afro-Americans achieved in jazz and its predecessor ragtime. The trouble with American musicians is that, 9 times out of 10, they have no idea what they are doing with their own music; they don’t really know how to play it. And if they do, they simply cannot approach this music with the dignity and respect that this music (American classical music) demands. Even if they try to do so, they still fail, since true dignity, true respect and above all true feeling, is simply not in most American classical musicians. In other words, the American is psychically cut off from his own folk heritage.
American singers, and the non-American bitches who cunt-ride off them, all sound more or less alike. Why is that?
African American culture–I prefer Afro-American–has become outdated, parochial, stereotyped, and just plain corny. In its current attempts to be highbrow it becomes ponderous and pretentious in the extreme; when it tries to “get back to the roots” or “to the people” (whom these black artists usually barely know; they barely know themselves) it becomes nasty, vulgar, insupportably stupid–a virtual parody of the worst sort of KKK fantasies about black people.
The fucking “cultural nationalist” wants to go back to an Africa that exists only in his head. Let’s make one thing clear: Africa never was a wild jungle full of gorillas and spear-chucking negroes. It had empires stretching back thousands of years. We know that, or should know it. What we refuse to know is that these empires were just like all other empires the world over–that is, riddled with empire problems such as maintaining control over subject peoples, feudalism and other banal details. Most people could not read, let alone vote. We were not all “kings” and “queens”–most of us are descended from the subjects and slaves of those very same kings and queens. We don’t need to return to a feudal African empire where guys like myself would be condemned to being blacksmiths or shoemakers for life simply because I happened to be born of a blacksmith, or a shoemaker, or worse yet, a slave. (Note: in Ancient Egypt and Meroe, Medieval Mali and Renaissance Songhai or Kanem-Bornu (just to name a few empires), occupations were hereditary.)
The block boy (or block boy middle-class wannabe*) wants to “keep it real” while not knowing a goddamned difference between what is truly Afro-American and what white liberal paternalists concocted and passed off as “black.” Naturally, Mr. Keep-it-Real prefers the white liberal fantasy of the Noble Savage which, no matter how noble it sounds, is simply not who or what he is. In fact white liberal fantasies about blackness are merely the flip side of what the KKK thinks about blackness, but Mr. Keep-it-Real is so embroiled in concealing just who he is and what he thinks about life that he might as well stay backstage and not torture us anymore with his confusion. Mr. Keep-it-Real wants to be ignorant, primitive, corrupt, base, BAD, because that’s what he thinks “blackness” is. He sees himself as the white man’s shadow and can’t function without him or knowledge of him.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN KONCH MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2013, under PHILIP HENDERSON.
“Home” was a one-room, 35 square meter sublet on Hasenheide. From the outside it looked fairly glamorous; the walkway was lined with stately tenement houses, old-fashioned gas lamps, and chestnut trees. The marvelous 19th century Südstern cathedral was within close walking distance; overall the ambience was one of understated Gothic elegance.
From inside the flat was cursed with dim lighting, a non-existent kitchen, and faulty electrical wiring. “Fire hazard” was an understatement. The cheap Ikea bed was right next to the table on which I feverishly worked, digging myself deeper into an aesthetic hole. The “bathroom,” if one could call it a “bathroom,” was just a cheap shower stall with a toilet jammed next to it. Hot water was non-existent. The toilet itself was one of those horrible things with a built-in porcelain plank in place of the watery hole—one in which you could not only see your shit, but smell it, too.
Two years ago, I found myself stuck in this Kreuzberg hole with a disappointing realization. I had hoped for the better of three years that things would improve, that my financial fortunes would turn around, and that I would finally meet somebody special—the last being one of the main reasons why I came to this city. The realization was that—unfortunately, and for the foreseeable future—none of this was going to happen.
And another realization: that aside from an unfinished (and unfinishable) novel I had nothing to show for my being in Berlin.
It sounds like a corny cliché—just like something that would have happened anywhere else in the world, to anybody else—maybe in Paris, or even Harlem, where I originally wished to live. It was not heartening to know that in Harlem or Paris a flat similar to mine would have gone for four times its going price. Payday had been dragged out for over a week, and when I last checked my bank account, I had considerably less than the 420 euro it cost to rent it per month.
Nothing else that I had planned, either in my art or my writing, had been completed. I did not write a single one of the short stories I imagined I would write. My play—if you could call it a “play”—did not get beyond the basic sketch. There were a few minor poems, and a larger one that had just been published earlier that year; it turned out so far to be my only publication in Germany. The unfinished morass of a novel I had been slaving on for over five years.
Today, my situation is the same; only the dwelling has changed. It is considerably larger, yet considerably older, too. The bathroom is better constructed, although ice-cold in winter time (the flat is coal-heated). The rent is less than half of the old dwelling. My novel, thank God, is finished. But there is no publisher in sight, and absolutely no money to my name.
Even by the sorry standards of my expat friends, my case may be somewhat extreme. I can’t say for certain that I was “happy” to be in the hole. But I was certainly glad I was there, and not in a youth hostel—or, worse, back home in Maryland. I came to Berlin because I found it impossible to function there as an artist and an individual. In the U.S., in spite of having won an American Book Award I had the nagging suspicion that my ambitions were misguided, that I was devoting my life to a false vocation. “Real people” didn’t do art: they pushed papers in an office or, at least, lawnmowers. In America, real artists don’t need to be censored or imprisoned, because no one ever sees us. In Berlin—so we believe—people like ourselves are an integral part of the city’s cultural life. Although this notion is certainly open to doubt, it is true that Berlin as a rule is more congenial to the artist than New York, or Los Angeles. Rents are significantly lower than anywhere in New York or Los Angeles. Crime is also significantly lower, as is the police presence; one can walk most streets at any time of the day or night without fear of being killed.
For an African American expat—especially for one coming from a crude, philistine “urban” America—this may sound especially appealing. Adventuresome U.S. black artists must be surfeited with America’s overwhelming social problems, its lingering racism, its adolescent notions of “authentic blackness” gleamed from Hollywood and hip-hop; Berlin may well offer these artists a way out of such mindlessness. The space to create, to broaden one’s mind, to meet with other like-minded souls from all walks of life, still exists here—it has been eradicated in New York—and for that one can be thankful for the existence of Berlin. But unless one is already well-established upon coming here, financially or otherwise, the poverty and neglect one will face will not necessarily be less than that which one is already experiencing say, in New York, or Los Angeles.
In America, real artists don’t need to be censored or imprisoned, because no one ever sees us.
Naturally, one doesn’t think of such things in the very beginning. One is taken away by the euphoria of merely being in Berlin, of being free to take off one’s masks, to dress, walk, talk, or simply be any way one wishes. Now—unlike the South Bronx—you can walk the streets without perpetually looking over your shoulder for a thug, or cop, or both. Now you are free to seek out all those thousands and thousands of like-minded spirits who are said to be congregating in the innumerable bars, cafes, and bookshops across the city. You have been warned about the Neo-Nazis but you already know not to go too far out East. All the action, anyway, is in “Kreuzkolln,” a vague geographical sliver encompassing Kottbusser Damm, Mariannenstrasse, Planufer, and other connecting streets. And among the crowds of young students at the terraces and bridges are, mercifully, faces of color. You hear Spanish spoken—not merely the Spanish of Spain but also of Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico. And naturally, you hear American English—not merely that of American whites, but also, if one listens further, of American blacks. The scenery—most notably, around Chamissoplatz—makes you wonder just what it was you saw in Brooklyn. The buildings’ fancy façade work puts to shame everything you had ever seen in Boston or Philly. The upright street lamps are, indeed, gas lit. The streets are largely cobbled; the corner bar, which evokes in Americans many romantic notions of Europe, still exists. And of course there is an abundance of alcohol (which no one minds drinking out in the open), drugs (one can smell it wafting through the air of various Kreuzberg streets), and sex: love affairs of all kinds proliferate, prostitution is legal, and as the back-pages of Bild or B.Z. amply illustrate, anything one would want is literally available, for a price. There are galleries opening up, readings in abundance, and hoards of buskers—most of them “gypsies” from Romania or Bulgaria, whose jaunty music fills the summer air with the rhythmic blasting of horns and drums. (And as in virtually every other Continental nation, they are perceived as a menace.)
The first scale to fall from one’s eyes may take some time. You are too busy ambling along the streets of your new neighborhood, enjoying your new sublet or—if you are lucky—your new flat. While filling it up with furniture, or picking up stuff shipped over from the U.S., you notice that the faces of the employees at Postbank or DHL do not necessarily correspond to those in your neighborhood. Of course, one could have seen this the moment one’s plane landed in Tegel. There are no faces of color working on the tarmac; exceedingly few ones exist behind the desks at the airport. Berliners have found it easier to put colored faces on a poster than in any position where they may wield influence, or even, for that matter, earn a living wage. So far I have personally counted exactly six black bus drivers and about twice as many Turkish ones; there may be Asian bus drivers, I have yet to see them. (I have counted about two Asian cab drivers.) Black, brown and yellow faces are equally difficult to find behind cash registers in Kaisers and near non-existent in Aldi, Netto, Reichelt and other Berlin grocery stores and shopping outlets. There are exceedingly few transit employees or construction workers who are black, brown or yellow and virtually no black, brown or yellow cops, no black, brown or yellow executives, and no black brown or yellow faces in the halls of so-called Berlin culture. In virtually every respect—right down to Germany’s conspicuous lack of adequate civil rights legislation—Berlin reminds one unpleasantly of America fifty years ago.
Personally, I have no illusions as to what Berliners think of blacks—I had been to Berlin before taking up residence here, and have heard “nigger” used more frequently on these streets than in Richmond, Virginia. I have had confrontations with Nazi scum, as well as Turks, Arabs or Africans who despise black Americans. One doesn’t come to Berlin to escape the overwhelming racial tension that exists in, say, New York, the way that black expats came to Paris to escape the overwhelming tension of pre-Civil Rights America; one comes because one imagines it’s better to simmer in the German pot than to roast in the American fire.
Yet to simmer in the pot still means you are being cooked. The cooking is slower, more leisurely, but the end results are the same. James Baldwin wrote that the “weight” of New York City was “murderous.” Berlin’s weight seems lighter in the beginning—before you realize just how difficult it is for a foreigner to get a permanent flat in this extremely xenophobic city; before you realize that, even for Germans, jobs are impossible to come by, or before you have ever experienced winter-time Berlin: the longer one prolongs his stay in this city, the closer one gets to the unsettling truth about the city’s true spirit. “There’s a bold breed of people living in Berlin,” Goethe has written, “for whom delicacy means little. One must have hair on one’s teeth and be a little rough sometimes in order to keep one’s head above water (Goethe 127).”
Berlin is not a new Prague, let alone a new Paris. Berlin’s equivalents of Paris’s old Left Bank, Montparnasse or Montmartre don’t really exist. Paris, like Berlin, is a Northern city, yet with a distinctively Latin flair; Berlin’s Prussian hauteur is leavened with Yankee silliness and Slavic spunk. The names of some city boroughs (“Treptow,” “Pankow,” “Stralau”) and streets (Paul-Robeson Strasse) bear this out—even the very name Berlin itself; contrary to local lore it does not mean “Bear” but “swamp” in an old Slavic tongue. Perhaps this is no accident, for spiritually Berlin bears all the hallmarks of a human swamp: full of crabby people, constantly snapping at each other and pulling one another down to the same mean level.
One can sense this during any time of the year—certainly during the summer, when the celebrated Kufurstendamm fills up with the most obnoxious tourists in Western Europe. Yet even the sheer vulgarity of a Berlin summer is no match for the unspeakably raw meanness of a Berlin winter. It is not just the brusqueness in so many Berliners taking on a harsher edge, or even the Berliners bringing your own ugliness out of you. It is—as Henry Miller once wrote in Tropic of Cancer about Paris’s cold spells—a winter of the soul. Ernst Jünger, writing to Gottfried Benn said emphatically “one simply cannot be healthy” here. Elias Canetti also writes, in his autobiography, “… (H)ow quickly Berlin used up people. Anyone who didn’t know how to arrange things for himself was doomed….If you had awakened to your own animality before coming here, you had to increase it in order to hold out against the animality of other people; and if you weren’t very strong, you were soon used up (Canetti 294).”
One does have the feeling here that one is perpetually navigating through a vast, unruly jungle. Berlin does not have a spectacularly high homicide rate like, say, Detroit, or Moscow, or even a moderately high one like London or Madrid. Gun possession is relatively rare; what homicides do occur happen usually with a knife, or a club. Berlin has more understated ways of destroying an individual; its weapon of choice is apathy.
Passive-aggression is another. Recently neo-Nazis marched in the very heart of Kreuzberg, beating and stomping anything that wasn’t white. Locals certainly saw the march coming; few, however, cared enough to prevent it. Nazis had even gathered in heavily-Turkish Hermannplatz (which also has a considerable number of blacks) with little or no opposition. My guess is that the residents of “Kreuzkolln,” so called, thought themselves too cool, hip and “sophisticated” to bother with trivial things like violent racist attacks. (By contrast, the planned Nazi march in ultra-square Leipzig was quashed: anti-Nazi demonstrators prevented them from exiting the train.)
Berliners have found it easier to put colored faces on a poster than in any position where they may wield influence, or even, for that matter, earn a living wage.
It is this utter incivility and moral chaos—however low-key—that inevitably leads to bitter disillusionment. We had naively hoped the city would provide a refuge from the sickening vulgarity of Boston, or Baltimore, or Birmingham. Unfortunately Berlin’s boroughs have no shortage of philistines; in fact they tend to be in the majority, particularly in the impoverished East. Two years ago, or even six months ago, one might have blandly accepted these flaws as a part of Berlin’s local color. Now they are simply a major headache. Berliner “Schnauze”—the churlishness of a parochial people stuck in the 19th century—is as ubiquitous and hopelessly ineradicable as the bad weather, bad food and dog shit. We realize this after living in their dingy flats and riding the U-Bahn with them; shopping alongside them in Karstadt, Kaisers, Kaufland, and other stores; barhopping along Bergmannstrasse, Oranienstrasse, Prenzlauer Allee, and other so-called “bohemian” streets. And we begin to note details about local life that we, in our earlier enthusiasm, overlooked. You note that the next door neighbor who has seen you come and go for years has yet to acknowledge your presence; or that people of color in Berlin—perhaps more so than any other city in Europe—generally tend to avoid each other. You also note the Turkish kids hanging on the corner, perennially unemployed, dressed in fashions copied precisely from Jersey Shore, the popular reality TV show; you also note that too many seem to have copied precisely Italian-American racism. You see, of all things, “darky donuts” offered at the local bakery; you see the bullet-holes still in the dainty facades, the U-Bahn rails eternally under repair, the overabundance of broken glass, the ugly graffiti scrawled everywhere, the indescribable rudeness of store clerks and metro workers, the trash cans either burned or haphazardly opened by bored teens. In Ernst-Reuter Platz, a well-known comedian has a “political” poster of himself—in blackface. And above the old-time gas lamps, new NPD posters we never paid much attention to screaming for racial purity, promising to fly the “niggers” home on a carpet or, God forbid, “GAS geben!!”
It gets worse. There are the everyday events, the absurd happenings that occur anywhere but somehow shock deeper when they happen here. Coming out of the Yorckstrasse S-Bahn one night, ones eyes follow a trail of splattered blood all the way down the stairs to an ambulance outside, where an obese man lay inside with a knife buried in his chest. A confrontation in a Kaiser’s on trendy Bergmannstrasse one night ends with a man being hurled physically out of the store and into a woman on a bike, who strikes her head on a curb. In another Kaiser’s, a “wigger” wanna-be roughly kicks your roller bag and shouts obscenities at you—for kicks. You board a bus from Gesundbrunnen back to Kreuzberg one happy night and run into the most virulent Spanish fascists. A woman walks down the street on a clear spring day with a radiant smile on her model’s face which, shockingly enough, has been scarred with a razor blade. A friend of yours—a twenty-something white guy from Minnesota—comes to Berlin to be a writer and performance artist and winds up shooting heroin; another friend, German-Turkish, born into a high station in life (his father is quite wealthy and living in Sydney) nevertheless finds violent crime as his only recourse for securing the funds to complete his education. And yet another—a cheeky, twenty-something Latina from Seattle who also wished to be a writer and to taste Berlin’s “outré” vibe—wound up getting brutally stomped by her German boyfriend in front of all their friends who, not surprisingly, were also German. (Their “friends” simply sat and watched.) This is, unfortunately, but the tip of the iceberg, and not to make mention of your German friends who simply turned up dead one day in the bathtub or on the toilet bowl, having been burnt out by their own excesses, or simply years of hard-ship and scuffling.
Yes, it’s true. Berlin has its own ugliness which often rivals—and sometimes surpasses—that of the cities and towns we fled. We realize now that its streets and allees offer no true liberation of the spirit. This very flat city—much unlike Paris, or even Prague—does have its romanticism in choice areas (like Chamissoplatz, for example) but even these somehow unsettle with a bombastic glumness. It is not obscene and foreboding like New York so often is, but something cold and Gothic, sinister as a haunted house; it precipitates a certain unease in the spirit. Paris (according to rather unsubstantiated rumors) was a city of romance; Berlin, a city of cheap, tawdry sex, is where romance comes to die.
Naturally one’s resentment towards the city grows in proportion to one’s increasing awareness of its all too obvious flaws. And the main target of our exasperation will not be what we imagined we had escaped, but very thing we came here to embrace. Berlin’s much-touted “bohemia,” as it turns out, is an insufferable fraud, a mere middle-class pastiche. We were fooled by the proliferation of café terraces along Kreuzberg’s Bergmannstrasse or Oranienstrasse, or Prenzlauer Berg’s infamous Schonhauser Allee; the infestation of loud bars along Wiener Strasse, or the rash of hippies in Gorlitzer Park, where the stench of dope is stronger than the exhaust fumes. The truth is that where Paris had its Picassos, its Henry Millers, Chester Himes’s, Milan Kunderas and James Baldwins, Berlin merely has snarky, thinly talented young “hipsters” from Williamsburg. There are rare exceptions, of course, but nearly all of these new “artists” are white, over-privileged, thoroughly middle-class and thoroughly reactionary. The “Ex-Berliner,” a ridiculous rag which recently ran an article about a bike thief from Detroit (!), exemplifies what these privileged buffoons imagine “culture” to be. Few of its writers or artists would make the grade anywhere else outside of Berlin—not even in Williamsburg.
Add to this an unrelenting stream of German yuppies from Swabia (Germany’s Rhode Island) and Bavaria (Germany’s Texas), and you have a Berlin today that scarcely resembles the Berlin of even five years ago. German, Scandinavian, and Irish yuppies above all eroded the true bohemian spirit of 1990s Berlin, by buying most of the decaying flats and tenements in which this bohemia flourished. (In Kreuzberg, they were often bought from Turkish owners eager to sell their property and return to Turkey as wealthy men, rather than continue to live marginalized lives in a country that despised them.) Kreuzberg’s new bourgeois residents wished their new kiez to resemble their hometowns of Baden-Baden, Ulm or Ulster as much as possible. One by one, the notorious Berlin squats of the 1980s were killed off, sometimes violently; punk clubs began to wither and die, or—like Schokoladen—forced to clean up their outré acts.
And unfortunately, the cultural and political outlook of these new yuppie residents is no different than that of Ronald Reagan. It is a bitter experience (saying you are a person of color) to walk along Bergmannstrasse and Oranienstrasse, not to mention Prenzlauer Allee, and watch them snatching their purses away, or hastily locking their car doors, or to overhear disparaging remarks about your race, or “auslanders” in general. It is nauseating to enter a reception in some supposedly “hip” neighborhood in Berlin and find oneself a source of amusement or contempt. It is nauseating to have to sit at a döner shop and endure the scornful stares of Germans and Turks alike. One can only build up a tolerance for such rubbish by developing a skin as thick as an elephant’s hide. Or do what so many other people of color do to survive in Berlin: forget you ever heard or saw it, or simply get drunk.
Of course, the typical Berliner Schnauze answer to the above dilemma would be curt and simple: why stay if you don’t like it? And, above all: why did you even bother to come, if you don’t like it? I know I am expected to answer such questions, which after all are posed by people who assume that it is acceptable to treat others with contempt—simply because they happen to be outsiders, moreover, of a different hue. For me, the questions are moot: given Germany’s history, and given that racial tolerance in Berlin was considerably higher before the collapse of the Wall, one need not answer them. A better question would be: where in hell is Berlin’s legendary Left when it comes to dealing with gentrification and rampant racial discrimination?
The truth is that Berlin’s so-called “leftists” have done nothing but waste a lot of words about “yuppie scum” and “revolution” while allowing this same “yuppie scum” to buy them out of their neighborhoods. On the other hand they’ve burned a good deal of trash cans during Berlin’s traditional May Day riots—a kind of political Mardi Gras where the alienated and frustrated let off steam for a day. Ideally, they should have been more tenacious in their resistance to yuppie incursions; burning their cars or, better yet, kicking their behinds would have helped (if they truly were as “leftist” or “radical” as they claimed they were). But that would have required of the Berlin left a political integrity they never truly possessed.
Nonetheless, Berlin’s true Bohemia is still very much alive. Truthfully it is mostly a musician’s bohemia, a direct carryover from the Paris expatriate jazz scene of the forties, fifties and sixties. Some of these musicians are undoubtedly brilliant, even geniuses, which is all the more shameful to see them—after so many years—reduced to playing in the street, or still passing the hat in fifth-rate watering holes, still playing the same trite arrangements of “Summertime” or “Mustang Sally” and, needless to say, completely unknown outside of Berlin. The sordid details about their everyday lives—drugs, drinking, infighting, arguments, the failed and failing relationships with lovers and spouses, the constant withering of old friendships and partnerships, the hot air about new projects that usually comes to nothing—I won’t mention here.
Any artist here serious about creating must be prepared to build another Berlin Wall—around oneself.
The rest of this bohemia is typically in dire straits. There are street performers, many from Spain, Italy, the United States, and Latin America, who have found it more lucrative to deal directly with the crowd than to slog it out on stage. There are actors, acrobats and dancers of all persuasions, a few whom are known, most of whom are not. There are painters here, who—unless they have gained a degree of fame from outside—do not fare particularly well; even street artists fare poorly here compared to other cities. (However, this is understandable in light of Berlin’s obvious material poverty.) Most of the new fly-by-night galleries feature new art that is less than mediocre: color Xeroxes of donuts, cassette tapes (which I have actually seen in Neukölln), and other junk referencing the bored, cushioned lives of Berlin’s art hipsters. The situation for writers is scarcely better. From this writer’s perspective the scene was far more lively and open in the late 90s when, according to the late Erich Maas, “a lot of second-rate artists (were) fucking around on the scene.” Unfortunately, it has worsened: the second-raters have become a new Berlin literary establishment, cranking out hermetic little poems and short stories about—you guessed it—the lives of the bored and cushioned. (Anybody who writes of anything else is routinely marginalized.) There is no “writer’s district;” though tiny, picturesque Friedenau once boasted the likes of Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson and Rainer Maria Rilke, they can hardly be found there today.
Berlin’s appreciation of the schriftsteller is a mere two steps above New York City. I believe this is only because Berlin does not have a Madison Avenue culture that thoroughly marginalizes writers. One thing you quickly realize is that you are not respected more because “schriftsteller” is scrawled into your visa—so long as you don’t write in German, of course. German audiences at German literary institutions generally ignore the speaker if the reading is not in German—this regardless of whether or not they can understand English; their ingrained chauvinism prevents them from even acknowledging your presence. It is made uglier by an equally ingrained cultural arrogance—the German audience pretends it knows more about the reality of the auslander than the auslander knows about his, or hers.
And there are virtually no publications that take good writers seriously. A few very small magazines (such as Sand) have appeared, all too briefly, and disappeared through lack of funding or interest. The Ex-Berliner doesn’t count; their “writer’s series,” hosted at Kaffee Burger is limited to the usual quirky Rick Moody schlock, with as much depth and taste as a soy bean café latte. And unless they are grinning exotics from Martinique or Zimbabwe—something charming, humorous, and above all, irrelevant—black writers are generally ignored.
However, I think it is still possible to actually create in Berlin. The aspiring artist will note that the French flaneur tradition can still work here, for there is certainly a lot to observe, much of it amusing, more of it tragic and ridiculous. (Berlin, above all, is a city of grotesques.) Such a person will not be held in much regard by Berliners (who don’t seem to hold much of anything in regard) but at least, one won’t be so relentlessly questioned by landlords as to one’s ability to pay; nor are the police going to stop and question you, as they might do in modern-day Manhattan. Nor are your friends as inclined to drag you through the coals for your not having a job—most likely your friends themselves won’t have jobs—for being on Hartz-4 in Berlin does not quite carry the same social sting as Welfare does in the United States. (Many years ago, on the super-hip, super-swinging Lower East Side, I casually admitted to being “lazy” to a friend of mine, an art dealer, who had spent a good deal of time in Berlin before the Wall collapsed. His response was typical of a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. “Lazy!?” he shouted in my face. “Why the fuck would you even SAY such a thing? Don’t you know other people have to get up to work in the morning?”)
And yet—in the 22 years since the Wall has collapsed—there have been absolutely no artistic movements in Berlin. In fact there has been in the main a serious shortage of genuinely challenging, groundbreaking Berlin art. A probable cause for this began to dawn on me, shortly after my seventh or eighth trek to the city, after I had settled into an apartment in a cozier, quieter section of Kreuzberg. I found myself unable to produce anything of any real value my entire time there. Maybe it was because, having recently left America, I needed a necessary “time of isolation” to start seeing the world through my own eyes again, and not those of my family, friends, or CNN. Yet just the same, I felt (in spite of my relative ease) somehow distracted by my new surroundings, the readings and concerts I felt obliged to attend, the parties I felt obliged to crash, the lure of too much wine, weed and of course, too many dates with too many needy women. Any artist here serious about creating must be prepared to build another Berlin Wall—around oneself.
But there are more concrete causes for Berlin’s artistic stasis. Aside from the chronic laziness and lack of focus on the part of their artists, Berliners are simply disinterested. This cheeky, inward-looking, blue-collar bunch is simply not keen on seeing all these foreigners in their city, invading their corner pubs and occupying their apartment houses. Whatever they think of art in general, they really do not care at all to hear some spade woodshedding on violin or piano or tenor sax, or some spic typing away in a third-floor, one-room wohnung he managed to sublet from a German. Berlin is keen on one thing only—gentrifying: gentrification meaning corporations who can pump money into a city which remains, after all, very poor by Western standards. The rents are low for a reason, of course. The unemployment rate stands at a sobering 25%. The hoards of junkies congregating at Kottbusser Tor, the drunks gathering at Viktoria Park and Hallesches Tor station are also there for a reason. They are Berlin’s “block boys,” as are the gel-haired, leather-jacketed, uptight Turkish youth, who kill time on street corners, in internet cafes and hookah bars. Most of them collect Hartz-4 or Arbeitslosengeld. Corporations, not third-rate artists, bring in cash; so does mass tourism, which means that Berlin’s image must be scrubbed squeaky clean. Bergmannstrasse has become indistinguishable from any East Village avenue. Dunckerstrasse, once the center of East Berlin’s radical culture, looks like any street in Georgetown, District of Columbia. The club scene has also significantly deteriorated. People with brains generally avoid Yorckschlössen and similar clubs, leaving them to ugly, middle-aged tourists (or ugly, middle-aged Germans). Night after night, one hears nothing but the same junk played by the same lazy musicians, largely ex-military blacks, who have been clowning since 1980. The night-club owners are largely to blame for the situation; they should be put in the dockets at Nuremburg. After all, who in one’s right mind wants to hear “Summertime” played until one can’t even see?
The yuppie, of course, wishes to hear nothing. He doesn’t need a “night club”; he can listen to his iPod and stay at home, or in his Mercedes. So inevitably the clubs will shrivel up and die. Yuppies don’t want any “scenes,” any wild punks, any bohos. And as the city grows more gentrified, the former punk/bohemian centers are forced to uproot themselves (along with people of color, now currently pouring into Berlin at unprecedented rate) to Wedding; and when Wedding shows signs of gentrification, possibly to Adlershof, or Lichtenberg. And of course, it won’t end there.
So it dawns on you that Berlin—in spite of its having saved your ass—is merely a stepping stone, a halfway house. You also realize that you are staying in Berlin not so much because you love it, or even like it, but because you are simply afraid of moving on. In some instances, there may be no other stones left. So you stay on the Berlin stone and find a tolerable (if not entirely comfortable) niche; you further enmesh yourself in the illusion that you are doing something (or going to do something) significant. If you are lucky you stumble into a relationship with a German that ends in marriage; with marriage comes an unbefristet visa, and with an unlimited visa comes Arbeitslosengeld, and with Arbeitslosengeld a slackening and loss of determination. You are going under—not dramatically, in the New York fashion, but gradually, piece by piece, in the understated German manner; it shows in the increasingly shriveled look your face gets with each passing year. Even if you do leave—as many of us do, sometimes for years—you inevitably find yourself coming back, drawn in by memories of a Berlin that now exists solely in your head.
Or finally the last scale will fall from your eyes the day you realize you are even more obscure and unheralded than the day you first landed at Tegel; that all of your relationships have ended in failure; that you are denied the flat you wanted, or denied a gig, or laughed at or beaten up in the streets of your favorite kiez simply because your skin, or even your hair, is too dark. And then—stones be damned—you finally leave for good.