Fall Of The Berlin Wall (Legoland Version)

I enjoyed this stirring re-enactment of the events of November 10, 1989:

Notice how there’s a Hasselhoff-ian figure atop the mobile platform thing, and how lights start going on and off as he performs once the Wall falls. Nice touch. This atones for the minor historical inaccuracy my wife pointed out: that the Wall actually falls from the West into the East in this little drama.

Solarium and Vodka

• This is my first winter in Berlin… and, man, it gets dark early here. We’re already down to 4:30pm daylight curfew and there’s still a month to go to the solstice. I’m about ready to curl up in the solarium with a few bottles of vodka for the next few months.

• I caught a cold in Prague that metastasized in the world’s most annoying, hacking cough over the last week. Yesterday, while I was at my work space, I was actually slinking out of the office on multiple occasions into the bathroom just to go have a good round of coughing. It had gotten to the point where I was embarrassed to cough any more in the presence of people who were trying to get work done. This is a necessary nod to integrity on my part, because I hate it when I’m trying to concentrate and some wretched person keeps coughing… so I have to try to be at least somewhat consistent. Then, this morning, I burst into a nosebleed while on the U-Bahn, from all the honking over the past few days. What a pain in the ass. What is it about a nosebleed that inspires such contempt? I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a vague presumption that you’re likely a cocaine abuser or something. It feels especially damning in a situation like German mass transit where there are lots of people and everyone’s sort of reasonably well put together. If it happened on the BART, you could at least be confident that there would be at least seven more disturbing, unhygienic people in the immediate vicinity.

• The wife and I have found a nice new sublet for the next year as we weigh our long-term options (Berlin vs. Prague). We have to leave our present, glorious sublet next month, when the master tenants return from their year abroad. The new place is in a peculiar neighborhood called ‘Die Rote Insel’ (the Red Island)— the ‘island’ part comes from the fact that the area is surrounded by a triangle of train tracks, so one must cross a bridge to get in; the ‘red’ part comes from the fact that it was traditionally a lefty stronghold and was the last area to hold out against Hitler’s political machine in the 1930s.

Before taking our Red Island place, we went and looked at one place that seemed spacious and well-priced but turned out to be located at the exact epicenter for monumental Soviet-style architecture, Frankfurter Tor:

No thanks! If I hadn’t just got done living in Prague for five years, this might seem culturally intriguing, but as things stand…. I think I’ve had enough.

In contrast to the massive authoritarianism of Frankfurter Tor, I prefer the cutesy neighborliness of  ‘Little Hamburger Street’:

(Top: Plague mask by Andreas Krautwald)

From random ……….. to planned

In yet another very old post, I unveiled The Old Apartment Rule, my proposal that anyone ought to be allowed to ask for a quick five minute tour of any apartment or house that they’ve previously lived in from the current residents. I finagled my way into a real-life instance of this last week when we went back to Prague last week for a short visit and stopped by our old apartment that we’re currently subletting to pick up mail. There was the sight of our old place— ours for five-plus years, the longest I’ve lived at any one address as an adult!— shifted around and decorated with somebody else’s knick-knacks and sensibilities. I worried that the cognitive dissonance would fry my son’s young brain, but he enjoyed the visit and seemed unbothered by the weird collision of old/new, ours/not-ours.

Also strangely transformed is Prague’s hlavní nadraži, aka main train station. They’ve been renovating it for several years now in order to turn it into a typical spacious, organized, appealing, identical Western European train hub, just like any other. Previously, it had this weird sense of spatial compression from the low ceilings and an infernal red-ness, plus the large number of pigeons that seemed to be trapped inside at any given moment:

(photo credit: milov)

[Admission: actually, this renovation basically finished like a year ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about this whole time, but only just remembered when I was back there this week.]

In general, the changes are nice, if bland. It’s nice to be able to buy your ticket from a visible, accessible person rather than leaning over to shout into a tiny voice hole set in shatterproof glass with a grumpy, shadowy personage lurking behind. It’s nice to be able to buy food that you don’t instantly hurl into a garbage can four steps later. But most of all, I’m delighted by this series of ads that appear in the station, touting the improvements made. They are essentially before-and-after pictures, with a shot from the old unrenovated days on top and an up-to-date image below. Like this:

‘From random…. to planned,’ boasts the caption. First, I love the fact that they took the effort to organize a shoot of characteristic stuff from the old station just so they could poop on it later by dint of comparison. You can just see the proprietor of the ‘random’ stand throwing up his arms in insulted disbelief upon seeing this: What?! That’s what I was told to sell. That’s what Czech people eat!

The series contains several other gems:

The abandoned, sloshy bucket on the floor is really great. Again: it kills me to imagine the prop wrangler and art director for this shoot in action.

This might be the best:

From the ‘before’ scene, the grumpy old guy scratching his head is perfect casting— I mean, I can just picture myself defeatedly approaching that guy for information and trying to struggle through a conversation with him in Czech all the while knowing that it’s not going to avail me of anything. But what’s up with the woman straddling the suitcases? The encounter doesn’t seem that ‘distant’. It actually seems kind of ‘romantic’, at least when compared with the Oral-B blandness of the lower ‘new and improved’ reality.

Shine on, you crazy kids.

Other images in the series get a bit more predictable— this one, for example, uses the old black-and-white vs. color contrast used in every negative political campaign spot since the dawn of time:

Still, there are nice details sprinkled throughout. Notice above, for example, that while the bad old days were devoid of color and lighted signs, they were replete with leering strangers with no umbrella heckling you from the neighboring bench.

p.s. any time we’re on the subject of Czech mass transit, it’s worth linking one more time to the timeless Onion TV bit about Prague’s Franz Kafka Airport.

Blog Fight Song, pt. 5

“Kerouac taped together twelve-foot-long sheets of drawing paper, trimmed at the left margin so they would fit into his typewriter, and fed them into his machine as a continuous roll. Holmes visited his apartment while this version of On The Road was in progress and was amazed at the thundering sound of Jack’s typewriter racing non-stop. Joan had taken a job as a waitress, and when she got home she fed Jack pea soup and coffee; he took Benzedrine to stay awake. Joan was impressed by the fact that Jack sweated so profusely while writing On the Road that he went through several T-shirts a day. He hung the damp shirts all over the apartment so they could dry.”

From Ann Charters’ introduction to the 1991 Penguin edition of On The Road. Previous Blog Fight Song editions here.

Berlin Bandwagon

So, as intimated in last post (and a few other ones), we’re taking the leap and moving to Berlin in beginning of June. The plan is to try it out for six months, see how it goes, and then revaluate towards the end of the year. The short version of the story is that you can look forward to lots of facile comparative ‘blah blah Berlin this, Prague that, blah blah blah’ posts in this space over the summer. I look forward to jumping on an already stuffed-to-capacity bandwagon and adding to the steady drumbeat of inane ‘Berlin: Best City Evah!‘-type commentary.

You know those occasional experiences that make you truly appreciate the internet (for example, buying plane tickets– do you actually remember how much airfare cost in the early 90s?). This process of moving to another city with wife and small child in tow has been more or less the ultimate example of this. I’m literally not sure that it would be possible to me to organize this in, say, 1992. Sure, if we didn’t have a kid, I suppose my wife and I could squat with various friends and stuff while we figured it out… but, given the current set-up, the only two options I can imagine would be:

  1. Move family to some crappy hotel in Berlin, go to German equivalent of Rainbow grocery every day and scour bulletin board for sublet postings written in English
  2. Hire some agency to take care of it. This sounds somewhat plausible (if expensive)… until I remember that I currently live in Prague and am planning to move to a second foreign country– it’s not like I could just open the phonebook and find some Czech-German relocation company with whom I could easily communicate with about the nuances of potential living situations.

So, yeah: thanks, internet. I really like you this week. But also for another reason: the post that I wrote about my late sculptor friend Joe… both his daughter and his friend Rhonda have come across the post via Google searches, and Rhonda was kind enough to corroborate my vague memories of his experience living in an unheated cement warehouse. It’s such a good story– imagine my relief to discover that it’s not a pure embellishment from my addled memory.

See also: So Long, Old Friend and Berlin Says…

Blog Fight Song, pt. 4

From a profile on Barry Michaels, the Hollywood therapist who treats screenwriters, actors and movie execs:

“By far the most common problem afflicting the writers in Michels’s practice is procrastination, which he understands in terms of Jung’s Father archetype. ‘They procrastinate because they have no external authority figure demanding that they write,’ he says. ‘Often I explain to the patient that there is an authority figure he’s answerable to, but it’s not human. It’s Time itself that’s passing inexorably. That’s why they call it Father Time. Every time you procrastinate or waste time, you’re defying this authority figure.’ Procrastination, he says, is a ‘spurious form of immortality,’ the ego’s way of claiming that it has all the time in the world; writing, by extension, is a kind of death.”

Previous Blog Fight Song installments here.

Image: Chronos (aka Father Time) and Gaea from the opening spread of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

Something About King Tubby

There’s a third article for Smashing Magazine that I’m currently doing research on and kind of poking around and mulling over. Just to be clear: the first article was on type– that one’s done; the second one is the thing about the unicorns– that one’s almost done. This third one is about typography and design in Jamaican album covers: the conceit is that you can track two dueling tendencies of colonialism and exploitation vs. black nationalism in the visual themes and type forms of albums associated with ska, rocksteady, dub and reggae. In a sense, it’s an eighteen-times-more-serious counterpart to the Showcase of Hideous Xmas-Themed Reggae Covers I did for the blog a few months back.

The nice thing about this is that its been a good excuse to pore over Lloyd Bradley’s This Is Reggae Music again and other favorite sources, and get a not-really-necessary-but-self-indulgently-pleasant update on all my favorite pet issues. There’s the legend of Earl ‘Ska’ Campbell, who reportedly killed himself by soloing too vigorously. There’s the fact that King Tubby was, of all incongruous things, a clean freak who didn’t smoke pot. But there’s one detail that I came across tonight that I was particularly happy to recover, because I read about it more than ten years ago in the liner notes to a dub compilation but couldn’t remember all the details or exactly where I’d read it (has that ever happened to you? It’s maddening). It’s an eye witness account of the first time dub was played to a live crowd:

The crowd did a quick double take and then went wild, pushing down the fence until it was flattened, and then rushed in, knocking the speaker boxes flying.

It turns out to be music historian Steve Barrow (the same guy who started Blood And Fire Records), describing King Tubby’s first public airing of dub. I love the idea of a herd of listeners spontaneously rioting in response to the invention of producer-oriented music. In a less specific sense, I love any account of an overwhelming, uncalculated mass reaction to a piece of pop music. It comes from the same place as the first time that Elvis Presley’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’ was played on some pokey Memphis radio station and the entire surrounding county area was seized with a collective mania, jamming the station’s phone lines for hours on end (recounted in Last Train to Memphis). It can come in less dramatic but more pervasive ways, too– remember when ‘Hey Ya!’ came out in 2003 and it seemed that Outkast had cracked some code for getting white and black people to go nuts over the same music. (Note: I ripped off that phrase about ‘cracking the code’ from some Pitchfork writer, but I’m too lazy to add yet another link to this post).

That’s what’s great about pop music: it’s the only thing on earth that can suddenly make a large group of people (hundreds, thousands, millions even) urgently experience some common sensation that they had no idea they had in common with tons of other people. Not even politics can do that. Sure, what’s going on in Egypt right now is important than ‘Hey Ya!’…  but everyone in Egypt already knew they hated Mubarak. That’s the difference.

Blog Fight Song, pt. 3

Film director Elia Kazan, from an unpublished letter to Tennesse Williams. Kazan is asking Williams to add a speech in praise of bohemianism to his liberal-leaning script for “Camino Real”:

A dying race call them what you will: romantics, eccentrics, rebels, Bohemians, freaks, harum-scarum, bob-tail, Punchinellos, odd-ducks, the out-of-steps, the queers, double-gated, lechers, secret livers, dreamers, left-handed pitchers, defrocked bishops … the artists, the near artists, the would-be artists, the wanderers, the would-be wanderers, the secret wanderers, the foggy-minded, the asleep on the job, the loafers, the out-and-out hobos, the down and out, the grifters and drifters, the winos and boozers, the old maids who don’t venture to the other side of their windows, the good for nothings, the unfenceables, the rebels inside, the rebels manifest.

See also: Blog Fight Song parts one and two.

Photo: Paul Gaugin being ‘bohemian’.

Concrete Serengeti

A few nights ago, something inspired me to google the name of a sorely-missed friend of mine who’s been dead for 10 years, a guy named Joe Schactman. Joe was a serious artist and a big influence on my decision to get into graphic design– hell, when we first met, he was about the only person who could tell me anything about graphic design. The nascent internet sure didn’t have much to say, and you couldn’t find anything of note at the public library. I keep a photo on my desk of him sitting in our backyard, focussedly whittling away on a tiny bit sculpture in his hands– Joe was always working on something, so I try to leverage my memory of his industriousness to remind myself to stop procrastinating and get back to work.

Fortunately, the internet has come along way in the last decade, so my google search of two nights ago led me right away to the Flickr page of another old friend of his who has posted this Schactman drawing ‘PAIR OF LIZARDS’:

One fun thing that Joe would talk about from time to time was the various bizarre live-work spaces that he inhabited as a rag-tag artist in New York City in the late 70s and early 80s. One place, in particular, that he lived in was a giant abandoned factory building somewhere in (if I recall correctly) Williamsburg. Space was rented out for a song to artists, who had all the room they could possibly need there, but the problem was that the place was so vast that you couldn’t realistically heat it in wintertime. So, everyone who lived there would make some kind of teepee-like structure, a tiny sub-unit that they could sleep in and afford to heat. The overall effect, as Joe described to me, was like living in the Serengeti, except you’re also in a giant factory building. In the morning, you would creep out of your tent and start making coffee outside, and then gaze across the vast cement expanse to watch another groggy nomad emerging from his or her tent as well at some great distance. Perhaps friendly salutations would be exchanged or (I like to imagine) some hostile fist-shaking if neighborly relations were momentarily strained. This idea of recreating these kind of primitive tribal patterns within a giant cement enclosure entertains me to no end.