West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys
That is the song of Berlin. I know it isn’t even about Berlin, but the east and west thing is pretty fitting because of that whole Berlin Wall thing. And it’s such a rad song. Berlin in the summer isn’t real life. It’s like an amusement park for adults, where everything is lawless and too much fun, so it doesn’t make sense. If you spend too much time there, you’re fucked. You can’t go back to the real world where all those rules and responsibilities and high prices and rude people ruin the amusement park. It’s a dead end world. It’s the best.
Speaking of dead amusement parks, the first of many cool things I did in Berlin was jump the fence and sneak into Spreepark, an amusement park that closed down in 2002. It didn’t take long to get kicked out by some really pissed off security dudes who shouted German at me through the whole park as they escorted me out, but it was nice that I didn’t have to jump the fence again. Spreepark is a creepy place, for sure, where white swan rides sit in a swamp of sludge and a pink Ferris wheel slants to the east atop a rotten deck. The previous owner fled to Peru with a debt of 11 million euro and ended up in the clink for attempting to traffic 180 kilos of cocaine back to Germany, but that’s a whole other story. So yeah, decrepit children’s rides and massive dinosaur statues are scattered throughout the forest and covered in graffiti. Everything in Berlin is covered in Graffiti. People like to tell you the graffiti is cool and unique and progressive art, but it’s not. It’s shitty graffiti—all wack tags done with hardware store paint and it looks horrible. There’s some good graffiti, like on the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall, but most of it’s shit.
The Berlin Wall
How fucked up was that idea? I always thought the wall went straight down the center of the city, dividing the East and West sectors of Berlin, but it actually took a nonsensical route around rivers and buildings to complete a messed up circle-like shape that enclosed West Berlin. Maybe most people knew that already, but I didn’t. I met a local girl who does proper graffiti for a living (inside her art studio) and she grew up in Berlin, spending the first 10 years of her life on the east side of the wall. When the wall came down, her parents tripped out and wouldn’t go near it because they’d spent their entire lives knowing that going near that wall meant being shot at. So when the authorities were like, “Nah, nah… It’s cool. C’mon through the wall. It’s all good,” a massive chunk of East Berliners got the fuck out of there because they didn’t want to be anywhere near the wall. That was 1989 and basically overnight much of East Berlin was abandoned. Then this guy from Detroit showed up and started throwing parties in the empty warehouse buildings, playing this new style of electronic music called “techno.” People lost their shit about techno, so much that they started writing shitty graffiti all over the warehouse walls. People started coming from all over the world and the parties got bigger and bigger until they were called “raves.”
I caught the tail end of rave culture during my mid-teens in Canada. Yes, it took about a decade for techno to travel from Berlin to Canada, even though it was originally in Detroit, which is literally on the Canadian border. I grew up on the Ramones and The Smiths and The Clash and that’s the music I know and love, so you could say I like shitty music because I’m not that into raves. My wife loves her beats and always calls me out for using words like “rave” and “techno” because I should be saying “deep house” and “nu disco” if I knew anything at all. I don’t know much, but I do know that rave culture is still very much alive in Berlin. They love their dirty beats, especially with a lot of sweat, beer, and cigarette smoke. The dirty beats live in these massive clubs that open on Thursday nights and close on Monday mornings. If you’re a champ, you’ll come to Berlin for a weekend and not leave the club, like a boss. Berghain is the most famous of such clubs that you’ve likely heard about.
I didn’t go to Berghain, but they probably wouldn’t have let me in anyway because the line is “face controlled” and I don’t know if I have enough rave face to get in. Everyone knows Berghain as “the” nightclub. It’s not really a club, more like a village. There are chill bars, lots of outdoor space, food trucks, and of course the dark dark basements with dark dark corners where the real shit goes down. Someone told me that the men’s bathroom has a piss stall that’s just a metal grate you piss into and there’s a secret room below where you can go underneath and get a golden shower. It sounds like the craziest thing ever, but I believe it after some of the things I saw in a different club I went to. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was incredible. Dirty beats, multiple rooms, lots of beer, broken glass, cigarette smoke, laser lights, sofas in the bathrooms, cocaine all over the place, dudes making out with each other… all that awesome stuff. People were wearing the wildest outfits and going mad like Germany had just won the World Cup.
The week I spent in Berlin happened to be Fashion Week and World Cup, where Scandinavian models stomped all over the Mitte hood (downtown), every fashion store threw parties that spilled onto the sidewalks, and Germany stomped all over every other nation they faced on their road to futball victory. I could make a witty pun about another time Germany stomped all over a bunch of other nations on their road to world domination, but that might be distasteful. And they didn’t end up “winning” that war anyway, so it wouldn’t be unfair to call them World War champs. Too soon?
World War II
How fucked up was that idea? Berlin’s history of war goes back long before Hitler stained the town red, to when Napoleon kicked down the city gate in 1806 or when half the city was destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War. Wars have been fucking the place up since well before the Prussian era. But WWII is heavy because it happened in our generation and you still see the aftermath all over town. And you all know about the Holocaust. It’s pretty heavy to walk the streets today and see bullet holes in the sides of parliament buildings and visit all the museums and monuments, which are world class. It seems like things are finally in order because everyone is happy, drinking beer in the morning, and there’s some structure and rules in place.
There are no rules in Berlin. That’s why it’s not real life. Wanna ride you bicycle the wrong way through traffic without a helmet on? Do it. Wanna smoke cigarettes inside? Do it. Wanna drink beers on the stoop of the police building at 8:30 am? Do it. The cops will sit down and crack a cold one with you if it’s World Cup and their boys just stomped Brazil 7-1. Wanna go to a huge mall called “Bikini” and shop at Forever 21? You could do it, but don’t. Want to sink into a culture of like-minded creatives who are living free and accomplishing little and loving every minute of it? Do it. Want to be one of those couples at the crowded lake having sex on the beach? More on that another time. Want to be one of those creepy guys who sit in the bushes and jerk off while the couple has sex? Probably won’t get into that story. Turn up the Pet Shop Boys and go to Berlin. The wall is down and she is waiting. And tell me if that golden shower room in Berghain is real.