Henry Rollins: I Used to Love Berlin — Now It's Just a City in Germany
Greetings from Berlin, Germany. I am hours away from my first show of 2016. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be traveling and onstage most of this year.
While I enjoy nature and beautiful views, I am a city person. They fascinate me. After almost 35 years of frequent international travel, Berlin is still one of the most interesting cities I have been to.
I first came to Berlin in February 1983. The band I was in, Black Flag, was touring with across Europe with the Minutemen. There were a lot of firsts for all of us, and a lot of the time, I remember feeling at odds with everything around me except the shows themselves. We didn’t have fans as much as curious onlookers and were often met with equal parts apathy and aggression.
Our crossing through East Germany into West Berlin was intense. To get the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) stamp in your passport required a grilling by the border guards, who went out of their way to intimidate us. I remember one leaning into the driver’s side of the van, making sure the barrel of his rifle was in our bass player’s face.
“Do not stop to make a piss. The sides of the road are mined.” Which I only partly believed, but nonetheless, we made a straight line for Berlin.
My first glimpse of the Berlin Wall mesmerized me. Even though it was cold and I wasn’t all that well dressed for the weather, before the show, I found a section and walked next to it for quite a while, fascinated by all the graffiti and the fact that I was in a city surrounded by barbed wire, soldiers, dogs. I climbed up an observation tower and stared at East German soldiers, who picked up their binoculars and stared back at me. I was 22 years old and had never been anywhere like this.
The show was a lot like the four we had done in Germany on the previous nights. The audience stared, jeered, drank and occasionally sought to make contact by yanking on the microphone cord or throwing something toward the stage, usually at me. It felt as if we were captives and that these people were truly up for anything to happen — like, if the whole show fell apart, that would be as good as if we got through all the songs. It also occurred to me that if we all of a sudden went Plastic Exploding Inevitable and turned the night into a sonic exploration with sheets of sound and improvised lyrics, that would have been fine, maybe even better.
The set felt as if it lasted for hours because it was such an experience. For the audience, I think it was just another night in Berlin.
I couldn’t wait to get back there.
Around the time of that first visit, I got a copy of Lou Reed’s live album Take No Prisoners. There was something about Lou’s ever-present hostility toward the audience that made me feel as if I knew the guy. During the version of “Berlin,” Lou changed the lyric of the second part of the line, “We were in a small café/You could hear the guitars play” to “You could hear all those pieces of shits play.” There was something so steely about the words and how he spat them out that really captivated me.
Then, at 4:20 in, the backup singers tear the roof off and Lou drops his sneer veneer, their sheer melodic velocity forcing him to give it up. They burn off his insular cool and he fairly erupts: “I know I’m gonna miss ya now!” It is for me, one of the greatest moments in rock & roll.
Also around that time, I started learning more about the history of Iggy Pop and David Bowie’s time in Berlin and two records associated with their time as Berliners: Iggy’s The Idiot and Bowie’s Low. Although neither album was recorded completely in Berlin, Iggy and Bowie both worked on them there, and for a fan like me, they are a soundtrack for the Berlin in my mind. I make no apologies for how hyper-romanticized that sounds.
In the summer of 1984, I was back in Berlin for a couple of shows and a night off, which I spent walking around. With my meager per diems, I actually sat in a café, and it was even better than I thought it could be.
The two shows were classic Berlin experiences. On the first night, a large man punched me out — for what reason, I don’t know. Then, at load-out, a man picked up one of Greg Ginn’s Dan Armstrong guitars and ran off with it. To this day, I wonder where it ended up.
The last time I was in Berlin before the wall came down was 10-18-89. I have photos of that show. I am bleeding out of the mouth, perhaps from another Berlin fist. We were in Nuremberg on 11-09-89 when the wall fell.
Berlin has never been the same. Better, worse, I am not qualified to say. But it went from a compressed, tension-filled zone to just a city in Germany.
It’s still cool, but things have changed. I remember staring at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between the East and West, and feeling nervous. Now it’s a tourist destination, which is fine, but there was something really special about playing down the road from something so cold and stark.
In a few hours, I’ll be onstage. I will tell my sold-out audience how glad I am to be back and as always, wonder if they believe me.
Photo by Heidi May