Henry Rollins: The West Berlin Cold Darkness
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]
Do you ever get the feeling, while living out your time in the Los Angeles area during January, where temperatures spike into the 80s and UPS personnel wear shorts, that you have struck a kind of Faustian bargain with the god of weather karma?
That someday, you shall be plunged into a subzero, eternally freezing hell, complete with exploding trees and closed airports, where you'll hope to not slip on an icy sidewalk, catch air and land so hard that something in your way-too-old-for-this-shit body actually breaks?
Maybe that was the environment of your youth, and early winters were spent enduring a city that, in the winter months, turned into a frigid wasteland of filthy snow that seemed to have the shelf life of salt. The dark memories of emerging from your cold-box apartment into the polar bummer of your hometown to claw your way to a cubicle have been replaced with thinner clothes and good times on the 101.
Even you indigenous ones, reared in these far more temperate climes, may have visited a cold region briefly and wondered why anyone would put up with such seemingly avoidable, gelid torture. Are they insane? No, just home.
As I write this, it is 70 degrees - plus in our fair city. I am afforded a bit of easy wonderment in relative comfort as to how humans have lasted so long. Climate- and geography-wise, the planet seems to have little use for us. If you think about it, the amount of land that would allow an almost hairless, highly problematic, needy, pain-in-the-ass mammal such as Homo sapiens to live without huge considerations for climatic extremes is incredibly small.
You are in one of the most geographically blessed parts of the entire world, and even then, a good part of the state is a desert in waiting. One day, the rattlesnakes and hawks will reclaim your block.
The good news is, it's already happening. A few days ago, around 0800 hrs., amidst my morning chores, I emerged from my abode with a full trash can. From behind the retaining wall of my cement front yard, I see vegetation moving. Some living thing is making its way down the incline. All at once, a large coyote materializes on top of the wall, gracefully jumps off and lands a few paces from me. For a millisecond, we face each other, in one of those chickenshit human/animal connecting moments until, seemingly without even looking or expending any effort whatsoever, the coyote leaps to its right, lands perfectly on the wall and, without hesitating, pours itself over the edge, drops a good 15 feet and keeps going.
In that brief stare-down, both parties came to an obvious conclusion. Remember that scene in Apocalypse Now when Captain Willard asks the Roach (who has just taken out a distant sniper with only a flare and his sense of hearing) if he knows who's in charge, and the Roach says, "Yeah"? It was like that.
Certainly, one day, like Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, Mother Nature will again hold its "illimitable dominion over all." In the biggest possible picture, I just don't think we're built to last. Until then, however, we've got it pretty good. Sure, ever more toxified (West Virginia), but pretty good. We Californians can watch the Weather Channel for images of winter's brutality unleashed upon our fellow Americans and thank our lucky stars we don't have to contend with it.
From this warm vantage point, winter and cold can be considered almost romantic and Zhivago-esque. Even in our not-even-close-to-being-cold environment, the slightest dip in temperature and the early dark inspire me to listen to music I would never consider in warmer months.
I must confess my romantic attachment to cold. First off, I like weather that wants me to pack it in - it makes life more meaningful. Secondly, I associate cold weather (and most other things) with music and especially Berlin, before the Wall came down in November 1989.
My first visit to West Berlin was in February 1983. The drive through East Berlin, the fact that West Berlin was surrounded by a wall that was more than 100 miles long - the absurdity and intensity of it really knocked me out. A journal excerpt:
I never heard Bowie's Heroes album (recorded in West Berlin's Hansa Tonstudio) the same way again. The music of Nico and other German artists, not necessarily from West Berlin, became interesting to me, as did musicians who made references to Berlin, like Lou Reed, or had a "Berlin period," like Iggy Pop and Nick Cave.
I feel fortunate that I was able to visit West Berlin several times. Occasionally we would have a night off there and I would wander the streets, taking it all in. It didn't seem like an easy life, but there was something about the place that was incredibly inspiring. The shows were always intense. The audiences always seemed about to blow up, like in St. Petersburg. There was a current that went through me when I was there. Things seemed to burn brighter.
My bandmates and I were playing in Nuremberg the night the Wall started being demolished. We had been in West Berlin only a few nights before. We used to talk about its eventual demise all the time, figuring the modern world would not allow such a barbaric thing to exist.
Now Berlin is just another city in Germany, still quite beautiful but not the same.
The West Berlin cold darkness is what I try to affect when I listen to music on winter nights in Los Angeles. Damn hard in a T-shirt.
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