Saturday, July 31, 2010

C.ash R.ules E.verything A.round M.e

OK, no more writing about fascists and stuff for a while, it's basically a major downer and if you want to know more about that sort of thing you should probably watch Schindler's List. Because let's face it, Spielberg has a bunch of interns to do his research for him and all I have is google and a propensity to flesh out my hunches by making things up.

Instead, today's post is about how hilariously easy it is to make money in this town by going 'on the busk,' as we put it in musician language. A lot of towns hate buskers, and consider them to be a problem akin to sewer rats or football hooligans. In London, for example, if you play music on the street you are just as likely to get set on fire by street kids or arrested for treason as you are to be given actual cash money, and if they do give you money it's likely to be foreign. In Berlin, though, they treat you almost like they would treat a normal person, and when they give you money it is done with good grace and in respectable quantities.

Here's the thing, though: unless there is more than one of you, or you have an awesome trick like the ability to set yourself on fire or dislocate all your joints at once, there's not much point in standing on the street noodling away on an old Neil Young song waiting for the good folk of Berlin to pay you. Tried that, total waste of time. I would have made more money fishing empty beer bottles out of the canal. If you're like me (and I understand that I am in many ways a typical example of my kind) the way to work it is to go to the cafes, of which there are about seven million in Berlin. What you do is, you go ask the bar staff if you can play a couple of songs. Mostly they say yes, sometimes they say no, quite often they ask to hear a bit of music to make sure that you're not going to be playing Pantera covers. If alles is gut, you go outside to where the tables are, you introduce yourself, play two or three songs, then pass a hat around.

If somebody tried this in New Zealand, they would either get ignored, punched, or told to get a real job, depending what suburb or time of night it was. In Berlin, what happens is people stop talking, look up, applaud, give you money, and buy your CDs. Perhaps they don't have very good TV here or something, but these people are totally ready to be entertained. I don't really have much perspective beyond my own experience (you can put that on my headstone if you want) but I've noticed that it helps if people know you're playing your own stuff, and I also hand out flyers for my 'proper' shows, which I think is useful as well. Being from New Zealand I think is a good thing too, because often people think that I'm a hobbit of some kind and if they give me money I will be able to cure their diseased livestock or place curses on their neighbours. Also I have a hat with a crow's feather stuck in the band, which is my secret weapon.

For tax reasons, I cannot reveal exactly how much you can make per hour with this method, but I can say that on average it is more than a nurse and less than a doctor. It seems to work best between the hours of about seven and ten pm, which is pretty much my ideal workday. Nothing much cool happens here before about 10:30 (or 2230 uhr, as we say in the Deutsch), and daytimes are for cycling around aimlessly taking photographs of Soviet architectural monstrosities, so there's about three spare hours in there for honest toil if you're up for it.

This is what it looks like when you empty out your guitar case at the end of the evening.

The great thing about busking as a way of earning your keep is that the rewards are immediate and tangible. Instead of waiting two weeks for a paycheck, you get one every ten minutes or so, in jingling cash. This is wonderful if, like me, you have an inner troll who really likes counting money, and placing it in piles ten euros high.

I am a little bit worried though that some damn knight will find my lair and kill me and steal my hoard.

Friday, July 30, 2010

All you fascists are bound to lose

One of the things that Germans seem to be proud of as a nation, and rightly so in my opinion, is that in the thirties and forties they weren't all Nazis. This is non-trivial. When a country becomes infested with jackbooted thugs, it's really quite difficult for people do anything about it - a point that is made succinctly in nerdy rhyming couplets by Maurice Ogden in this poem.

The majority of Germans who weren't Nazis were passive about it, as most people are passive about most things. A significant number, however, made a point of expressing their disapproval in a variety of ways. Throughout the twenties and thirties there was significant organised opposition from democrats, socialists, communists and anarcho-syndicalists, who distributed propaganda, organised escape networks, sabotaged infrastructure, and fought the Nazis in the streets. Many many people were arrested for these activities and incarcerated in concentration camps. Many of those incarcerated were tortured and murdered.

The thing to remember about a lot of these people is that if they had stopped doing the things that got them put in concentration camps (ie resisting and generally getting all up in the faces of the Nazis), there's a good chance that they wouldn't have got put in concentration camps. That's one of the reasons totalitarian regimes often use things like concentration camps against their political opponents; the threat of being arrested and tortured and murdered tends to have a chilling effect on political opposition. Many of the Germans who resisted in this period weren't the 'social undesirables' who were the specific targets of the Nazi death machine - Jews, homosexuals, mentally ill people, people classed as Gypsies - they were people who believed that the Nazis were evil and should be stopped. If they'd kept quiet, it's likely that they wouldn't have been arrested and tortured and murdered.

But! Lots of them didn't keep quiet, and they did resist, which is a pretty amazingly courageous thing to do.

This guy here is off to Spain to fight the fascists in the Civil War. A lot of German anarchists did that, understanding that despite the wide selection of domestic fascists they could have been fighting, their services were more urgently required in Catalonia. Many did both, of course, and I imagine that for a lot of people getting killed in Spain was preferable to getting killed in a concentration camp.

In the Freidrichshain Volkspark, a very pretty part of Berlin, there is a memorial to the Germans who resisted the fascists in this period. It was put up by the DDR in the 70s to commemorate communist antifascists and Polish soldiers who died in the war, but was rededicated in 1995 to commemorate all German antifascist resistance movements. These days it's a great place for people to skate, which I think is totally the best thing you could do on a memorial to antifascists.

The posters are by John Heartfield, who was a German photographer and montage artist who produced a lot of antifascist material. They're from this site:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Arrival

As I wander around in Berlin, in search of the fame and fortune I feel are my due, I am often struck by how much of the place looks like Shaun Tan drew it. This is probably because my own experience maps so closely onto the story of the nameless protaganist in The Arrival - I don't speak the language here, people are generally nice to me, and I left my own country because forces loyal to the government were threatening to destroy my way of life.

I don't understand a lot of what goes on here, and this is not limited to what happens outside my door. In my very bathroom, for instance, there exist inexplicable alcoves and strange extrusions of pipe and wire, the purpose of which I can only guess at.

This cupboard, for example, looks relatively innocuous, if inscrutable.

Upon opening it, however, questions arise.

It is filled with ashes, and it leads to a hole in the wall that appears to be bottomless. That's fine; clearly it's just a portal to another dimension. What I don't know, though, is the precise species of the fire-breathing lizard creature that obviously uses it for a nest. Not knowing its species, I can only guess at its habits, and I'm worried that all of my guesses will be hopelessly antipodean. In New Zealand, of course, the fire-breathing lizards nest in late winter, and are usually off on their annual migration by high summer - is the pattern the same this far north though? Should I leave the cupboard open, so that the lizard can fly out the window and catch mice for its young, or should I leave it shut until the rainy season starts and the young metamorphose into the aquatic stage of their life cycle?

Perhaps it is time I left the house for a while.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Because one of the things I often fail to do is anticipate the obvious, the other day I found myself on a seven-hour train ride without a packed lunch, and of course I became hungry. Intercity trains anywhere seem to be great places to explore that shady part of the food pyramid where 'eat least' intersects with 'pay most,' and I can report that the trains of the DeutschBahn adhere firmly to this rule. My camera had run out of batteries (see 'failing to anticipate the obvious,' above) so I am unable to post a picture of what I ate, but I can report that it was called a fleischkäse, which, if you include the umlauts in the right place, translates to the English as a 'meatcheese.' This sounded promising to me, and the fact that it was to be served im brot suggested that maybe I was in for a filled roll of some kind.

What I think happens with the fleischkäse (and this is pure reverse engineering, I should emphasise that I have not researched this) is that they get all the meat that they haven't sold that week from the butchery or wherever. Most of it hasn't sold because it has fallen on the floor and been stood on, and that's fine, that's part of it. Then they go down the road to the dairy and see if there's any really old cheese - the kind that's so yellow it's actually orange, and the orange is sulphur, which they put in to stop it decaying when they accidentally leave it in the sun for about a month. Then they take the cheese, and the meat, and they whack it in a big blender and give it a good blend until the bits of gristle and whatever are just the right size to get stuck between your teeth if you are foolish enough to actually eat one of these things. After that, they fashion the whole thing into a kind of pattie that is stored for several weeks at room temperature. When they see people like me get on their train, they heat it to just north of tepid, about the right temperature to really get the e. coli pumping, they chuck it between two lumps of bread - no butter and you can forget about salat, my friend - and they sell it to me for, like, heaps. So basically it's a steak and cheese pie, but without all of the sissy bits like gravy that we put in in New Zealand and which make us so soft and underachieving as a nation. Sure do miss those pies.

The reason I was on the train at all was so I could get to Amsterdam, which proved to be a good move. The place is full of louts, obviously, but on the whole many places are so this shouldn't count as immediate disqualification. I was there to play a show with Ms. Hannah Curwood, who I played with in Berlin a couple of weeks ago and whose songs seemed to be crying out for someone to play wailing fiddle parts all over them. She says she doesn't mind. The show was at a place called Bitterzoet, opening for Mr. Don McGlashan, so the whole thing was worth sitting on a train for.

Amsterdam is pretty famous for a bunch of different things. I abstained from most of them for a number of reasons - partly because I think my mum reads this blog, partly because the fleischkäse did enough weird things to my head for one weekend, but mostly because I had to learn a whole set's worth of Hannah's songs in an afternoon, and some of them had more than three chords, because she's been to music school she reckons. We had a practice in a park by a canal - the place is built on a swamp, so they've got a pretty serious canal problem - and after a few false starts the applause of passers-by gave us the confidence to think that we could maybe share a stage with the Don that evening. We were playing in the same key, at least, and I had brought my best suit jacket, so what could go wrong?

As it turned out, nothing really did. I think this shows that sometimes failing to anticipate the obvious can pay off. It should have been apparent to both of us, I would have thought, that playing a show in Amsterdam opening for one of my (and, it turns out, Hannah's) all-time favourite musicians and songwriters, after having played together before only very late at night in an art gallery down a side street in Berlin, and that very afternoon beside a canal, and zero other times, was a plan doomed to fail spectacularly and publicly. That kind of thing goes down fine at the wine cellar, but this was one of those kind of grown-up shows with a promoter and stuff. Could have been a very bad call.

Must be something in the air in Amsterdam (well, duh) but we totally pulled it off. There was a really nice bunch of people at Bitterzoet, and we completely fooled them into thinking that we knew what we were doing. I suspect it was mostly my suit jacket, but I also did some witty banter that I imagine helped. This is something I often imagine when I am onstage, despite the kind advice of colleagues and friends who don't always understand my jokes. Anyway, people said nice things, bought some records and stood us drinks, so it looks like maybe I've got a new band to play with back in Auckland while the Broken Heartbreakers are off finding themselves.

Don McGlashan was amazing as well, of course, but he can write about that on his own blog.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I visited a concentration camp today, since I am in one of the parts of the world in which they occur. It was sobering, of course.

Kurt Vonnegut said of such things "I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee... I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that."

He was actually talking about a different massacre, but the same principle applies.

Monday, July 19, 2010

King of the Buskers

There is a guy playing the piano outside my house. It's sitting on a piano moving trolley, next to the canal, beside the kebab stand where you can get more food for less than three euros than I can eat in a sitting. I was riding my bike home after an evening spent busking in the cafes around here, and as I was about to cross the bridge I got pulled up short by a Chopin nocturne. That has never happened to me before.

The guy with the piano on a trolley is the king of the buskers, which is quite a big call in this busker-infested town. There's a chap up by Mauerpark, for exmple, with a home-made robot on a shopping cart. It's made from bicycle parts and it can dance a pretty good approximation of a polka. And the other night there was a man doing frankly quite scary things with some sort of flamethrower/foghorn hybrid in the back bar at Tacheles, and there are several fairly accomplished human statues around the place. So it goes on, all the way down to the hordes of middle-class kids from New Zealand with their guitars and their songs about birds. None of them can match the piano on a trolley guy for quiet dignity, however. Quiet dignity is what you need if you want to be king of the buskers. Quiet dignity and mean as Chopin chops.

I sat down and watched him for a while, and when he stopped for a cigarette he asked me if I wanted a hoon on his piano. In German, though, so the word he used was a lot longer than 'hoon.' Did I want to play a piano on a trolley, next to a swan-studded canal in the gathering dusk of the Berlin summer? That is close to being one of the questions the feds use to calibrate their polygraph machines. Of course I wanted to.

This guy had hauled his piano all the way down here, though - god knows how, as far as I know the apartments around here are all walkups. So he hauled it some unholy distance, and it's not quite 40 degree heat anymore but I bet that raised a sweat, even if he took it in nice easy stages. And he timed it impeccably, so that his Chopin kicked in right on dusk, when everybody's ready for a bit of Chopin if they're sitting by a canal eating massive kebabs. Basically he's done everything just right so far.

And right now, at this stage of my musical life, I can confidently play two things on the piano. One is 'The night they drove old Dixie down' by the Band, and the other is by Pink Floyd and I don't want to talk about it. They're both good songs mind you, but Chopin is buried somewhere on this continent, and I just knew that if I busted out my dirty old Comfortably Numb, Herr Chopin would start such a spinning in his grave that we would definitely have felt it over there by the kebab stand. The only guy I know who could get away with that sort of behaviour is tearing it up in South America, and besides we try not to encourage him.

So I did what I had to do. I took a deep breath and explained that it was late, I was tired, and this whole thing was just not my scene, man, and besides, maybe I had places to go, you know? Becuase my German is very poor, I explained this the way I explain everthing lately - a sort of shrug, with a rueful grin tacked on at the end. He knew what I meant.

Friday, July 16, 2010

An Emerald City

Yesterday I went looking for an Emerald City, because I heard they need a fiddle player for a little while. They are a badass progpsychedelicrocknrollfreakout band, so their habitat is limited to echoing caves on West Auckland beaches, anarchist squat bars, and graffiti-bombed warehouses in East Berlin. After patient searching, I found them here:

Which surprised me not a bit.

The only problem now is whether my amplifier is big enough. (Tip for non-musicians: it's not. My ampifier is cute, but it does not have the raw power to run with the big boys. Fortunately the walls of the practice room were lined with marshall stacks, which probably accounts for a lot of the structural damage you can see in the picture above.)

Among my swan

In Berlin, if you don't live by a canal, you're basically nobody. I live by a canal, but still people seem to not always know who I am. Perhaps I need to try harder?

This is what my house looks like:

And these are my swans. Everybody should have a swan.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I got to Berlin last week, and played five shows over the weekend. All of the venues were pretty special, but I mostly forgot to take photos. My favourite was Tacheles, an anarchist squat bar in the old Jewish Quarter. Fortunately, it's famous and lots of other people have taken much better photos of it than I could. Have a look at this, for example.

We played there twice (that's me and Ms. Hannah Curwood, who doesn't need to wear a suit jacket for people to know she's serious), on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. Playing on Sunday evening meant we were opening for the world cup final, which worked pretty well. Tacheles hospitality is legendary.We also played at Madame Claude's on Saturday night. It looks like a brothel, but in real life it only used to be a brothel. Now it's full of hipsters. It's got a great little downstairs room, and the best sound guy in the business. He also acts as a sort of sheepdog and musters the audience from other parts of the bar before each set, then makes them sit silently throughout the proceedings.

Friday night was Intersoup, which was a pretty cool place to play my first European show ever. Another basement, another silent audience. On Sunday afternoon we played at the garden bar at Mauerpark, which is where you used to get shot if you tried to climb over the Berlin wall. These days that happens a lot less.


On my way through Japan, at the airport in Narita, one of the first things I saw was the chap from Urban Tramper. We recognised each other because we were both in musician uniform - suit jacket, jeans, sneakers, badges with pictures of birds on them. We have to wear clothes like this so people know that we're serious.

Narita looks a bit like this - the blurry dots are mostly starlings. The second thing I saw in Narita was the biggest flock of starlings I have ever encountered, which made me think I was in the right place.