A little while ago I was staying with a friend on Stafford Street in Dunedin, which is one of the towns in New Zealand that's still standing, and he took me down the road to what he warned me was likely to be the 'quintessential Dunedin experience.' He was right, I think. It was around three a.m. and quite cold and we walked into a basement room where there was a band playing something ear-bleedingly loud in one corner, and another guy playing some repurposed keyboards at industrial volume on the other side of the room. In the middle there were a couple of tweaked-out looking dudes playing with an overhead projector and some shapes, making patterns on the walls, and a bunch of people mooching around with boxes of wine under their arms. The band stopped and the guy playing the keyboards, who has a name but you won't hear it from me, started a fight with them and bit a chunk out of one of their arms. It was a night of surprises for me, but just another Tuesday night in that town.
I'd like to think that the night An Emerald City played at Loophole represented a quintessential Berlin experience in a similar sense, so I’m blogging about it in order that people will know what to expect when they come here and accidentally start playing in the best instrumental psychedelic rock band in Europe. The first inkling that I had that it might be a better-than-average evening happened just as we'd finished setting up and we were waiting for the beautiful people to leave their houses and come out dancing. A couple walked in and I looked up and thought about what a strange and wonderful world it is when Dancing Stevie, last spotted in Auckland city, has an identical twin in Berlin. Of course in actual fact there's only one Stevie, and as far as I know he has no twins, and he is just as capable of hopping on a plane as the rest of us, so really there were no surprises when I realised that he was there in Berlin in his own person. It was a good feeling though to see him rocking out at an Emerald City show in a living room/artspace/bar thing in Neukolln. Perhaps I am starting to get a little homesick here on the far side of the world.
We'd set up in a circle around the outside of the room, amps firing inwards, with Sam and Rob up by the DJ booth, Dan and Jess in one corner, and Reuben and me in another. I was standing on a sort of a bench, so once the people came in and started dancing in the middle, I was the only person in the band who could actually see everyone. It was only my third show with An Emerald City, and Jess's second, so anything could have gone wrong. Sam had just presented me with a pretty special leather jacket with a massive rip under one arm, though, so we knew no fear and I'm not sure about anybody else, but I started to have a lot of fun once the rhythm section kicked in on the first song. At one point I was going to do a stage-dive right into the middle of the room, but you're not supposed to do that when you're playing a 125-year old violin, even if your signal chain includes a Space Echo and a Rat distortion pedal. I definitely did it in my head though, and it was delicious.
We finished the show at about half-past midnight, which tends to be what happens in this town because of the neighbours. The rest of the evening we spent doing my favourite thing to do after a show, which is to dance spastically to tunes my friends play on whatever sweet PA system they have in the venue we've just played in. There's a great bit at about six minutes into 'Levee,' after the second guitar solo, when you think it must be just about to finish, surely, because how can there be enough space in the world for that much pure rock'n'roll? But the band just crashes back into the riff for another go around, and the stitching that holds together the fabric of the universe starts to give way in the face of the dimension-bending power of the Zep. It feels good to know that a three-note guitar riff can sound that amazing, and at that point in the song you start to get the idea that it just might keep on going forever and ever and never stop, but in a fantastically good way. This is the sort of idea that starts to develop in people's heads at around 8 a.m, when they're dancing to 'Jeepster' by T.Rex and the sun is invading the bar through the cracks in the curtains. That's when it's time for the DJ to put on 'the Case for Mars' by Symphony of Science, which is the universal signal for everybody who is still awake to put on their sunglasses and climb onto the roof of the highest building in the neighbourhood.
When they recorded 'When the Levee Breaks,' the drum tech set up the kit at the bottom of a huge stairwell in a castle, with mics on all the landings to capture the thunderous reverb. That's why when Bonham kicks into the riff it sounds like you're sitting inside Helm's Deep sharpening your sword while rocks from Orcish catapults bounce off the walls, shaking the very mountain with their infernal weight. This just goes to show how important it is to find just the right location when you're planning on having a good time. If you have the right guide, and you are game for climbing a spiky sort of fence at considerable altitude in high heels, then the roof of the Neukolln Arcade is such a location. There are few hidden treasures left in this satellite-mapped world of ours (which is a good reason to start sending humans to Mars to set up a colony) but the rooftop garden on top of the Neukolln Arcade is definitely one of them.
I don't know how much time you spend on the tops of buildings, but you may be aware that some of the larger ones have gravel on the roof as a way of managing rain and so forth. Up on the roof of the Neukolln Arcade, though, this gravel has trapped enough dirt and seeds over the years to grow into a mossy garden reminiscent of an alpine meadow ten or so stories above street level. At a few hours past dawn on a Sunday, with churchbells ringing and doves flocking through the canyons below, a dozen well-dressed and fine-looking party people can get a very good idea of how the birds see Berlin. The light is golden and it hits everyone just so, with horizon to horizon a mess of spires, radar domes, and the haze caused by five million souls just trying to make ends meet day to day. If you want to dance to no music at all, that is for sure the place to go.
Meg took this photo of me being awesome. Jump up from your desk and run round the room if you love my leather jacket.
When we climbed down a few hours later, our fingernails were painted with racing stripes and Reuben had lent me the official Bear and Cougar gang cape from Poland. That gave us enough power to confuse the security guard, who hadn't expected so many people to be in his shopping mall when he came to unlock it. He seemed happy enough that we were leaving though, and nobody got bitten by anyone. By then it was getting to be the time of the morning when some people just disappear singly or in pairs and tell you sheepishly the next time you see them that they went to bed, singly or in pairs, so it was a smaller group of us that hopped the U-Bahn to an address somewhere in East Berlin. Naturally we were the people in the railcar talking too loud, but we did perform a public service by increasing the local cape and wig quotient by an order of magnitude. Berlin doesn't really have any squares to freak out, so there were no problems there.
The day continued in and around an apartment which was home to the kind of people who always look amazing, because they are actually amazing in real life and they only look like that to warn people how amazing they are. When I meet them again, I will not recognise them because no doubt they will look amazing still, but in a different way, and my brain will become confused. In most cases that would lead to social awkwardness, but I think these people will just laugh and all will be well. They will recognise me of course because I've looked pretty much the same since 1997, and most people are better at telling other humans apart than I am. They sing in a calypso band and they make their own costumes and they're quite the best-dressed people I've met for a while.
Just in case you're getting the impression that I don't spend my days productively in this town, I can assure you dear readers (mum, dad) that we worked pretty hard on our careers for most of the day. That is to say that we took advantage of the fact that we were hanging out with gifted costume designers and asked them if they had any ideas about what we should wear when we go on tour with Black Mountain next week.* This led to a game of dress-ups that lasted most of the day, and took us on several trips around the neighbourhood to see how walkable-in our costumes turned out to be. So far my favourite is a grey and pink body suit that makes me look a bit like a parrot (in that I appear while wearing it to have the intelligence of a three-year-old child), combined with my purple socks with silver stars, my trusty waistcoat with Broken Heartbreakers campaign medals, a pink wig, and Reuben's Bear and Cougar Gang cape. He probably won't be able to let me wear the cape next week because I'm not actually in the gang, but we'll see how it goes. The consensus was that I looked like what would have happened if Marvel Comics had bought the rights to Charlie and the Chocolate factory in the seventies and developed Willy Wonka as a superhero (with the power of turning everything he touched to delicious candy), and then hired Ralph Steadman as the lead illustrator. It's a look, and you have to have a look in this industry. A day wasted, perhaps, but not a wasted day.
PS There are no photos of this because I don’t want to get involved in expensive litigation with Marvel Comics. They would lose, but it would be a bore.
*I only put in this sentence so I could write about how we're supporting Black Mountain next week, which is probably something I would fly to Europe to do even if I wasn't coming over here anyway to do other awesome stuff like hang out on rooftops painting my nails. I think we probably only asked at the time for the same reason.