My cello player Scrap and I are barnstorming through Germany. We’ve played in Berlin, Hamburg, Köln (Cologne), and a few other cities; we’ve got Munich and Dresden and a few others left, then we fly to Portugal for three nightcap-like summation gigs.
It’s been a hoot. I’m more or less a total beginner here; nobody remembers Soul Coughing, it’s all people who’ve caught a whiff of the new stuff. (If you’ve been following this blog you might know how frustrating I find it as an artist to have to constantly be working under the burden of everybody’s memories of whatever the first time they heard me was, unable to just present the songs without the baggage of my past)
A compilation of my solo stuff, Introduction, came out on a Berlin-based label called Nois-O-Lution earlier this year. We’re playing tiny, tiny places to houses of twenty or thirty people–the gig in Nürnberg was a place called Mata Hari that was so small it could only fit a bar, and hence there was no stage–we played behind the bar.
I’ve been studying German for a couple of years now, and it’s fantastic to be speaking it all the time. The difficulty is that nearly everybody speaks English, so when I make an error, which is constantly, the other party in a conversation will switch to English, and I’ll have to stubbornly plod along speaking bad German, and usually they’ll follow my lead. Sometimes they don’t, and I have weird conversations where I’m speaking bad German and the German guy is speaking bad English.
The German language has some inherent weirdnesses. The articles and adjective-declensions (yes, linguistically hip friends, in German you have to conjugate the fucking adjectives) I have to more or less throw out the window, or kind of use the Force and hope that I’m speaking correctly some of the time. The real fuck-up engine is the weirdness of the syntax. Where in English you’d say: “I must not tell you that I will go to the store,” in German it goes: “I must not you tell, that I to the store go will.” Yeah.
Jorge Luis Borges said in a poem, “German language, you are your own masterpiece.” I agree. English and German are pretty closely related, so there’s all kinds of cognates, but trying to think in German syntax is a psychedelic experience. I’ve learned a lot about what it is to speak or write, period, in any language.
I speak my fractured Deutsch to the crowd during the shows, and they tend to find it charming. My hope is to come off something like Roberto Benigni in Down by Law. Some of my go-to shticks don’t work so well in Germany–when I tell the crowd they’re sexy and look very healthy, it confuses them–not that that’s any reason for me to stop telling them that. At the end of the show, when instead of the encore we’ll just turn around, pretend we’ve left the stage, then turn around again and pretend we’re spontaneously playing another song, the word I use for “turn around” is zugabe The crowd sometimes chants it: “Zoo-Gah-BUH! Zoo-Gah-BUH!”
I’ve been doing interviews in German, too, which is great–I kind of get a high from it, going on some big radio station in Berlin and stumbling along half-haplessly. Everybody compliments my German effusively, which I realize actually means: You speak really great German for an American. Actually, probably for anybody; there’s not a lot of foreigners that speak the language. Those of us that find German pretty are in the minority.
The journalists and DJs love hearing that Germanness (well, more likely Berlin-ness) has acquired hipness in New York; that my fave DJ on WFMU, Ken Freedman, has been on a months-long jag of playing old German-language New Wave tracks. I understand where those tracks came from well–Germany is a post-industrial place, its artists are well-marinated in, and aware of, the angular modernity and the geekiness of the culture. Theirs is a funny mindset–Germans are these hugely emotional people, but they’re very into control, and rules, and regularity–it’s a fascinating tension.
When I first started touring Europe, way back in the way back, I dug the French and not the Germans. This has pretty much reversed itself–I find the French exasperating and the Germans lovely. I’m very freaked out by the sublimated anger of the Dutch, which surfaced when I stopped enjoying Amsterdam for the weed and whores.
We’re traveling by train, which is romantic, deliciously lonely, and soothing all at the same time. The German train system, naturally, is beautifully put together and hyper-efficient. Getting up in the morning and going to the train station, usually giant, vaulted, bustling spaces, is a wonderful ritual. I read Bild on the train, the big populist national daily paper, which is kind of akin to the New York Post. It’s appeal to me is not so much for the gossip about German soap stars but that it’s exactly on my reading level.
Scrap and I are really into the fact that when Germans say English words that have a V in it, they pronounce it as a W: wisit, wacation, wenue, wan, adwice. Except here’s the thing–there is no W sound in German whatsoever. W is pronounced V, V is pronounced F. Huh?! We’re going to query some Germans about it before we get out of here.