Rosegarden Funeral Of Hibernation – Memories from Berlin
Written by Barbara Lynne
Bern and Berlin. The names so similar. Not that surprising maybe, since both are German speaking. The singsong alpine dialect notoriously slow and hard on the throat, the Prussian one sharp as a whip but with an exaggerated dismissal of elegance. Geographically, less than 600 miles apart. And one animal reigns supreme in both. It’s on their flags, their coats of arms. It’s celebrated with statues strewn throughout important boulevards and public squares. Some representations historical and inconspicuous, others oversize and tacky. But the cult of the bear is undeniable at every turn.
Two cities and both even European capitals, but that’s where the similarities end. Da steppt der Bär – that’s where the bear dances – can only be said about one of them.
But I was living in the other, teaching English, subsisting, smoking a lot of pot. I’d even stopped dyeing my hair since the opportunities for going out were – shall we say – limited. Maybe a concert at the Reithalle, our Tacheles, once in a blue moon followed by a beer at a wooden table in some sparsely furnished shopfront, which passed for a bar. Something was missing.
In San Francisco I’d always managed to go out, no matter how tight the money was. Living off cheddar and tortillas, taking a bus to the club on my own at night. A risky thing to do in even the most affluent of American cities.
In SF it was The Temple, Thursday nights. Reduced entry until 10, making my one beer last until closing by refilling the bottle with tap water in the restroom. There had been others before: The Red Room in Austin, The Blue Crystal in New Orleans and my first love in San Fran in the summer of ’89: The Underground, in the then up and coming SoMa district or South of Market. They had a clever idea: no alcohol after 2, so breakfast was served upstairs until 5 when the bar was allowed to open again. The rules were strict, fines were high. The lights sprang on at 2 o’clock sharp and they’d wrest a full glass out of your hand, no excuses, no exceptions. After the mini raid, they’d turn the lights off again and the fun could continue, prohibition style.
Before any of those was The Catacombs in London, 1988 – my first goth club. I went out to buy the Sisters at Tower Records on Oxford St. the next day, but ended up with the Sisterhood EP. It was only “only” 8 pounds instead of 16, which was double that in dollars at the time, but not such a bad mistake in the end.
But back to Switzerland: clean, pristine, sterile. The Swiss would never strike up a conversation, only stare. Berlin was so different, like a welcome breath of polluted air. Not beautiful, no. A huge construction site. It took ages to walk around the station at Alex, changing from S to U Bahn. Hackescher Markt was a sea of rats at night, beyond the barriers of where the station was being rebuilt.
The first visit in ’97, I stayed for a week but way out west, Charlottenburg. Never got further east for nightlife than the Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg, Trash. But it wasn’t my scene. Still, a spark had ignited. And although it was bitter cold and I went home with pneumonia, I came back a year later: October ‘98. And stayed east this time – at the Circus Hostel back when it actually was in the street am Zirkus in Mitte, instead of at Rosenthaler Platz, as it is today.
I asked the hip guy at the front desk what I was hearing: Massive Attack Mezzanine was playing. A great find from that trip. He also gave me tips that were well off the beaten path. He said you could really tell that Köpenick used to be a separate village that had been swallowed up by the city and that Marzahn was an absolutely awful place, with rows and rows of identical concrete Plattenbauten – high-rise tenements that were quickly constructed using prefab concrete slabs to replace all the apartments that had been destroyed in WWII. I made a pilgrimage to both but didn’t really see what he saw. Köpenick was nice but no Heidelberg. And in Marzahn there was also a lot grass between the buildings – and it was clean with barely any graffiti. “Not sooo bad,” I thought. I’d seen worse from the window of the backseat in downtown Houston or from the El train in Chicago, not to mention all of the no-go areas in New Orleans before Katrina. I guess I’d expected to be confronted with a scene out of Escape from New York, with packs of skinheads patrolling the dirty streets, from the guy’s description, but there were none to be seen.
Then, while scouring the microscopic print of the club listings in 030, I saw the words “80’s, New Wave.” Just two brief lines, not much info. But cheap to get in and in Prenzlauer Berg, which I absolutely adored. I had wandered through all of the streets around Pappelallee and Stargarder for hours on end the day before. Admiring the cafés and shops, which seemed so creative and improvised. Such quirkiness was not to be found in the high-rent town of Bern I was so glad to take a break from. So we decided to go.
Dunckerstraße 64. A small, unobtrusive redbrick building set back quite a ways from the sidewalk. We would have walked right by it, if we hadn’t had the address. Inside: A few low-tech disco lights and the sound I’d grown up with: Send me an Angel, Big in Japan, Obsession. I made a beeline for the dancefloor and that’s where I stayed: I was home!
A friendly fellow dancer struck up a conversation. Sebastian was East German. I told him we’d been reading about it at the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie earlier that day. Well, he had lived it, he laughed. He led me to a little window just inside the club which I never would have noticed otherwise. Inside was a showcase of products from the ‘DDR’, a small box of Tempo instant lentils, a few unopened jars, a plastic figurine or two, more like a poorly stocked supermarket than a mini exhibition. Strange for a club, but I was hooked.
I stayed late for a tourist, until 4 am. The dancing and the familiar tunes were a rush, but I’d been on my feet all day and was simply worn out. I had so much fun there, not stuck on the sidelines watching the others, like at Trash. I really felt like I was part of it. Duncker was so welcoming. It isn’t a fancy place – there isn’t any plush carpeting or lit mirrors; it all seems a bit DIY. But, in fact, it is perfectly equipped for its purpose: First and foremost, there is a level dancefloor which is big enough most nights with plenty of room along three sides to sit or stand. It has a coat check, a bar with almost any drink you’d want to have – including coffee, which I found weird to see someone drinking at a club at first, but it’s actually not a bad idea – and a backroom for sitting at tables and talking. The restrooms were a little smelly, but functional. I didn’t manage to find the courtyard that first night, but it’s very charming and reminds me of a little inner-city beer garden, with its wrought iron patio furniture and hanging lights.
Basti said there’d be a goth party on the next night. I thought I’d heard him wrong, the music was pretty loud and my German not very good. I made him say it again. But by time we left that night, I knew I was coming back.
It changed the focus of the trip; daytime wasn’t so important anymore, just something to get through until it was late enough to go back. But eventually the hours ticked by. I’ll never forget when I stepped from the entrance area into the club I’d left merely hours before: It was so dark I couldn’t see a damn thing! Gone were the merry blinking lights of the 80’s party. My eyes tried to adjust, but the fog from the machines was impenetrable. I was horrified I might walk into someone, so I just stood there, frozen until a few milliseconds of light from the dancefloor broke through the fog and I could advance a few steps.
The music was noticeably different from the other night, too. Sunday, I had been euphorically bopping about, but now it was more imposing and somber. I suddenly wondered if Duncker was a converted church, but I was told otherwise; it used to be stables, I think. Like the Reithalle in Bern, yet it couldn’t be more different. None of the grungy-punk atmosphere with lefty political Überheblichkeit – what’s the word in English? Arrogance or condescension. The venue seemed totally sealed off from the world outside. Duncker was a mausoleum! There was the shrine to the DDR, a life that had disappeared a decade before, even back then. The music was from another era, as well. It was like a home for ghosts. And there I was, floating among them, like I had never existed anywhere else.
I eventually got acclimated to the absence of light and it actually worked quite well as far as atmosphere goes. Pulsating music filled the void, made even larger due to the deprivation of the primary sense. A lot of it I knew from other clubs: Cities in Dust, Nine While Nine, Atmosphere, Romeo’s Distress, Telegram Sam, Persephone, Assimilate… I’d been collecting since ’85 – well, until I moved to Switzerland in ‘94, that is, and was cut off from my sources. There were also songs I didn’t know, from the early electronic period, like Underpass or mid-80’s synth, like Watching Trees. I had a passing acquaintance with Neofolk – my music god Rob in New Orleans had copied some Current 93 onto a cassette for me, even writing out the entire track list in his tiny, neat handwriting. It’s not my favorite, but sometimes you appreciate the familiar, especially in unfamiliar surroundings.
Basti was back again, too, with his friend Tino behind the bar, who sort of grunted in my direction when we were introduced. I danced now and again, not as much as the night before, more depending on which genre was taking its turn. The scene in Berlin is multifaceted, not like in the places I’d lived where one word ‘alternative’ housed all of the fringe elements under one roof. Here, an EBM fan (short for Electronic Body Music) set me straight that she hated goth, that it was boring and gave her a headache, whereas I had assumed she was goth since she wore all black and went to some of the same clubs that I did. Back in San Francisco, I had no qualms about requesting Machines of Loving Grace Butterfly Wings one minute and Strength of Strings the next. But Germans like to be clear about things. I heard there was an issue of Bravo which presented a list of subcultures to choose from: punk, rockabilly, metalhead, etc. and people here apparently took it very seriously that you only get to pick one.
But I digress. I was blissfully unaware of the whole label warfare on that cold October night in ‘98. And I wouldn’t hear about any of that until much later when I had actually moved to Berlin, drawn to this dark beacon, picking up where I left off in my clubgoing youth. That night, I just leaned back and let the music wash over me. I didn’t feel hunger or fatigue – I was completely in the moment. I was exactly where I wanted to be, needed to be, even.
Sadly, my visit was a week before Bauhaus was to play a reunion show in Berlin. But, in those days, the Internet was still in its fledgling stage, so unless an event was as well established as say Carnevale in Venice, traveling to other cities was very hit or miss on what was going on while you were there.
I stayed until the very end on that first Monday night in Duncker. It was probably around 6 am when the resident DJ Ørlög had spun his final tune from the control box above the dancefloor and the lights came on. I don’t know for sure since I’d lost all concept of time, drinking and talking at the bar, until a song I recognized would beckon me on to the dancefloor.
We waited for Tino to finish and then headed over to Bla Bla with a few other stragglers to drink some more though we’d certainly had enough already. But it didn’t matter: I was on vacation and it was unlike any I’d had in recent times. I had stumbled upon a key to the Lost World of East Berlin, gone but not forgotten. I left a few days later, taking a City Night Line back to Basel, and stayed awake the whole night, my face pressed against the glass, not wanting to miss the yellow glow of a single concrete streetlight of the former DDR.
Why hadn’t we gone to Berlin before the Wall came down?! We could have. My sister and I got as far as Frankfurt and looked at Berlin on our Eurail map, on that fateful trip that ended with a week in London in the summer of ‘88. But we decided against it, whining “It’s too far!” in our naïve American ignorance. I wish I’d known then that that was my one chance, that just a year or so later the whole world would change and Berlin as a divided city would be forever out of reach. I realize we would have only gone to West Berlin, the garish commercial side, but we would have at least ridden through the Ost Korridor and I could have pressed my face against the glass while the nation was still flying the flag of the German Democratic Republic – and not just a broken shadow of its former self.
I stepped out of the connecting train from Basel onto the ugly, dark green plastic floor of the windowless Bern central station, yearning to return to the vibrance of Berlin and to the sanctuary of Duncker, the low-lit vault I had discovered there, housing remnants of the past and keeping them safe. I vowed to free myself from the doldrums of my life in gleaming but vacant Switzerland and go back to Duncker one day.
Fast forward 20 years. I couldn’t sleep, all of these memories crashing around my head. Tonight is the Midsummer Celebration in Duncker. The party’s founder Ørlög will be DJing again, though, sadly, he moved to another city several years ago. Still, – partly spurred on by his wife Vale, who realizes that the sanctity of this place goes way beyond that of just another club – he’s managed to keep this last remaining vestige of goth in Berlin alive. Or at least undead, as is fitting. And although I’m spoiled now after years of doing whatever the hell I want in this wanton Buddy Bär filled city, I‘m looking forward to going, having a drink or two with friends and hopefully hitting the dancefloor if it’s not absolutely sweltering in there with this summer heat. I haven’t been in a while – Mondays are difficult. As much as I try to cling to my hedonistic lifestyle with a minimum of responsibility, priorities change. People change. But once again, I’m looking forward to the night.