27th September 2021
Part Nine. Berlin. Christmas Day 1995
“I couldn’t believe it, fucking hell, man, you know what this crazy bitch woman say ?”
Richard arrived at the Czar Bar just as Johan was delivering these festive felicitations. Jake gave him a nod and Daniel beckoned him over to a free bar stool. It was mid afternoon, there was a mild, happy vibe, no drunken madness, just the buzz of an easy beer or two, or so. And then there was Johan. He was holding court, gesticulating, slamming his bottle down before drinking from it. Daniel turned to Richard;
“’ere’s what you’ve missed. Johan and his girlfriend have split up.”
“No ! When ?”
Richard asked why and wasn’t prepared for the answer, which Johan himself supplied;
“The whores of Amsterdam !”
The five or six men around the bar laughed. Peter, the one time possible Poseidon, was leaning quietly on the end of the bar and there were a couple of Germans Richard recognised, who smiled at him, raising their bottles. When the laughter died, Daniel was able to elucidate.
“’im and ‘is bird were watching TV last night, and they saw some old clip of Jacques Brel singing ‘Amsterdam’.”
Johan took over;
“Yeah, and he . . .“ here Johan acted out the performance, sans need to exaggerate gestures and expressions. “And this girl, this fucking crazy bitch woman, she say, ‘why he all excited, he only sing about prostitutes ?’ So . . . that it, you know, I tell her, man, she have to go !”
Jake was busy with the tapes and CD’s, looking for some Brel, or at least a Bowie version of ‘Amsterdam’, but the closest he found was Tom Waits, so he played that. He got a fresh beer, made sure everyone was OK for drinks, then called out;
“Hey, Peter, watch the bar, I’ll be right back.” Jake went out the back door and immediately the cry went up for free vodkas, but Peter desisted, taking his new job very seriously. Except when he changed the CD and, selecting a new one, turned it over in his hands, asking;
“Which side do I play ?” then he opened his mouth, missing teeth and all, and laughed.
When Jake returned, Johan and one of the Germans lifted their arms and cried out in happy surprise. Richard turned to see Jake with a guitar.
“I couldn’t find a version on tape, and it’s Christmas, so what the fuck ?”
He turned off the music, tuned up a bit, then began slowly strumming the chords to Amsterdam. His voice was dusky and strained, a little affected but was in tune, and got stronger as the song went on.
When he finished, the bar applauded and demanded more, but instead, Jake turned the music back on, put the guitar in a corner and opened the vodka. Richard stuck with beer, which he drank very slowly.
More people came in, more drinks were poured and the bar split into small groups as Johan joined some French friends, and the Germans left to play Flipper.
Richard called Jake over and congratulated him on his playing. Jake dismissed it with a wave, and launched into an explanation of what the song was really about;
“Yeah, there’s this sailor, and he’s surrounded by the filth of the world, where love is nothing more than a cheap, sordid fuck and people spend all their time just trying to obliterate their minds . . .”
“Sounds like this place,” added Daniel with a laugh, but Jake ignored him, focusing on Richard,
“But this sailor has beauty in his heart, he wants a pure woman, a pure love, he has dreams and ideals and despite everyone trying to drag him down to the gutter, he remains true to himself. And must therefore be alone. Always. Vodka !”
As they clinked Richard, still abstaining from the Stoli, noticed a sadness in Jake’s eyes and understood that Jake was referring more to himself than to any Brel song. Just as Jake often wore a heavy beard to cover up his spots, rashes and eczema, so he adopted a gruff persona to cover up a scarred heart.
At this time, Jake was on at least a bottle of vodka per day, often more. Yet he was legendary in Rigaerstrasse. No one could ever recall seeing Jake sober; alternately, no one had ever seen him hopelessly drunk. He always managed to work to the end. Boris may complain of the mess he left, but the bar was always cleared of sleeping drunks, doors always locked. Chris had lost count of how many times he had been helped up the stairs of his squat by Jake. But also, in all that time, no one had ever seen Jake in a relationship. There had been some usual drunken kisses with drunken squatters, but even these had dried up over the last years. Not that Jake didn’t appreciate women, he always had a comment to make about any woman he saw, never lewd, always respectful judgements.
He had been on his own so long, that he had almost accepted that he always would be despite this being painful and anathema to his romantic spirit, a spirit that longed to take a woman to his bed just to hold her, to love her and feel her love back. He still had faint hopes that he would find someone. Then he remembered his flat. His appearance. Any optimism was crushed. And as it was crushed, a new bottle was opened.
Richard, still refusing vodka, began to leave. He took a look around, thinking that he wouldn’t be back for a long time. He said his goodbyes, responded to Jake’s, “Don’t be a stranger,” with a nod and a commitment to return. Then Daniel stopped him.
“Wait a tic, I’ll walk with ya a bit. Could use some air.”
They walked to Danziger Str, Daniel asking about Johanna.
Richard turned and made the universal sign for ‘no idea’. Daniel put his arm around him then turned the conversation back to himself.
“Me piece comes out in the new year. She wants me to ‘ave a go at poetry, now,” he explained, referring to Jeanette, the editor of Savage Revolt. “Says there’s lots of poetry nights, open mic things around town. Be good to get exposure.”
“Yeah, sounds good.”
“Ya reckon ? Poetry ? Fuck me, I don’t read that faggot shit.”
“It doesn’t have to be all flowers and clouds, you know. Hey, what’s this ?” Richard had seen a small poster for a production of Rimbaud. “And look, it’s in English.”
“Oh, I dunno, it’s some theatre thing. Vincent, yeah ? Jake kinda knows ‘im.”
“Any good ?”
“Only met ‘im once. Right arrogant prick. Total wanker.”
“No, the theatre ?”
“’Season in Hell’. Sounds cheerful. Fancy going ? Mid January.”
“Might as well. ‘ho are these other fucks ? Julie . . . Re . . . torree ? Alan Francis ? Never ‘eard of ’em.”
“I’ll tell Chris. He’ll be up for it. Maybe Jake.” Daniel just snorted. “Yeah. Maybe not.”
“Right, you coming back to the bar, then ?”
“No, think I’ll have an easy evening.” Instead, they found an open Imbiss, had some dreadful fatty food and returned to the bar.
Richard woke up, hungover, headache, hungry, sick and sickened. The fridge was almost empty, the coffee almost gone. This couldn’t continue. The New Year was coming and it had to be different. For Richard’s physical and mental health, it had to be different.