8th June 2021
“Man Pointing, Band Playing”
Part Seven. Berlin. June 1995
The first thing Daniel saw as he entered the Russian’s kitchen was Olga sitting naked in the large sink, preserving her dignity by an arm across her breasts. Neither Andrei nor Sascha paid her any attention and Daniel, after first consigning the image to memory, discretely looked away and walked into the next room where Sawhead The Bear rehearsed. Boris, who had been behind Daniel, followed some seconds later.
There was a palpable tension in the air. The first gig was the following evening, and although Daniel had dismissed all the other bands he had seen as ‘utter shite’, he was feeling the nerves.
The other members were going through their own emotions. Andrei had worked the previous night and was finding it hard to even hold his bass, let alone play it. Boris was quieter than usual and was taking his time tuning up. Sascha was smiling behind his drum kit, trying to twirl his sticks, a trick he had never and would never master.
One thing that had amazed Daniel was the musical knowledge the Russians possessed. He had imagined them being subjected to nothing but patriotic work songs, but they knew bands as diverse as The Ramones, Genesis, The Move and The Breeders. They had quite an impressive collection of records which they had brought from Moscow, impressive in its diversity, as Punk records sat next to Progressive Rock acts or American Country. They hadn’t been able to choose the records that had come their way, so were grateful and curious about any western music.
Unfortunately, Daniel thought, this eclecticism manifested itself in the music they played. They would make an adequate covers band, but when it came to writing their own material, there was work to be done.
They had six originals and were going to pad out the set by playing some of their favourite songs. Once they had decided upon their favourite songs.
The whole afternoon drudged by, with only three cover songs anywhere close to being ready. Daniel knew it wasn’t working.
Boris was the real musician, but he was playing without inspiration or excitement. Andrei’s bass was meant to pin the whole sound down, but it sounded sleepy and lethargic, while Sascha was always going to be the fun guy of the band, the one with the smile and the drum kit, without necessarily the ability to play it.
Daniel had first identified this weakness, but sought to turn it into an attribute, politely requesting that he stop trying to play complex fills, and just keep a steady beat, like The Velvet Underground. Sascha had smiled and happily complied.
Then every time the band seemed to get into a groove, Charlie George or someone would walk in and ask something, and the band would stop to answer.
After another insipid run through of a Ramones song, Daniel threw down his mic and exploded,
“What the fuck is this ? It’s supposed to be the fucking Ramones, energy, aggression, power, anger, rock and fucking roll. Not this limp-wristed shit. What the fuck’s wrong ? Hey ? If you don’t fucking pick it up, I’ll find a proper band that actually want to play. I’ll tell you something else, if this is how it’s going to be, I ain’t playing tomorrow. Don’t want to fucking embarrass myself with you wankers.”
Silence. Boris starred at the floor and shrugged his shoulders, while Andrei just stood looking at Daniel. Daniel was quite a big guy, he worked on building sites and could easily take care of himself, was handy with his fists, but against Andrei . . .
He wouldn’t have had a hope in hell.
So he was relieved when Andrei finally spoke, and was apologetic,
“You right, today I play shit, I play like . . . “ he searched for the words and ended up by making gestures to convey his lack of energy. Sascha came up with some words in Russian that made them all laugh, even Daniel, as the tension had finally been broken. Andrei took up his bass,
“OK, one more time, come on, one, two, three, four . . .”
They launched into ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ all guns blazing, Boris thrashing the chords out, Andrei threatening to snap the thick, bass strings and Sascha doing an admirable job keeping not only a steady beat, but adding some high-hat crashes, as well as screaming out the ‘hey-ho, let’s go’ refrain.
Daniel walked with Boris to the Czar Bar, offering to help him set up. It gave them a chance to talk. They smiled as the nearer to Rigaer Str they got, the more flyers they saw advertising their first gig. Chris had made a collage of some photos of Giacometti sculptures and text that conveyed all the necessary information.
‘Man Pointing, Band Playing’ read the headline, then the address and approximate time. They were scheduled to appear at eleven.
Daniel mentioned the gig, the rehearsal, the practicalities of getting the equipment to and from the bar, and, finally, about Olga. However loquacious Boris had become on all matters to do with the band, he remained tight-lipped on that subject. Daniel took the hint and changed the subject.
The plan was to get a taxi to take the drum kit and amps to the bar, as all attempts to borrow a van, or elicit help had fallen through. Daniel also hinted, with delicacy, that Boris may want to take it easy tonight with the vodkas. Boris agreed and kept to his word.
The following day, Chris arrived at the Russians house only half an hour later than he had promised. By now, Daniel was used to Berlin timekeeping, and wasn’t too worried.
The taxi was hired and Sascha immediately got in and waited to go, before Daniel physically dragged him out and made him help loading up. As there was no space, only Daniel drove along, the rest walking, Andrei and Sascha spending the whole time moaning about why Daniel got to ride and they didn’t.
Chris had the key to the bar, Jake telling him to be back in time for them to stock up. Jake was predicting a busy night and he wanted to be prepared.
Outside the bar, Daniel guarded the equipment and gave out some small flyers to some passing women.
The setting up took a long time, lots of discussions where the sockets were, who was going to stand where, and Sascha appearing very unhappy with his drum stool.
Chris told them to carry on, while he went to the store with Jake.
Jake began playing a CD, loudly, just as the band were finally ready to start sound checking. He also lost patience, wondering how they could have spent so much time and not achieved anything, saying that he had to set the bar up.
Chris arranged a compromise. They would get the bar set up, while the band had a beer and took five. When the bar was ready, Jake could go and eat, and the band would have time to get their levels set.
The beers did the trick. It was also a little victory for Jake, as he was secretly a little envious and wanted to be part of a band again. The setting up was all finished within ten minutes and Jake left.
The band began rehearsing. Chris said who needed to be higher or lower, though he had little if any experience. Daniel had equated his Physics studies with acoustics and sound engineering, and there was nobody else anyway.
Unfortunately, Jake had left the back door unlocked and a stream of people poured in, stood around, looked and listened, asked what was going on, who the band were and made suggestions about sound levels and where the amps should go. Andrei then left the stage, arguing with the two other Russians, before walking out of the door and going home.
Daniel and Chris looked at each other, wondering if there was even going to be a gig. Before they could clarify, two new men walked in, one a brash Middle-Eastern looking man, the other, a lank-haired, bug-eyed, old hippy sort.
Brash Man shouted out,
“There is a gig tonight – we want to play.”
“Another time, mate, we’re busy,” said Chris.
“No, we want a gig. We can use your equipment.”
“The fuck you will,” answered Daniel, “You heard him, you ain’t fucking playing, this is our gig, now fuck off.”
Hippy Sort spoke,
“Hey, man, that isn’t cool, we are all musicians, we should share and help each other. Hey, Boris, wie gehts ?”
Boris and Sascha both recognized Joe, a regular and long term squatter, and said hello back. Boris had some words with Sascha in Russian, then turned to Daniel,
“Maybe it is good they here. They play first, we go on after.”
“Well, let’s face it,” Daniel spoke, looking at Chris, ”how fucking good can they be ? If they’re shit, we’ll sound better.”
“If they’re shit, we’ll have no fucking customers and I’ll make no fucking money.”
Joe began speaking to Boris. He was talking about what they needed. The Russians were happy to lend their equipment; it would just mean altering the mic stand, and Boris explained this to Daniel.
“And would someone mind telling me where the fuck our bass player is ?” implored Daniel. Brash Man answered,
“You need bass player ? I am bass player, I play with you.”
Boris took over,
“Andrei forgot his lucky jacket. He go get it.”
“Lucky, fucking jacket, fuck me!”
Chris had to laugh at Daniel’s outburst. Then Jake returned,
“Who are all these fucking idiots ? Get them out of my bar.”
Chris explained the situation, as best he could, when another set of squatters walked in, asking the same set of questions.
“Right, everyone that doesn’t work here, or is playing here, fuck off, now !” Joe and Brash Man didn’t move. Joe preempted Jake by telling him that there were also playing tonight. Then Brash Man asked about wages.
“Errrr . . . wages ? Nothing, fucking nothing.”
“Hey, Jake, come on, let’s give them free beer,” said Chris.
“Two free beers each. Nothing else.”
Brash Man looked at Joe, and got the nod.
“Good. Can we have them now ?”
At that point, Andrei returned, wearing a hairy furry waistcoat.
Everyone was silent as they looked at him. Andrei realised he was being scrutinized,
“What ?” was all he said.
The bar was busier than usual, much busier, much earlier. It had become the place to start the evening, that Saturday, not where to end up when all else was closed. Jake and Chris were kept constantly busy, and happy that there were more women here than they had ever seen.
Then the first band walked on stage. Aside from Joe, who played his own guitar, a lovely shiny red semi-acoustic, and Brash Man who had brought his own bass, there was a third member, a thin, emaciated man, with a Rasta-style hat and marijuana symbols stitched to his denim jacket. He played bongos. Apparently.
They had a long discussion on stage, Brash Man not surprisingly being the leader. They began sound checking and talking and appeared about to start, when they abruptly stopped for Brash Man to tune up.
The audience who were curious, without being especially excited, quickly began losing interest, and there were shouts for them to get on and play. Then when they got around to playing, there were calls for them to stop.
Their music could probably best be described as Free Jazz . . . with bongos. The discussions about the mic stand were moot, as their set was entirely instrumental. Brash Man played repetitive patterns on his bass, no doubt believing he was creating hypnotic ragas, while Joe doodled about on guitar. The bongos were just there. Unfortunately.
The positive vibe in the bar was draining away. Casual visitors began leaving, others asked for the CD to be put back on. Still the band played. Richard walked in, knowing that it would never start on time, but pulled a Munch ‘Scream’ face at Chris when he heard the support band.
Daniel was livid, pointing to all the people either standing outside, or walking away,
“They’re going to think that these arseholes are Sawhead. Chris, you got to get those wankers off.”
Chris agreed and Jake was thinking along the same lines. Andrei was drinking his beer allowance freely and Boris appeared to be slightly shaking with nerves.
The piece of music finally came to an end. No applause, but there was a definite sense of relief. Jake went over and indicted that their beer was ready. But the hint wasn’t taken and another dirge was about to get under way.
Jake just unplugged the amps and shouted at Chris to hit the CD player. Joe was offended and weakly protested, but Jake didn’t even notice. The bongo player didn’t seem to care either way, but Brash Man insisted on finishing his piece, with or without amplification. Jake left him to it.
After half an hour, during which Jake decided to serve drinks and play music as a means of audio disinfectant, Sawhead The Bear walked onstage, cheered by the locals. They had all the awkwardness of a new band, unsure and unready, except, of course, Sascha, who couldn’t wait to launch into the first song. He looked at his band mates, tapped his sticks and shouted in his high-pitched, laughing voice,
“One, two, three, four . . . ”
Thirty minutes later, they came off stage heroes.
The band commandeered the last stools, by the Flipper room, and got hand shakes, pats, hugs, kisses and a lot of vodka. Richard had his arm around Daniel and told him how impressed he was by the singing and the lyrics. Olga was with some Russian girlfriends who tried flirting with Boris, but he just keep looking at Olga. She kept looking back. Trudi made sure Sascha didn’t speak to any other girls. Then Richard allowed Daniel to mingle, as lots of girls were waiting around, and it wasn’t for the comforts of the Czar Bar.
He was glad it had been a success. If this kept up, Chris would have a real income and a real life here. But he was already thinking that his time was Berlin was coming to an end.
Chris was thinking too, that this was only the beginning. They could play the bar at least once a week. Then other clubs in other parts of Berlin. He could really manage them, get them a recording contract.
Jake was wondering if he had enough beer, as Sawhead The Bear were on free drinks and those bastards could really put it away.
Richard noticed one more thing. Chris was constantly watching the door and was constantly disappointed by whoever came in.
Soon after, he found out why.