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Music

Udo Lindenberg - rock hero, 'destructive pessimist'

From kid in the provinces to rocker, activist and eccentric: Udo Lindenberg wears many hats. Or actually, only one. The granddaddy of German-language rock shows no signs of stopping.

"Act according to your conviction, be an individualist. Don't just follow everyone else. Go down your own path." That's how Udo Lindenberg described his life philosophy to DW.

Lindenberg has been following his convictions consistently for over 40 years - in his trademark felt hat, skin-tight black jeans, sunglasses and a cheeky demeanor.

With some success as a drummer behind him, Lindenberg became a singer at 27. He went on to be the first rocker to reach a wide audience with German lyrics.

The ins and outs of interpersonal relationships have always been the centerpiece of his songs. After watching people out on the street, Lindenberg would sit in a bar in Hamburg and scrawl what he saw on coasters, later populating his songs with characters like Onkel Pö, Bodo Ballermann, Rudi Ratlos and Elli Pyrelli.

With his band, dubbed the Panikorchester, he catapulted into the German charts, and the group first went on tour in 1973.

The girl from East Berlin

Udo Lindenberg and Jan Delay perform at the Echo Awards 2012 (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Pictured here with Jan Delay (r), Lindenberg has collaborated extensively in recent years

Udo headed to East Berlin and fell in love; the result was 1973's "Mädchen aus Ostberlin" (Girl from East Berlin), in which he dreams of going with her to Alexanderplatz to see the Rolling Stones and a "band from Moscow." The dream of a free and open East became a recurring theme in Lindenberg's work.

It spilled over into his life. He wanted to hire professional smugglers to bring his girlfriend out of East Germany and into the West. But the Stasi, East Germany's intelligence service, was apprised of his every move. His requests to travel to the East were rejected with no explanation.

Back in West Germany, Lindenberg went from success to success singing about everyday dramas and his own alcohol abuse. Always a political performer, he took up topics like the environment and social justice. In 1979, he participated in the first edition of "Rock gegen Rechts," a concert series protesting right-wing extremism.

But the rocker couldn't get past the East-West divide. In 1976, he made his first petition for a tour with his band through the GDR and wanted to perform in a "rock 'n' roll arena" in the city of Jena.

"We still had a lot of fans there," Lindenberg recalls, saying he believes he helped bring some hope and optimism to East Germany. "Against the Cold War and in favor of dialogue: 'The damn wall has got to come down!' and so forth."

Critics on both sides

German rock stars Nina Hagen and Udo Lindenberg perform on September 03, 1983 in Berlin (AP Photo/Norbert Foersterling)

Nina Hagen (l) and Udo Lindenberg in 1983

In his 1983 track "Sonderzug nach Pankow" (Special Train to Pankow), the singer teased the East German leader Erich Honecker to the tune of Harry Warren's "Chattanooga Choo Choo" with lyrics like, "Hey honey / I'll sing for just a little money / In the Republik-Palast / If you'll let me."

East German media boycotted the song. But Lindenberg's biggest commercial success to date also brought him criticism in the West. The tongue-in-cheek affair the Panikorchester rocker dreamt up between himself and Honecker disguised the fact, critics said, that even owning banned Udo Lindenberg records in the East could lead to arrest. Years later, the singer rejected their arguments, saying he never intended to sing for GDR functionaries, but instead for the East Germans who sympathized with him and his perspective.

Unexpectedly, permission came in October 1983 for Lindenberg to perform in East Germany. Because the singer had joined demonstrations in the West against NATO's atomic arsenal, he was permitted to sing in the Palast der Republik, an East Berlin venue, as part of a festival aimed at promoting peace. The audience was hand-picked, and the singer performed "Wozu sind Kriege da?" (What Are Wars For?), going on to call for Russia to get rid of its SS 20 missiles.

Guitars over rifles

Udo Lindenberg performing in the Palast der Republik (c) picture-alliance/Dieter Klar

Udo Lindenberg performing in the Palast der Republik

The Stasi described Lindenberg as a "pessimistic, destructive person whose decadent persona has elements reminiscent of the mafia." A previously approved GDR tour was cancelled without explanation, leading to riots. Lindenberg didn't give up. When Honecker made his first official trip to West Germany in 1987, the performer offered the GDR head of state his leather jacket and a guitar inscribed "Gitarren statt Knarren" (Guitars over rifles).

In June 1988, Lindenberg performed at a concert alongside the likes of Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd and beloved German punk icon Nina Hagen in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin. The location was just feet away from East Germany, where fans were protesting against the wall. Lindenberg's first real tour of the East would have to wait until after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Far from retirement

German rock musician and composer Udo Lindenberg holds his trophy at the Echo Music Awards ceremony Berlin March 22, 2012. Established in 1992, the German Phonographic Academy honours national and international artists with the Echo German music prize. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (GERMANY - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) (ECHO-WINNERS)

Lindenberg at the 2012 Echo Awards

That same year, the singer suffered a heart attack. When he and his band took the stage in 1990 in Leipzig, loyal fans were visibly moved.

Lindenberg found it difficult to integrate the new political situation into his music. Success eluded him, and he says, "I had also gotten lost a bit myself."

By the mid-2000's even his truest fans may have come to see him as a thing of the past. But Lindenberg's 40th album, "Stark wie Zwei" (Strong As Two), stormed the charts upon its release in 2008. His first record to hit number one in the general German charts it's a tribute to strength, courage and friendship. And it makes one thing clear above all else: retiring at 67 is not an option for Udo.

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