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Free Berlin

Jan KageNovember 22, 2013

Everyone wants to come to anything-goes Berlin, where even porta-potties can be turned into Jacuzzis. But maybe some people should live out their liberties at home, says DW's guest columnist, Berlin insider Jan Kage.

Jason Reece from the US band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Photo: by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

"Yes, I have friends in Berlin," is what international musicians generally say when they pass through town.

In this case, I'm standing with Jason Reece of the band And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead (aka AYWKUBTTOD), chatting away on the patio. Jason has spent the last couple of days off at his friend's house in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg.

"It was awesome," he tells me. "He has this little boat on the canal and we drank wine."

His friend is a professor of literature or something like that in Texas, but he spends his summer vacations in his Berlin apartment. "The weather is great here in the summer! Texas is too hot, man!"

Jason runs his hand through the water in the little pool we're standing by, then gently chases away a bee. "You know, single man - I'm married. But, you know, these cats come here living a single man's life, chasing pussy and such. Ach...." He waves his hand in resignation at all the free-spirited musicians that come through this city.

Swimming in the toilet

We're at Fluxbau, a venue the local indie radio station FluxFM has been using over the past year for concerts, parties, readings, and even as a restaurant on the weekends. It's right by the Spree, and we're overlooking the river from the patio.

AYWKUBTTOD are playing here tonight and Jason has just finished his sound check. I'm here because my artist friend Daniel Chluba is presenting his Dixicuzzi installation - which is, in fact, the little pool Jason and I are standing by.

Daniel and two other artists bought two used porta-potties for the piece. After cleaning them thoroughly, they turned them into three transformable works of art:

1) They served as an exhibition space at Leipzig's famous Spinnerei gallery in 2012.

2) They were part of a Manneken Pis performance where Daniel Chluba was connected to an automatic pump and peed water right next to them for an hour straight;

3) They were placed on their sides and filled with water to create a luxurious Jacuzzi - the 42-degree-Celsius Dixicuzzi.

Jan Kage, Photo: Stefan Ruhmke
Berlin insider Jan Kage is penning a four-part special edition of Scene in BerlinImage: Stefan Ruhmke

Divided cities

AYWKUBTTOD are from Austin, Texas. The South By South West festival is held there, and Bill Hicks came from the city. That's all I know about Austin.

Both Jason and I agree on admiring Hicks highly. He was a raging prophet, a truth-speaker and a philosopher disguised as a stand-up comedian. His voice is still current, although it fell silent in 1994.

Jason tells me the city is divided into east and west - and into black and white. We sure know that in Berlin as well. He lives on the east side, which is also the black one. This pretty much reminds me of how Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones described in his autobiography the segregated South of the early 1960s, where the black side of town was always more fun and more human.

Jason's neighbor played in The Chitlin' Circuit, a touring revue made up of African-American musicians. Now he and Jason sometimes jam together.

Paradise for freedom-lovers

Jason says he and his wife are thinking of moving to Berlin. "Oh, don't do that!" I hear myself say instantly, hoping not to sound rude.

It's not because they wouldn't be welcome, but because you can't have all the critical American minds moving to Berlin and leaving the conservative US alone, without resistance to the Tea Party and their friends.

Berliners were real glad when the first New Yorker bohemians moved here some 10 years ago. It meant the city was finally getting more international, a little closer to the metropolis it always wanted to be. And being able to practice your English on native speakers was an added bonus.

But when a couple of years ago the whole Lower East Side seemed to be living in Berlin's Neukölln or Wedding districts, it looked like every broke American artist who was looking for cheap rent and the liberty to walk the streets with a bottle of beer in hand had arrived.

Actually, that's what every American does during their first year living in Berlin as soon as they hit the street: put a bottle of beer in their hand. And I do understand the need. When we were kids we smoked dope as soon as we got to the Netherlands, since it was legal there. And I hear Iranians watch a lot of porn when they visit their relatives in the West.

Two men on a bench, drinking beer, Photo: Fotolia/Klaus-Peter Adler
Is that why everyone wants to come to Berlin?Image: Fotolia/Klaus-Peter Adler

You lust for the forbidden - and Berlin seems to be the new alternative American heaven after Amsterdam was turned into Disneyland for weedheads.

AYWKUBTTOD played a great show that night, even though the sound wasn't quite right. But what does that matter when the atmosphere is awesome? Not much, I say. Will Jason really move to Berlin with his wife? He liked our summer. Let's see how he digs the icy winter here.