An American in Berlin
22 July, 2018
Music, y’all. What’s a life without music? So maybe you remember a few years ago, I wrote about Charlotte’s old roommate in New York. This girl Line. The short version went something like this. Line writes her own music. And she’s fucking fantastic. Really, she’s got this…I wanna say Geist, because that’s the best word I can find. But honestly, I don’t even know if that’s right. Because German.
What I’m trying to say is, she’s got his wonderful energy and intensity to her music. Even when she sings in a near whisper, it’s intense. Also, the music itself is really fucking good. And she’s got a killer voice. It’s kind of a complete package. Very singer-songwriter-y though. Which I only add by way of clarification. To clarify that the kind of music she does is very different than the kind of music I do. I do rock and roll, basically. She does, well, art.
I make this clarification because something very surprising happened last weekend. So I get a message from Charlotte that Line is going to be in Berlin and that she wants to get in touch with me. And I’m thinking, yeah, sure, great. I mean, I haven’t seen her in like 2.5-3 years, so it would be great to catch up, grab a beer, that kinda thing.
Well so Line gets in touch. And she doesn’t ask me if I want to meet up for a beer. She asks me if I’d be interested in playing a gig with her. What the what? I mean, yeah, obviously! But I was certainly surprised. Because as I said, we do very different kinds of music. And to be clear, she wasn’t asking me if I wanted to play some of my own stuff. She was asking me if I wanted to lend my guitar to some of her stuff.
Now look, that’s not totally alien. Back when we were all in New York, we spent many a night in their (C & L’s) Bushwick apartment just jamming. We’d rock out together. Drunkenly make up silly songs on the spot. Sing together on my songs. Sing together on her songs. And yeah, I’d noodle over her songs a bit with my guitar. Nothing with nothing, you know? Just for fun. But that’s a long time ago already. And it was never anything serious.
So yeah, I was surprised when she asked me if I’d be interested in playing an actual gig with her. But I should give some background here. Because I don’t want to undersell myself. But I don’t want to oversell myself either.
So the deal is this. Basically, the girl decided she wanted to take her music “on tour.” So she just upped and flew over to Europe (she’s French, btw). And she just started emailing clubs and bars in cities where she has friends, asking for gigs. Which, not for nothing, good on you, girl. That takes fucking balls.
Anyway, it’s not like I’m the only person she’s asked. She’s asking friends wherever she goes to play with her. And I discovered that part of this was just down to nerves. She’s never done anything like this before. To the point where, I don’t think she’s even ever really played her stuff out before. So it’s all new for her. And I get that, for sure. I mean, I get nervous playing two songs at an open mic night where there’s a room full of supportive people. And here she is, playing 90 minutes, two hours, to maybe nobody, who knows? Maybe just a few friends. That’s scary. So I got the impression it’s just easier to have somebody up on the stage with her. Nothing wrong with that.
It’s funny though, because I never think of her as being a nervous person. I always see her as this true “artist,” you know? Not giving a fuck what other people think. Turns out she’s human like the rest of us. Who knew?
All that said, she still didn’t need to ask me. And I gotta tell y’all. I was right honored that she did. And that’s not an overstatement. Because I really have the utmost respect for her music. I mean, she does things I could never dream of doing. I talked about this in that other post, whenever it was. That when I play my music, people tap their feet and I’m happy. But when she plays, people feel shit. I’ve always been slightly in awe of what she does. So yeah, honored isn’t too strong a word here.
Fine, so that’s the backstory. Back to real life. We didn’t have much time to work on the music. Just two or three hours before the show. So this wasn’t going to be anything where I would get to showcase what I can really do with the guitar. Which may not be much anyway. No, fuck that actually. I can do some really nice things, given the time. But the time wasn’t given.
So basically I just tried to find little things. Just tired to add a little color, a little depth. Nothing that would put the spotlight on me, nothing that would take away from her. Well, I think I was able to do that.
She was great to work with too. No ego, for either of us. Some songs, she knew exactly what she wanted. Other songs, I just tried a few things. If it wasn’t working, she’d just say, “It’s not working. Let’s move on.” Sure. You’re the boss. Easy-peasy.
Right, so the gig. I think it went really well. By which I mean, from my point of view. I think the stuff I did served her music well. I think – or I’d like to think – it was exactly what we both wanted, under the circumstances. So I’m happy about that. And for her, I mean, she was great. I think she kicked ass.
For me, it was just great to be up on stage again. And not alone, open-mic style. But really to be playing with somebody. Was it The Fury? No, of course not. But it was special. It was special to play original music with another person, music which you’ve contributed to in some way, no matter how small.
It also brought me back to the bands I played with after The Fury. Perfect Syn, a metal band on Staten Island. And The Rosies, on Long Island. And in both of those bands, I wasn’t a primary songwriter, which I was in the Fury. In those bands, I was exploring my instrument in a very different way.
The question was, what can I bring to these songs that have already been written? How can I serve them? How can I give them something special that really comes from Dave? And I was able to do that in those bands. That’s what I was most proud of there.
I remember in Perfect Syn especially. That band had all their songs already. And I didn’t get along with everybody in that band. Me and the bass player would butt heads. But I’ll never forget, he said to me one time, “Dave, I’ve never seen a rhythm guitarist like you. You do things nobody else does.” Or words to that effect. But that made me happy. Because that’s what I was going for.
You know, Brian May, from Queen, I think he’s the greatest guitarist ever. Not because of his riffs (which are killer) or his leads (which are exhilarating), but because he knew how adding just one note here, a little harmony there, the tiniest thing – he knew how that could make a good song great. Or maybe that’s not right. A Freddy Mercury song is great with or without Brian May. But he had a way of giving those songs – the songs he didn’t write – something special. So that was the challenge I set for myself in those bands. And I think I generally succeeded.
Point is, that was the challenge I set for myself with Line’s songs. What I mean is, those songs stand on their own two legs. They don’t need me, or anything I can bring. But that doesn’t mean I can’t give them something extra, something special, if I really succeed.
I think there might be a triangle in Beethoven 9. A fucking triangle you guys. Now look. Beethoven 9 is probably the greatest piece of music in the history of the human race. And I’m saying ‘probably’ to be polite. And I’m willing to bet you don’t even know where the triangle comes in. How much does it matter? Not much. But it adds something worth having. That’s what I’m driving at. Sometimes you gotta be that triangle.
So I got to play triangle for Line. And I’m more than a little proud of that. As a ‘musician,’ I mean. As a human fucking being though? Fuck, that was fun, you guys! So I say thank you to Line for inviting me to play with you, and good luck on the rest of your tour!
Meanwhile, French. So this translation project continues. And I gotta be honest, it’s kinda killing me. I mean, it’s really kicking my ass. And look, I get it. I’m not French. I’ve never formally studied French. My expectations for myself are too high. Rationally, I know this. But emotionally, I’m taking a beating here.
Look, I’m doing it. And in that cruel “labor of love” sorta way, I am actually enjoying it. And yeah, there are days where I really do feel like I can do it, like I’m accomplishing something I can be proud of. But there are more days where I feel like a fucking failure. And that’s tough.
I’m gonna level with y’all. Y’all can say what you want about my writing. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. Maybe you like it, but you don’t think it’s good, whatever that means. But I know I can write. What I mean is, when I’m going right, I can always find the words I’m looking for. I can craft sentences the way I want to craft them. When I’m going right, I have this feeling like I’m the boss and the words work for me. And if I’m living inside my own delusions, then so be it.
But that’s one of the things I like most about writing. Maybe it’s the main reason I do it. I have control over it. I create my own worlds, with their own rules. I’m the master. If it turns out the worlds I create are second rate, well, we can’t all be Mozart. Some of us have to be Salieri. Fine.
But French, man. Fuck me. You know, it’s like running under water. You use up all your energy and just pushing your legs forward is a battle. And you get nowhere. Like, I don’t know how to swim in French. So I just run underwater. Or try to. Yeesh. That’s a shitty analogy. Maybe I’m not the cat’s meow when it comes to writing after all. Maybe I’m more like the duck’s quack.
Whatever. The point is, all of a sudden, this thing I’m supposed to be good at, I’m not. The words don’t work for me. If I’m lucky, they work with me. It’s brutal.
And I’m not talking about the little things. So what if I use the wrong preposition? So what if I put the pronoun in the wrong place? Charlotte will fix that, bless her. I’m talking about, I have this idea and I want to express it. And the best I can do is, “Yeah, well, I think this is the word Dumas uses in this situation.” But I can’t feel it. And that’s fucking murder.
I’ll give a “positive” example, since this is already drowning in negativity. As Charlotte is editing my text, she’ll occasionally highlight a sentence or a phrase. And she’ll add a comment like “I really like this!” or “Nice!” Which, you know, should be really gratifying. But it’s not. Because I don’t feel like I did it on purpose. Does that make sense?
Like, why is this sentence good, but not the last one? Or the next one? We’ve just spoken about this on the phone, me and her.1 And she said something like, “Because those sentences really feel like a French person could have written them.” So like, I can do it basically by accident. But I can’t just do it.
Because there’s also a lot shit where she’s just, “Yeah, I know what you mean, but it’s not really French.” Which again, is normal. I get it. I’m not French. I’m not a native speaker. No matter how much I read, there’s an upward limit on how much of a feel I can have for this language. But that can be crushing.
And look, she’s super supportive. She’s telling me things like, “This is the first time you’ve ever tried this.” “You’re learning from this.” “Next time you’ll be better at it.” All fair enough. But, you know, Serenity Now! The Germans have this great saying, which I’ll probably misquote, but goes something like: Gott, schick mir Geduld. Aber sofort! Which I loosely translate as, “God, send me patience. But fucking now!”
This project is kicking my ass in another way, too. At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, I’m not used to working this hard at something and being shit at it. I mean, the last time I really applied myself to something and still sucked was calculus, in college. And even then, I’ve always been shit with math.
But this is language. This is supposed to be my thing. I needed to pass a French reading comp for my Master’s. So I bought a book and taught myself French. I passed first try. I wanted to read the Torah. So I bought a book and taught myself Hebrew. Now I’m reading the fucking Torah. German? Yeah, I’m a mess. But also, I never took a class. I read half a book, moved to Germany, and now I speak the language (more or less).
And now I’m trying to take this story I’ve written, and all I want to do is re-write it in French. And I feel like I’m banging my head against a fucking wall. Probably I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Probably I should rationally identify a reasonable expectation and make my peace with that. But emotionally, it’s eating me up. I very much want to smash and burn a great many things in rage.
But I won’t give up on it either. I’ll finish it. And I trust Charlotte to make it right. Which is another thing. You know that old trope about an artist’s work being his baby? Not that I’m calling myself an ‘artist,’ but yeah, this is kinda my baby. And I’ll be damned if I let any old so-&-so lay hands on it.
But she’s the one who brought me to the place that inspired the story. (When it’s all said and done, I’ll get into that). And she knows me. She knows the story. So I trust her with it. And honestly, I’m glad she’s so gung-ho about working on it with me. Because if I didn’t have her for this…I’d bury it. Or burn it. After I finish it. Because I will fucking finish it.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, subject-changingly. Yiddish. Man, I love this shit. So I’ve started digging up videos on the Youtubes in Yiddish. Just to see how much I can get out of them, you know? But it’s such a wonderful language. I mean, obviously I’m biased. But it’s fun. It’s got personality. And with each video I watch, I understand just a little bit more. Which is cool.
I’ve just finished reading my second newspaper article. It takes time, and it’s not easy yet. But it’s getting easier. In fairness, it’s mostly funny German, so that helps quite a bit. But what’s also kinda cool is, I’m about 50/50 when it comes to the Hebrew words. Which is only because I’ve been reading Torah every day for 10 months. But I mean, I dig that.
Because the idea with the Hebrew words in Yiddish is, they’re words we’re all supposed to know if we’re going to schul like we should. They’re not random obscura; they’re often at the core of the whole Jewish experience. Whatever that means.
So basically, I’ve got three streams of vocabulary input with the language, which is what makes learning it on the side even remotely possible. The first stream is just the words I’ve been hearing my whole life. The second is my experience with German. And the third is Torah. The former of which, I’ve only been doing for 2-3 years and the latter, ten months, like I said. מיט אַנדערע ווערטער, if I had tried doing this even three years ago, it would have been a huge undertaking. But now? I don’t want to say easy. But it ain’t hard, neither.
But this realization has led me to another more frustrating and paradoxical realization. Namely that for most of my life, I’ve had actual Yiddish speakers in my family. My father’s grandmother was fluent, although she died when I was six or seven. His mother may also have been fluent, or if not, I think could at least use the language to some degree; and she lived into my thirties. My mom’s aunt, who raised her more than anybody else, was fluent, and she lived into my twenties if not thirties.
I remember my grandmother, when she was in the nursing home and not knowing who anybody was anymore, still throwing some Yiddish around. There was a lot of sei gesunt – be well, be healthy – which is what I close all my posts with. Who knows how much of that stuck with her, or came back to her, in those last years.
My mom’s aunt, well that’s another story. She was out of my life, and that was by my choice. I have not until now regretted that decision. To be honest, I don’t regret it even know. I made that decision for some very serious reasons. But had I wanted to reconnect with her – which I know she would have wanted – that would have been my way back in.
Except, what good would it have been? Because the whole time they were alive, I had no German, no Hebrew. I maybe could have had them teach me a few phrases by wrote. But I couldn’t have “learned” the language from them. I couldn’t have sat down with them and tried to have any kind of conversation. So on the one hand, I really feel like I missed the boat there. But on the other hand, even if I’d tried to get on that boat, I’d just have been locked in my own cabin anyway. That’s what I mean by paradoxical.
But the frustrating part is that it need not have been that way. It’s only that way because I’m late to literally fucking everything in life. I took my first Greek class with a bunch of undergrads2 when I was 26. I didn’t learn French until I was 30. Didn’t finish my Master’s until I was 32. I was 35 when I moved to Germany, 35 when I started to learn that language in any meaningful kind of way.
When Vinny arrived in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, I was a half hour late picking him at the airport. And he said, “I was almost gonna be mad, but when I saw you, I was just like, this fucking guy. I had to laugh.” Joschka routinely tells me things start 30 minutes earlier than they actually do because he just expects me to not be on time.3 Hell, I was even late to my first two dates with some girl. Because why pretend to be something you’re not, i.e. an on-time person?
Fine, so I’m late to everything. But the point is, it really hurt me here. Late to German, late to Hebrew, late to my access to the Yiddish language. And with that, too late for me to (try and) talk to people in my own family who actually spoke the language. I mean, that stings, you know?
There’s another side to that, too. Because see, there are several variants – if not dialects – of Yiddish. And I don’t know what ours was. I mean, I can guess a little bit. I know where my dad’s family comes from. I know where Art’s side of my mom’s family comes from. I don’t actually know where my mom’s aunt’s side of the family comes from.
But what does that really mean? Was the stuff my parents heard growing up the same language that was spoken in – I assume – the shtetl? Or after one and two generations, was it an Americanized, New York-icized kind of Yiddish? How similar, or different, is the stuff I’m reading now from what was spoken literally in the house I was born in?
All I really have to go on are the way my parents pronounce the words I’ve known my whole life. I can work backwards from there, but not much. It doesn’t get you very far. So there’s that disconnect too. Like, even if one day I actually can kibbutz around in Yiddish, it might not be the language of my family. Like, imagine I met my bubbi in some fictitious afterlife and tried to talk to her. She might say, “Yikes, kid, who taught you mamma loshen?” That would be awkward.
Speaking of Bubbi, though, all is not lost. My uncle Richard did a series of video interviews with her late in life, about…well, her life. Anyway, according to the transcripts, she lapses into Yiddish at points. But all the transcript says is “She speaks Yiddish,” or words to that effect. But it occurs to me now, I should try and get my hands on those recordings and see what I can make of them.
First of all, it would be the only real opportunity to hear the language as it was spoken in my family; or my dad’s family, to be more precise. But also, it would be pretty cool to be able to fill in those blanks for all of us. That would be a nice contribution.
And that brings me to my last point about Yiddish, and then I’ll wrap this up, I promise. There’s a gap between the formal written language as I’m reading it in The Forward, and the informal spoken language. Now, of course that’s true of any language. But Yiddish was really late to the standardization game. It wasn’t until the late 19th – early 20th century that efforts were made at a ‘standard’ Yiddish.
And that was really only getting off the ground by around the 20’s and 30’s. And you know how that ended. So who knows how much of a gap there is between the Russo-Ukrainian shtetl Yiddish of 130+ years ago and what passes for ‘standard’ Yiddish today? I mean, I say “who knows,” but obviously people do. And maybe I will to, if I ever get to the point of being able to understand what she says in those tapes.
I don’t actually think, by the way, that I’m anywhere near ready to tackle those tapes. Not in a way where I’ll be able to understand what she’s saying in any meaningful way. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear them. I’m kinda dying to know what Bubbi’s Yiddish sounded like.
So we’ll see where this goes. It’s obviously going to be a long term project. A life-term project, really. But there’s no reason to think I won’t be able to get a good handle on it at some point. Hell, I just watched five minutes of a Megillah reading in Yiddish on the Youtubes. Now, it had English subtitles, but I was able to get let’s say 80% of it, maybe more.
My dad tells how when he was a kid, they would go up to the Catskills and see these comedians. And they would tell the whole joke in English, and everybody would be following along. But then the punchline would come in Yiddish. And all the adults would burst out laughing, and all the kids would have no idea what happened. Well, when I can listen to one of those jokes and get the punchline, I’ll know I’ve made it.
So that’s that. Now, though, it’s time to climb into bed and put on the ballgame. Yanks-Mets this weekend. Baseball. Now there’s a language I can understand…
- Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve decided I have zero problem with things like “Me and Timmy went to the store.” Or, “We did a good job, you and me.” Timmy and I. You and I. Who gives a fuck? English wants to be free. I say, let it be free. [↩]
- I actually just had a video chat with Dale, one of my friends from that very first Greek class. [↩]
- I’m also fine with split infinitives, obvi. [↩]