An American in Berlin

An American in Berlin
3 August, 2020

Oh hey.  You’re still here?  Shit, how long have you been waiting?  Well.  This is embarrassing.  Sorry I haven’t written in a while.  I was…delayed.  (He says, as if he’d been busy with a Balrog on the bridge of Khazad Dūm.  He hadn’t been).  No but really though, I’ve been busy.  Overwhelmingly, exhaustingly busy.  Bitten-off-more-than-I-can-chew busy.  

But busy with good things. Well, mostly good things.  There was my little home recording booth that I built.  And now using it to record music.  Learning Latin.  Reading Hebrew.  My weekly shmooz with Bartek and our Yiddish readings.  Yiddish translation.  German translation.  The band. Whatever passes for my social life. Oh yeah, and also work.  You know, my job(s).  

Let’s start with the little home recording booth I mentioned.  See, what happened was, a couple months back, I bought a guitar online. A guitar I’d wanted for quite a while, actually.  A Jackson Rhoads flying-V.  Ivory with black pinstripes and gold hardware.  I’ve named her Antoinette.  Because let’s face it, she’s kind of a diva.  But I love her.  Anyway, I bought her online because I found a really good deal I felt like I couldn’t pass up.  

So they ship her in this big honking cardboard box, inside of which was yet another big ol’ cardboard box. And I thought to myself, so much sturdy cardboard shouldn’t go to waste.  So what can I do with it?  And on top of that, I also had this giant Amazon cardboard box from this nifty little bamboo drink cart I’d ordered earlier this year.  

I don’t know the idea came to me, but basically, I realized that if I opened the doors of the guitar box, it was like a tiny little closet.  And the Amazon box was this big flat rectangle.  So somehow it occurred to me that I could assemble this all in such a way as to create a Dave-sized booth.  And it took off from there, really.  

But what an all-consuming project that turned out to be.  First thing I had to do was just buy a decent box cutter.  From there, it was a couple days of refining the design on paper. Which progressed to days and days of measuring and cutting and gluing and further refining the design for stability. After a couple of weeks, it was really starting to take shape, and I was pretty pleased with what I’d wrought.  

Except for one problem. Because it was made of cardboard, it looked ghetto as all get out.  At which point I realized I would have to paint the damn thing.  Now, sure, I could have just painted it all black and had done with it.  But what fun would that be?

So I reached out to Dale and asked him, if I sent him the dimensions, could he possibly draft for me a dazzle paint design for it.  To which he immediately responded with a photo of an actual book of dazzle paint designs accompanied by the caption, “Achem *dusts off.”  Because of course Dale just happened to have a book of dazzle paint schemes laying around.  I mean, this is why we’re friends.  Well, one reason out of many.

Dazzle paint, for anybody who might be wondering, is an oldschool style of camouflage, largely used on naval ships during the first and second world wars.  It’s basically disjointed geometric shapes in various shades of blues, grays, blacks and whites.  The idea was, in the times before radar, that this would make it difficult to determine the distance and heading of the…wait for it…bedazzled (!) ships.  

Well, as a design concept, it’s something I’ve always been fond of.  And Dale too; clearly.  Anyway, so Dale sent me the design.  Which I instantly fell in love with.  There was only one problem.  I would have to actually paint this design!  And ain’t no paintner, as Bubbi would say.  

Right, so the first thing I had to do was print out 1/5 scale color copies of each panel.  Then I had to buy a ruler, a protractor and a triangle.  You know, so I could get all the distances and angles properly measured.  Then I had to transfer that to the actual booth. Then I had to mask off all the lines. And then, you know, actually paint. Although before I could paint, I also had to newspaper over a quarter of my kitchen, which was now my painting studio. 

All of this was like another two weeks of work.  And many trips to the hardware store (a half hour walk each way) to buy ever more cans of spray paint.  But I got it done in the end, and although it’s not perfect, I have to say, it looks pretty badass.  

And then the final step. I had to install the soundproofing. Insulation foam, which I ordered from The Great Frenemy, Amazon.  And as a finishing touch, I installed a neat little LED light.  So there it was.  Finally. My own private little recording booth. 

Except, in order to record, you need tech.  A microphone, a mic stand, a shock mount for the mic, a pop screen for the mic, an I/O box to transfer the signal from the mic to the computer, an XLR cable to connect it all.

Here’s the thing about tech though.  You need to learn how to use it.  So then followed hours upon hours of Youtube tutorials.  Some on the hardware, some on the recording software.  Great.  But once you have a rough idea of how to use the stuff, you’ve gotta actually, you know, use it.  

This led to a solid two weeks of recording.  I decided the best thing to do would be to start small.  Guitars only.  One thing at a time, you know?  So I settled on a piece of Renaissance choral music which I’ve long adored and had always wanted to adapt for guitar.

So that led to like two weeks of just recording the guitar parts.  The piece itself is written for four voices.  Your standard Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass.  But since it’s choral music, I decided to record each voice twice; once each with each of my guitars.  That would be Leyka, the Gretsch I use with Bibi and Ralf; and Antoinette, my new V.

It’s not a terribly complicated or challenging piece of music.  But I still had to learn and practice four unique parts.  At which point I then had to do many takes, because I needed it to be as close to perfect as I could get it.  And, in mittendrinnen, learn the tech.  Get the right sound out of my amp.  Get the mic placement right.  Get the levels right.  Make sure the signal was coming into the software correctly.  

I learned a lot, and by the end it was going it a pretty good pace.  But it was a lot of work.  And of course the actual recording is just the beginning.  Because once of you’ve recorded it, you need to mix it. And that’s a whole new series of Youtube tutorials.  A whole new mess of trial and error.

It’s almost done now, I’m happy to report.  There are still things in the mix I need to tweak.  Bring this voice out a little more over there; lower that voice a touch over here.  But it’s good enough that finally this week I was able to send a copy to Justin, just to get some feedback.  That turned into like a two-hour phone conversation.  A very productive and interesting conversation.  But I was pretty tired at work the next day.

So like I said, it’s nearly finished.  And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of it.  As a first attempt, anyway.  I mean, I think it sounds pretty fucking cool.  But of course, also like I said, that’s just the beginning.  Like, now I’ve got a rough feel for the tech in general and a basic understanding of how to work with (electric) guitars.  So the next step is vocals.  Which will be more Youtube tutorials, more trial and error. And more complicated mixing.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m super excited about it.  I sit down to work and next thing I know, three hours have flown by.  It’s fun.  And it’s a creative outlet that I desperately need.  But it’s also time.  And I have so much to do.

All this to say, the last six weeks have been consumed with building my little booth and learning how to record and mix.  And all this, why?  Because I bought a guitar and it came in a box.  Life is funny like that. 

Speaking of Bibi and Ralf and our little band.  We’re back to playing again.  Only, you can’t really have a show indoors at the moment, so now the owner of the café has us playing in the garden, which is lovely.  Except, how do you make two acoustic guitars work outside?  Good question.  Well, Bibi’s husband gifted us (read: her) a nice PA system.  Oh great, more tech to learn!  But this wasn’t so complicated.  And at least here, I have some experience already.  All those of years of playing in bands coming in handy. Who knew?

We’ve played one show so far with the PA.  There were some bugs, which was to be expected, but overall it went pretty well. The next show is on the 8th

Since all we play is covers anyway, I asked Bibi how she would feel about trying a Yiddish song. She was all for it, which was lovely. The song I chose was “Toom Balalaika.” I thought it would be a good fit because it’s an easy catchy chorus.  But also because it tells a short little story in three verses.  The first verse is a narrator, the second is a man and the third is a woman.  So I thought we could each take a verse, if they didn’t mind trying their handvoice at a bit of mama loshn.  I wasn’t sure how they’d feel about that, but actually they were pretty receptive.  

So I worked up a transliteration that would make sense to a German speaker as well as an actual German translation so they could understand what they were singing.  And actually they took to it pretty quickly.  There were a couple of words I needed to explain and a few aspects of pronunciation I had to walk them through, but they got the hang of it in short order.  It was kinda funny actually.  Because for them, it was just mostly a bizarre kind of German.  I mean, they were actually laughing.  It was kinda cute.

Last week, Bibi and I worked on it alone.  I even worked up a nice harmony on the chorus for her to sing.  She was actually pretty excited about that.  Turns out she wants to do more harmony stuff, which is great. 

Tangentially, we do a version of “Sound of Silence.”  I don’t sing on that, it’s just her and Ralf on the vocals.  But the point is, they’re quite capable of harmonizing when they put their minds to it.  But apart from that song, they mostly just sing octaves with each other.  Til now, I’ve been the one to add more complicated harmonies.

Which doesn’t come naturally to me, I should add.  It’s something I have to work at.  But it’s also something I really like and something I want to not just get better at but actually be good at.  And I’m hoping I can start nudging us towards some three-part harmonies somewhere down the line. 

Anyway, Friday, we jammed on it all together for the first time.  And it went really well.  Ralf took to it instantly, which was great.  And it was sounding pretty fucking solid, if I do say so myself.  So we’ll see how it goes at the show.  But I’m pretty excited about it.

But here’s where I really gotta take my hat off to Bibi.  I was pretty ambivalent about bringing this song to the group.  There’s a number of reasons for that.  First is, I kinda feel like a bit of a hired gun with this group.  To be clear, they don’t make feel that way at all.  That’s all from me.  But they were together before I came along.  They choose all the songs.  And at the end of the day, it’s not generally my kind of music.

So I’ve always kind of viewed my job as finding a way to just enrich what they’re doing.  Yeah, of course, I want to express myself and bring something unique to the music.  But always in the service of what they’re already doing.  

I don’t think they see me that way.  But it’s how I see myself in this project.  So I was wary of imposing myself where it wasn’t my place; in my view. And then yeah, asking people to do a song in a language that they don’t speak, I wasn’t sure about that either. And finally, because it’s Jewish music. 

And look, of course they know I’m Jewish.  And that’s obviously no problem amongst us.  But anytime you put your Judaism on display in public, I think there’s always a bit of hesitation.  Warranted or not, you know?

What was the point? Oh yeah, tipping my hat to Bibi. No yeah, so she really embraced the idea.  Especially because of the Jewish aspect.  Because see, she’s half black.  And we’ve got a Swahili song in the set already, “Malaika”, which I fucking love, not for nothing.  And I gather that’s rather important to her.

So she’s like, “We already have a Swahili song for me.  We should absolutely do a Yiddish song for you.  And not for nothing, with all Ralf’s background in flamenco, we should get him to pick a Spanish song.”  I mean, what a beautiful attitude to have about all this.

But there’s more. Only first, you gotta understand the song a little bit.  Like I said, it’s three verses: a narrator, a guy and a girl.  And it’s kind of a love song.  The guy sings the girl a riddle about love and she solves the riddle in turn. And the way we’ve arranged it, Ralf is the narrator (first verse), I’m the guy (second verse) and she’s the maydel (third verse).  

So she says to me, “Look, you’re kinda shy on stage, which is fine.  You kinda just hang back and play your guitar and that’s OK.  You jump on the mic for your harmonies, but you don’t really interact with the crowd.  And again, that’s fine.  But here, you’re really going to be singing.  And you’re not just telling a story, you’re singing to the girl in the song, you’re singing to me.  

“So you have to come alive a bit more.  You have to make eye contact with the audience.  You have to sing to me.” And of course she’s right.  But these are not things that I’m naturally comfortable with.  But she’s patient and she’s working on it with me.   

The point is, she’s helping to bring me out of my shell, as it were.  Which was not something I was expecting when I signed on to this project. But it’s very much another way for me to grow as a musician and something I absolutely should be doing.  

And it’s not just on this song, either. In general she’s always trying to get me to sing more. Like, “Hey, do you want to sing this verse?”  Or, “Your voice would sound really good here.”  Or, “Maybe you can add one of your nice harmonies over here.”

The point is, however much I might view myself as a hired gun, she’s very much trying to make me an equal partner in all this.  And like I said, trying to get me out of my shell.  So that’s something I’m very grateful for, and my hat’s off to her for all of that.  

I keep coming back to the notion that I’ve had so much luck here.  My job, my friends, this apartment, everything.  And this is just one more thing.  I mean, it’s dumb luck that she was my student.  And that turned into this.  And this – what I initially viewed as just a way to grow as a guitarist – is turning into a way for me to grow as a singer and as performer as well.  

I mean, it’s crazy when I think about it.  All those years playing in metal bands, not once did ever go anywhere near a microphone. And now, several months shy of my 40thbirthday (#fml) I’m going to be singing in Yiddish in Berlin? “Well, Suszyn, *chuckle* you just can’t predict baseball.”

Well, like I said way back in the beginning, I’ve got a million things going on.  But this post is already getting long.  So I’ll just stick with the music theme a little longer and then wrap it up.  And hopefully I’ll be able to write more again sooner than later.  #fatchance

So as I’m nearing 40 (did I mention fml?), Joschka just turned 30.  And to celebrate, he rented a literal castle for the festival gang. Now, when I say a literal castle, I mean in the German sense.  That is to say, a mansion on grounds which used to be what we’d call a castle.  It still has stone walls around it, but the stone fortification/home in the middle was replaced by a fancy house built in fifteen-hundred-something.  

Anyway, an incredibly cool place to spend a long weekend.  And will all the festival folks, which is always a blast. Especially since all the festivals are cancelled this year.  But even if not, it’s so much nicer to sleep in a bed than a tent.  But I digress.  

It was a great time in so many ways, but I’ll stick to the music aspect, as promised.   So one thing with this group, they always love when I break out the guitar.  Which usually happens around a fire or a living room at like three in the morning. 

So one night, at around 3am, several of us are outside, drinking around the fire pit.  And of course I break out the guitar, upon request. Now what normally happens is, if they know the song, they sing along.  If not, some people listen, some people chat and that’s how it goes.   But this year, for the first time – with anybody, not just them – I decided to try out a Yiddish song.  

I opted for a song called Papirossn, which means ‘cigarette.’ It’s a sad ballad about a poor urchin trying to sell cigarettes on the street.  Now, in my opinion, it’s a very beautiful song, even if it’s a bit of a heartbreaker.   But it seemed like a good time for it, late at night, drunk, around a fire.  And I already knew that they dig the Irish folk songs I do.  And while it’s dressed up differently, Klezmer folk music is not actually all that different from Irish folk.  So I figured, the fuck not?

Anyway, the strangest thing happened.  I started to play.  And I should add, I didn’t introduce the song.  I didn’t say it was Yiddish or anything at all.  I just played.  And they all fell silent, as if in a trance.  And as I sang, they just sat and listened, not moving, not making a sound. And when I’d finished, they were like, “Wow, that was beautiful.”  (Or something to that effect; we were all drunk, so what do I remember?).  

The point is, that had literally never happened before.  Not with any song.  Not with a German song or an Irish song or an English song.  Not with nothing.  But this song, that grabbed them somehow.  אָט דאָס אַלטע ליד פֿון דער אַמאָליקער יידישער גאַס This old song from the Yiddish streets of long ago.  

What can I say?  That was a really special moment for me.  There’s really only two people I can even speak Yiddish with.  Bartek, obviously.  And Akivele, with whom I speak far less frequently.  But apart from them, I’m kind of on my own with this language. And yet, I’m discovering a different way to share this, my heritage, with people.  I can do it through music.  

And it’s beautiful, you know?  I dunno, maybe I’m reading too much into all this.  But I feel like it’s not automatic that it should be this way.  I mean, they – my friends, the people here who love me and care about me – they could have the attitude, “Well, sure Dave’s Jewish, but it’s not important.”  Or, “OK, a Jewish song, an Irish song, as long as it swings.”   

But it’s more than that. They open their hearts to it.  And maybe it’s reciprocal, you know?  Maybe they’re responding to me opening my own heart; which I’m clearly doing, when I take a chance and play this music for people. But the fact remains, they do open their hearts to it.  

Because it’s one thing when you make the effort, when you go out of your own way, when you go the extra mile to assimilate to and embrace their culture, in this strange land in which you live.  Then it’s easy to say, “Well, yeah, he’s just like us.”   

But when you step outside of that.  When you show how you’re different, when you choose to highlight what you don’thave in common.  When they open their hearts to thatand embrace you for it.  That’s pretty fucking special.  

And all I can say is, I’m grateful to have such people in my life.  I count myself lucky to have found such people.  Because there’s a loneliness to playing these old Yiddish tunes, tunes which come from a world that doesn’t exist anymore.  ס׳איז נאָך אַ מין פֿון שלעפּן גלות But the burden is a little lighter when you’ve got friends like I’ve got…

זײַ געזונט

1 thought on “An American in Berlin

  1. It is 3:29 am here. It was great to see mail from you. Oh how I have missed your writings. I look forward to one day hearing you and your music together.
    You are truly, following your bliss. You sound happy. Love you very much. Aunt Cookie 🤩 💜

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