by Marco Perella
“I just got a call from Berlin. They want us for four days. The tickets are on the way.” With this terse message, the transformation of our folksy little country western trio begins.
No more Austin’s best-kept secret playing once a month down at the Saxon Pub! The Melancholy Ramblers—Brady on guitar and fiddle, Frances on accordion, and me on hummel—are about to become the FABULOUS INTERNATIONAL MELANCHOLY RAMBLERS!
We’re taking our places in the pantheon with all those other Texas acts who, underfunded and under-recording contracted at home, heed the call of an adoring European public and sojourn there to a rapturous reception. Ah! The cachet of an international reputation will soon be ours! The only difference between us and those other bands is that they can actually play their instruments.
We, however, are cute. There’s no sense in trying to deny it. Those Germans will eat us up like bratwurst. The only question is—why us?
The answer of course is destiny! Masquerading as blind luck.
This guy David used to be an old Austin lefty. Moved to Berlin to work with the Green Party in ’80. Now working with a group trying to Heal the Wounds of German Reunification. Planning a Concert for Tolerance in Potsdam to counteract the sinister influence of skinheads and Neo-Nazis. Needs a representative American folk group. Calls his old lefty pal who happens to be a Melancholy Rambler fanatic and whadda you know. An all expense paid trip to our European dream gig. (At least until they hold a folk festival on the Italian Riviera.)
The Therapy Sisters are also asked to come from Austin. (In case you don’t know them they’re an all female trio who do original songs and wear propeller-hats. Maureen plays bass and writes songs, Marilyn plays sax and piano and Lisa plays guitar and wears the hat.)
We all assemble on Thursday to go to the airport. Everybody is concerned about jet-lag and what actually can be called carry-on baggage (Accordions?) The other major concern is me.
I am usually responsible for stage patter in the Ramblers because Brady only says stuff like “This is another song we wrote by Guy Clark” and “We’re gonna take a break cause Marco broke a string”. Frances sings like a diva but whenever we ask her to say something she does her smiling-deer-caught-in-the-headlights routine and starts adjusting her accordion strap. On the other hand (as you might already have surmised by now) you can’t shut me up with a board and I have perfected a rather glib and celebratory if semi-profane style of addressing the audience. This comes in handy when we are involved in our usual twenty-minute monitor adjustments.
My fellow Ramblers are concerned that I might start making Nazi-jokes or otherwise offend our German hosts. I reassure them by goose-stepping to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”.
Austin to Atlanta is our first hop and we board with dire warnings of limited overhead storage. In fact the counter guy has worked us over pretty good and we are all paranoid about having to check our vintage instruments into some maelstrom of baggage-hell destruction. We vow to carry-on or die and start cramming guitar cases into every nook and cranny of the plane. The Therapy Sisters even bring their amps on with them and somehow get away with it. (I guess the stewardesses can’t deny a woman with a propeller on her head.)
We pass Willie waiting at an adjacent gate and I bet they don’t hassle him either. Of course he probably buys an extra seat for that old guitar of his. We take it as a good omen for our trip, seeing Willie like that. (All Texans kinda consider seeing Willie a good omen. You want to make a wish or something.)
Anyway we make it to Atlanta okay but it turns out the plane to Germany has even less space. After several experimental crammings into undersized overhead compartments, we discover that the only place Frances’s accordion will fit is under the middle seat of the center section where I am sitting. (And will remain sitting for ten hours with my feet propped up on it, after which I will be encouraging Frances to switch to concertina.)
How to describe our soaring flight into the East? We hit bumpy air so everytime we get up to go to the lavatory the seat belt sign goes on and everybody goes back to their seats. Then the flight attendants bring us snacks to placate us. Then we have to go even worse and the same cycle repeats. Pretty soon we can’t go even if we want to because the line is so long in between seat belt alerts. So we sit and are force-fed, like penned meat steers in our stalls. Some of our fellow passengers try to storm the first class restroom but are promptly whipped back into steerage and lashed down. It’s a fitful night.
Germany looks cold in the morning fog. We are prepared however, because Brady, our band geography expert, has pointed out to us that Berlin is on the same latitude as northern Quebec, and this being March we have come equipped with sub-arctic protection. We are disappointed when it’s a muggy forty-four in Berlin.
None of the Germans we see in the airport seem winterized. In fact they seem to be almost universally attired in black leather jackets. Actually, everybody in Germany between the ages of fifteen and fifty wears a black leather jacket. It’s like we’re back in Austin at the South by Southwest music conference. All the children however are dressed like little Easter eggs in pink and purple and tie-dyed orange as they are led down the corridors by their nightshade parents. Looks like a bunch of crows in a berry patch.
Customs is a breeze. The only problem is Frances’ accordion. It seems accordions are verboten because there are too many accordions in Germany already. (Just kidding.)
We meet up with David, our host and translator, and are soon packed into a roomy red van steaming our way into Potsdam.
Potsdam is in the state of Brandenburg in what was once East Germany. It was the capitol of Prussia before that. It’s a short drive from Berlin and we get to see the sights.
(The former) East Germany is full of abandoned and decaying warehouses and military bases. The group David works with is trying to get the government to turn them into rec centers and schools. Paint was very hard to get in East Germany before the wall came down and German youth has celebrated its recent accessibility with an orgy of graffiti. The graffiti is strangely German in flavor. Nice straight lines and orderly composition. Nobody writes over anybody else’s graffiti. We do see some trash on the highway and are shockingly disillusioned.
By this time jet-lag is a factor and we are all ready to get to the hotel. We spill into the lobby with our down jackets and cowboy hats and amplifiers and are stared at by swanky Germans. David negotiates our rooms and we find out there is no such thing as two double beds in this hotel. Somebody has to get cuddly in one bed. No sweat. One of our fellow travelers is my wife Diane. (Since I’m a hummel player we told them I needed a therapist.) Another is Brady’s “associate” Chris who really IS a therapist and agreed to accompany us as long as she was never referred to as a “girlfriend” or a “Ramblerette”. (Since she used to be a barrel racer we thought she’d be an asset so we agreed.)
Frances being the lonely one we decide to take turns sharing a room with her. This turns out to be a fateful decision because after we figure out how to get the elevator to work…it has a sign that says “in fahrt”… we discover that each room has two very small single beds. Our room also has yellow stains all over the linoleum floor. And everything is made of particle board. And it costs one hundred fifty marks a night. That’s about a hundred bucks. Glad we don’t have to pay for it. And this is one of the better hotels in East Germany!
I immediately run into the bathroom to confirm the rumors I’ve heard. It’s true! There it is in the bottom of the toilet bowl! The legendary German “inspection shelf”! What a country! And they save money on plumbing by having a pivoting showerhead that also serves as a sink tap. This means you have to take a shower on your knees. I do so and take a nap.
Our first gig not being until tomorrow morning, this afternoon is tourist time. Potsdam is extremely quaint. We eat bratwurst right away to get it over with. And beer of course. Then we go to Frederick the Great’s Palace.
It’s about a mile hike from the street to the palace through beautiful parks and fountains and old Freddy put up a statue every thirty feet of it. And a sub-palace every hundred yards. Freddy was flat out flaunting it back in 1760 something. The “New Palace” itself is about as big as the U.S. Congress and there must be ten more buildings nearly that big scattered around the grounds. All rococo to the max.
The story is that Freddy was gay and the barons or somebody got uptight about it and offed his lover. So Fred went out and won a war and built this place to forget. I tell you one thing, the guy was nuts about statues. The acid rain is corroding the hell out of everything though, and the Germans are trying to protect and restore. They ought to; the place is a real jaw-dropper.
Our sacred duty as American tourists having been accomplished, we all repair to a Potsdam eatery and try to feed. We eat meat because that’s all there is on a German menu. One of our party gets brave and orders pig’s feet. Turns out to be pig’s ankles instead thank God, but all the same he cuts off all the fat. The waitress asks him how come he didn’t eat the good part.
Off we go to seek out Potsdam night life, even though David tells us there ain’t much. He’s right. We finally find ourselves driving down a trashy street where certain storefronts have been converted into bars and galleries. We pass some kind of little bar and a guy in a black leather jacket beckons from inside to us.
“Stop the car!” yells Frances. A man has waved at Frances and she must attend. (She explains later that he beckoned with BOTH hands so of course she had to come.) We park and enter the bar.
It’s a German heavy-metal bar with skull-posters and death music. We stand there uncomprehendingly in our cowboy hats. I step forward and say in my impeccable German, “Ich ben Amerikaner!” The Germans don’t speak English but one of them says something like “we are young German heavy-metal death rockers and you are old American cowboy farts. Why did you come in here you silly fools? Don’t you know that now you must be beaten?”
The guy who waved at Frances has left in disgrace for attracting these middle-aged tourists into this shrine of sacred hipness and death worship. We order beers to be polite and drink them real fast in case we need the bottles as weapons. Then we scurry away.
Frances thinks it’s just the neatest thing. She has had an epiphany of international cross-cultural exchange. The rest of us know better and want to go to sleep.
Day two of our international tour dawns hopefully after a tragic night of misunderstood German bedding. I have snored Frances into a migraine and Brady has completely missed the point of what Diane informs me is called a duvet cover on the quilt. Brady tried to get in instead of under and chaos ensued.
Our first official gig is at the Russian school.
All the Russian soldiers and their families are still here because they have no houses in Russia to go back to now that the Soviet Empire has crumbled. It’s very dicey with the Germans.
We are informed that this is the first time that any foreigners have come to play for the Russian kids and German kids are also being bussed in for the event. Another first. Both we Ramblers and the Therapys are eager to show that our hosts’ long-distance faith in our abilities is not misplaced so we hit the school with religious fervor. We’ll give them a load of that old Texas yeehaw!
The Russian kids are stunned and amazed as we come tumbling out of our red van. Cowboys! Propeller hats! Amplifiers! Oh joy! Oh rapture! We are pleasantly engulfed in adoring attention.
We sweep upstairs to the appointed empty classroom wherein we are to play. There is some confusion in the school about which classes are to be let out to see us. Kids wind up attending in shifts. A bunch will stick around for two songs then have to go to their next class and are replaced by a new bunch. The German kids crowd in halfway through the show and sit in the aisles. One kid speaks pretty good English so we get him up front with us to translate my stage patter. We get into a little trouble translating a lyric from Tobacco Road…”I despise you cause you’re filthy“. Hey, it always gets a laugh in the States.
Everybody participates during Blue Shadows on the Trail by portraying cows and coyotes on cue as requested and we wind up with Brady yodeling “Cattle Call” to foot stomps. I grab a Russian teenager and do a little Texas swing. We start signing autographs in the hall while the Therapy Sisters start up.
One student is named George. He gives me ten rubles as a souvenir. Tells me it’s not worth much. I give him a Yankee dollar in trade and tell him it’s backed by the full force and faith of the government of the United States of America. He has long eyelashes and Diane wants to take him home.
A kid named Sergei wears a Cleveland Browns shirt and thinks it means the basketball team. He wants to know if I can dunk. I tell him Charles Barkley taught me how personally. He pumps his fist and makes like a TV-hype announcer…“Barkley!” Now we’re getting somewhere.
A long-haired guy tells us that even though he prefers rap he would like to present us with this gift… a Russian army helmet with peace decals all over it.
I look around me and everywhere my fellow Americans are surrounded by happy Russian and German kids. It’s a love-in. I feel like a genuine Ambassador-of-by-God-goodwill.
It’s hard to say goodbye to our new fans. The Texans all join together for a chorus of Happy Trails in the parking lot. (We will leave no corn un-poned in our efforts to fulfill our duty as representatives of nation, state and lifestyle.)
As the van drives away the kids all wave and we all wave and feel like something really good just happened.
The main event of our excursion takes place tonight at the Concert for Tolerance. It is being held in an auditorium connected to our hotel that was formerly the meeting hall of the East German Stasi…the secret police. Now German, Russian, Turkish and American groups are going to perform in the spirit of musical brotherhood. All very symbolic.
The sound check is a nightmare of language barrier and non-compatible electronics. Frances and Diane have borrowed the Therapy Sister’s European power adaptor to use with their hair dryer and fried its little brain. It looks bad for the amps until Frances, who used to be a semi-famous woman Volkswagen mechanic, somehow rewires it. The German soundmen keep calling us “Das Melancholys” and smiling at us but they never plug us in to see if we work.
The Turkish band warms up for a half an hour and sounds great but nobody else has time to check before the crowds start arriving. Lots of Russian officers in full uniform with their mysterious, dark-eyed Russian wives fill the lobby. Very many German nabobs and notables assemble. The press in all its glory. Peaceniks and Green party types. Turks. Czechs. Latvians?
We have put on our suits of lights and are attempting to mingle when David, in full concert-planner hysteria, pulls us aside and tells us that the sound system is not working and everyone is sitting in the auditorium getting bored waiting for the concert to start. We are pressed into service as a stopgap roving troup of acoustical balladeers.
Brady grabs his guitar and we enter singing. We work the aisles full of nabobs with a little Crying Time and start in on Banks of the Ohio as we reach the section where all the Russian officers are sitting. They seem to like the part where Willie stabs her in the breast with his knife so we act it out. This really breaks the ice. The three-part harmony takes off and the whole crowd starts in to clapping and stomping. We have it all figured out by now. Germans, Russians, the whole bunch of them cannot resist anything with a good driving march beat. It’s genetic. They must obey. We plan our set accordingly.
David, who has stopped foaming at the mouth, comes down the aisle and tells us that the board is back up and the concert will now begin. Hey! Who needs a sound system? We retire in triumph.
Our stage appearance is very short. Each group is allotted twenty minutes so we hit ’em with Hard Times and then Operator Give Me Jesus on the Line which Frances belts like the ex-lead church choir singer she is. Both songs have strong march beats and the Europeans start stomping right on cue. Then we join the Therapys for their peace hymn One Wall Down and leave the stage to them.
We have also been asked to entertain during intermission but out in the lobby none of the cords fit into the mixer and we can’t plug in. At least we have mics but they have the volume turned down so low it hardly matters.
Brady has learned to say “mir y drujba” which means peace and friendship in Russian. I have learned to say “I love beautiful Russian women” in Russian so we both repeat our mantras during the set. Chris the barrel racer puts on a cowboy hat and cruises the lobby, leaving several Russian officers slack-jawed. A German Poet who is reciting tonight falls in love with my wife Diane. Yes, he DOES wear wire rimmed glasses and black turtleneck with scarf casually draped beneath leonine blond tresses. His name is Mathias.
We all go back in for the second act. The Ramblers go down in front and sit with the Russian officers. After a fairly undistinguished string quartet performs, one of them says to me, “You were better.”
An officer’s wife speaks English and translates for us. We tell them how much we enjoyed playing for their kids at the school that morning and how the Austin Symphony always plays Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for the Fourth of July.
The Russian Balalaika Orchestra comes out. All forty of them. This is the old state supported creme de la creme crew of musicians, dancers and singers and they are hot. One of the baritones gets a standing ovation from our little American section and the Russians look on approvingly. Our officer wife translator says he is singing about Lake Baikal and adds that he likes it.
A couple of tall Russian male dancers do a takeoff on ballerinas and make everybody laugh. More great singers. More great dancers. Everybody is playing the hell out of innumerable balalaikas. Quite a deal. We Texans give them several more standing ovations.
The Russians look on with pride as their talented countrymen wow us. There’s a sadness too. The Russians are having to swallow a lot right now and there’s a very poignant quality to their love of their country and its art and tradition. I think they feel honored by our enthusiastic appreciation. It’s another very nice moment.
The show ends with several encores and Mathias the German Poet recites another love poem and the Germans and Russians shake hands and the Turks and the Germans shake hands and I guess that does it for the night. We adjourn to the bar where the drinking will now begin!
Brady and Frances get heavily involved in beer tasting. The Therapy Sisters are doing very well selling their cassettes. Diane and Chris are being entertained by Mathias the German Poet who keeps proposing toasts “to Beauty“.
I become friends with a German couple named Hagar and Astrid. Hagar is an ex-East German soldier now out of a job and Astrid finished third to Mary Decker Slaney at a track meet in Los Angeles. They are a very handsome couple. Like Seigfreid and Brunnehilde. I give Hagar a demo tape and he goes home and comes back with a bust of Frederick the Great for me. Soon we are all maudlin with bar-friendship and I extricate Diane from the clutches of Mathias the German Poet and we retire.
We rise from the floor where we have placed the mattress in desperation, stagger to our kneeling shower through the shreds of our duvet covers, breakfast on pickled fish and other unmentionable flesh at the hotel smorgasbord and meet David out front in the red van. Off to spend Sunday in Berlin!
Evidently the previous evening has been a howling success for David and his group and in a spirit of magnanimous inclusion he allows me to drive us into Berlin on the autobahn. Despite a curious reluctance on the part of my fellow Americans to accept this arrangement, all of us arrive safely and are soon cruising down the Kurfurstendamm.
We park and walk through the Brandenburg Gate and buy souvenir Russian medals from street vendors. We see the Russian Memorial built to honor the taking of Berlin in WWII, built on top of Hitler’s bunker. I have been exceedingly careful not to embarrass anyone up to this point but now I slip up and launch into a description of how the U.S. could have been first in if Ike had unleashed Patton and how old Blood and Guts wanted to go ahead and kick the Russian’s asses while we had the army here to do it with and soon everyone on the sidewalk is staring at me with that burp gun look Germans are so good at and I shut up.
Hey, nothing personal… I’m just a history buff.
Brady and Frances and the Therapys meet a hurdy-gurdy woman in front of the Berlin Opera and start a jam session and street dance. Everything goes well after they figure out that the hurdy-gurdy is playing in F sharp.
The Therapy Sisters have the first gig of the day at a bar called Cafe Bliss 14. It seems to be a hangout for lots of disabled people and I don’t know if it’s their name or what but the Sisters just OWN the crowd. They get everybody yelling and cheering and singing along.
Especially popular is their song Trendy which includes the line “if I see one more person in a black leather jacket and tattoos I’m gonna throw up my sushi all over my high-top tennis shoes/”
The sound system is the first good one we’ve run into and the Ramblers follow with a set of Marching Songs. Brady does his best southern hellfire versions of Muddy Water and Mountain Dew and the Sisters play again and we’re off to dinner.
Italian food in Berlin? Anything but bratwurst. We dine well. David, after three days of escorting us around Germany to generally raucous response, has become drunk with power and is taking delight in pointing us like a loaded gun at any target of staid German convention that presents itself. And then gleefully pulling the trigger. He insists that we serenade the cooks. We oblige with Good Night Irene, bowing to the inevitability of our role as Texas Clowns on Tour. We’re dangerously giddy as we head to our last gig.
This last engagement is to be a movable feast between adjacent bars in the Berlin arts district. One is an Irish bar catering to Germans who like a little whiskey with their beer. Next door is a real German’s German bar with expressionist paintings, crockery and pictures from The Ring of the Nibelung on the walls.
Smoke layers itself above the grizzled heads of chess players.
The place does not look exactly ready for a hootenanny but it does have a stage and a piano so the Therapys bravely start out there while we take on the Irish.
We start them out with a little Irish Death Chant called Bold Marauder just to test the mood. Bar crowds are always unpredictable and things could get ugly if we miscalculate. I mean, what if they don’t realize how cute we are? We try Frances on a ballad, Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight. A hush falls over the bar as her bosom swells with emotion…
“There’s a beautiful, beautiful field…far away in a land that is fair…”
A quivering drunken sigh shudders collectively through the place as Frances sings. German eyes water and German lips tremble with gestalt. When she finishes the song a sweetly tankarded old fellow presents her with a rose as German lungs bellow their appreciation. Brady and I exchange a look. It’s definitely time to spoon feed ‘em the mush.
By the time Frances does Break it to me Gently the prize is won.
The Sisters return from a less than Woodstockian experience at the German Smoke Bar and partake of the Irish with us. They too are adored. I act out a version of Dark as a Dungeon with great success (especially the part about “a man having lust for the lure of the mine”) and Brady leads another round of yodeling. The two bands merge for a gospel set ending with Amazing Grace. There by gum! We have given our best shot of honky-tonk-heartache-jukebox-in-the-poolroom religion to these Teutons and been richly rewarded for our efforts. It’s time to go back to Texas.
On the sleepy drive back to the hotel we savor our German experience. Everyone agrees we have had a wonderful time and David suggests a two-week tour in September. One of the Therapy Sisters wants to buy a black leather jacket before we leave. Diane is dreaming in the back seat, hopefully NOT of Mathias the German Poet. Brady and I decide to send a box of basketball trading cards to the Russian school kids. Frances’ voice is shot but she still has the rose from the Irish bar and we all assert that flying west jet-lag can’t possibly compare to flying east.
Our last night in Germany. Moon over Potsdam. Goodnight moon. Goodnight Potsdam. Goodnight Freddy the Great. Goodnight in fahrt elevator. Goodnight inspection shelf. Goodnight heavy-metal death rockers and hurdy-gurdies in F sharp. Another day another song. Goodnight.