Berlin Stories: Die Haut’s Christoph Dreher on Berlin in the ’80s

Nick Cave & Die Haut - Stow-A-Way

At first nobody realised that we had been shot at. It was only later that somebody saw the hole in the window, and we found a small caliber bullet in the opposite wall. We had had a little session in my loft in Kreuzberg, which at that point was inhabited not only by my roommate and myself, but the whole of The Birthday Party including girlfriends.

It was clearly not a shot to kill. Obviously somebody in the neighborhood had found us taking things a little too far by having an amplified improv session in our backyard loft which had not been soundproofed. So it did not seem unreasonable at all to us, this little warning shot. Without it, we would have never known that someone was bothered by us.

Small companies occupied the other lofts in our house, like the printing shop downstairs. After 5 PM we were pretty much on our own.

Nowadays it is hard to imagine what Kreuzberg was like in the early ’80s. When my colleague from film school and I rented that loft sometime in 1978, our footsteps could be seen in the dust of the backyard. It was like a ghost town. My car was the only one parked on the entire street, the houses of which were unchanged since after the Wall had been built. The houses mostly had bullet holes in the facades, toilets in the staircase or in the courtyard, coal furnaces. No baths. Very few people were living there at the time, mostly Turkish migrants, the German working class inhabitants of Kreuzberg having long ago moved into the new satellite quarters with their modern high-rise ghettos. Central heating, bathrooms and elevators. Small companies occupied the other lofts in our house, like the printing shop downstairs. After 5 PM we were pretty much on our own.

We had recently finished our first tour with my band Die Haut, supporting The Birthday Party, who were on their second tour of Germany by then. Die Haut had a strict suits-only-policy in the jazz tradition of the ’50s and early ’60s and a corresponding cool performance. The Birthday Party fancied cowboy boots, leather pants and flamboyant hairstyles. Their performances saw half of the band down on the floor, usually with the bass player lying on his back, making humping movements. Nonetheless, beyond these negligible differences, there were a lot of common interests in films and books and music.

Die Haut feat. Nick Cave - Sad Dark Eyes

At the end of the tour, we invited them to Berlin. Accustomed to tiny, dark and cold flats in London, they were impressed by our comparatively lavish loft situation and the moderate rent. Even more to their liking was the scene around us, with bands like Malaria!, Einstürzende Neubauten, Liaisons Dangereuses, Sprung Aus Den Wolken and various painters and filmmakers.

Nick Cave & co. were amazed by the spirit of collaboration and experimentation, which was the exact opposite of the competitive London scene where everybody wanted to be a pop star. In Berlin, we despised the idea of entertainment and entertained the ideas of confrontation and provocation. In a matter of days, I had introduced The Birthday Party to our colleagues, and a mesmerized Nick Cave had witnessed Einstürzende Neubauten in the studio with half a pig, which served as a percussion tool for Blixa Bargeld when he wasn’t using his own chest instead.

To practice at home in order to become an accomplished musician was considered silly.

This was a time of constant collaboration: New groups were often formed of members of various bands – and many musicians regularly played in several bands. Painters and filmmakers wanted to make music too, whereby the expanded understanding of what music is or can be – prominently and later famously promoted by Einstürzende Neubauten – helped a lot. To practice at home in order to become an accomplished musician was considered silly. It wasn’t that a lot of the people involved didn’t work hard or have ambitions. It was just that it was simply all about daring and doing and the excitement of the moment and the shared experience.

While the other members of The Birthday Party got flats on their own or moved in with other people, Nick and – for as long as their relationship lasted – his girlfriend Anita Lane stayed in my flat in Dresdnerstraße for years to come. Everybody was on the road a lot, so there were always pauses to the collective living situation. I made music videos for Nick’s next Band, The Bad Seeds. He sang on Die Haut records and occasionally went on tour with us. There were eventual incidents at the house, which were probably due to the widespread appetite for our “uptown” and “downtown” additions to (if not replacements of) nourishment at that time. One time the collateral damage of a small family controversy included all of the windows in the staircase. In another, my glass coffee table. But these kinds of trifles couldn’t disrupt what I thought of this moment in Berlin. It was a time of friendship, intensity, exploration and adventure.

By Christoph Dreher on September 13, 2013

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