• Notes on Cerebellum Blues, Playlists One and Two: Europe, part one of two.
Welcome to my series of posts about how I got into music and songwriting and the events that ultimately led to the 2012 release of my first album. Here are the posts, so far:
If you read anything that strikes a chord please let me know in the comments section or via email. As always, thank you for reading.
As I flew across the middle of the country toward Europe in the waning winter of 1990, I looked out the window and saw the sun setting behind me and darkness ahead and I remember feeling how fitting the view was. Behind me was the fading light of everything familiar while ahead was the unknown.
I was enroute from San Francisco to Munich to see Michelle, a girl I had met about a year prior and fallen hard for and now wanted to be with. When I first met Michelle at Café Trieste, a North Beach institution, I was working at The Sharper Image as a writer and playing in a band. By the time her visa ran out at the end 1989, I had quit the band and was about to be laid off from my writing job. I was in a good place. I was tired of chasing music and did not believe in myself much as a musician; as for writing, I liked it well enough, but catalogs? No, I wanted to write short stories and novels. And that was the plan. I was going to move to Europe to be with Michelle and to follow in the vestigial footsteps of my number one writing hero, Ernest Hemingway. I was leaving my guitar at home. I was packing a fountain pen.
And so one of the first trips Michelle and I took together in Europe was to Paris. I knew what I wanted to see: La Closerie des Lilas, the most famed of Hemingway’s cafe haunts. There I would order my drink, open my notebook, ready my pen and great thoughts would flow because I truly believed I had stories in me, they were just were trapped in some sort of dark place that I could not get to. Surely, The City of Light would reveal them. But the stories were not revealed. There were sentences, random words, a whole paragraph or two, but no stories or even the beginnings of stories. It was just as it had been in all other places I’d tried to write — San Francisco, Colorado, Los Angeles and more — and as I sat outside Shakespeare & Company after having been to Les Closerie, Les Deaux Magots, and Les Others, a hard truth hit me: I was not a novelist at heart or even a short story writer or a poet. I looked around and took in the acid rain-eroded, soot-blackened facades of the Left Bank and I saw that becoming a fiction writer was, for me, a fiction and no city was going to change that, not even Paris, my Paris, the Paris I had read about in Hemingway’s books and in a biography of the man, a city of magical qualities where anyone who was an artist would bloom to his fullest and feel the deep satisfaction of doing something beautiful or terrifying or joyful or tragic and that would somehow add to the world and make it a more interesting place. I was tired. And I looked up to see it for what it was and asked myself, “Now what?”
After Paris, I remember going for a walk just outside my Munich apartment at the time. It was spring and I headed toward one of the many canals that work to control flooding on the Isar river as it flows through Munich and I remember standing in green grass and watching the water flow by and looking up and seeing the trees in leafy celebration and for perhaps the first time in my life being able to take in such a scene and not feel melancholy. So this is what it’s like to feel happy, I said to myself. I was not wondering about what to write in song or word, I was not concerned about my ability to play the guitar, I was not doing anything other than appreciating the beauty around me. I was also able to recognize and revel in the fact that I was living in a Europe that was more filled with optimism than even the America of myth because Europe in the early 90s was The Continent of Hope. The Wall was down, The Soviet Union was crumbling, the European Union was growing, the Euro was coming. Meanwhile, back in the US, Clinton was struggling, the Internet and the dotcom boom were still a few years off, fear of stagflation was making a comeback and seemed legitimate, while in Europe everywhere I went and every person I talked to was overflowing with dreams and plans and hope. It was infectious and I got infected bad but no so bad that I started to believe in myself as an artist again. Instead, I thought about starting my own business and began to think about what I might do and at first I drew a blank but then it slowly dawned on me that the answer was literally all around me, for everywhere I went in Munich I saw awkward English, the result of translations done by non-native English speakers. It was the perfect environment in which to start a marketing translation service whose work didn’t sound like translations and I knew just the people to pull it off: a friend I’d met at Berlitz, who spoke German so well that even Germans couldn’t tell he was Englishman, and me since I knew copywriting from my years at The Sharper Image. I approached my friend with the idea, he was in and we were up and running.
But when there is only one thing in life you have ever truly wanted to do, to not do it, for whatever reason, is not a choice you can live with for long. I think music started to come back in Berlin, where I was teaching English to former East German border guards who were being retrained to work security for department stores. It was one of my last teaching gigs before I started the translation service. I stayed with an elderly couple who had been pillars of the community before The Wall fell but were now pariahs, because he had been an East German policemen and though he swore all he ever did was to help people get their cats out of trees you knew there was more to the story. The gig lasted 2 weeks and during that time I would teach from 8:30 to 4:00, then take the train into the center of what was West Berlin and walk from Zoo Station to the Virgin store, where I would go from listening station to listening station and check out tracks. My favorites were songs from the new REM album, Out of Time, and a Michael Jackson single called Black or White. Over and over I would listen to these songs, then walk around Berlin a bit more before catching a train back to Hoppegarten, the Berlin suburb I was staying in.
When my Berlin gig ended, I returned to Munich and it was clear that I couldn’t take not having a guitar anymore so I had my parents ship me my Steinberger. I also started spending even more time at WOM, the big record store in downtown Munich, where I could watch music videos and listen through headphones — transported, dreaming, not wanting to leave. My favorite videos were all of live performances and three stand out in my memory because I watched them so, so often: AC/DC, You Shook Me All Night Long; Guns and Roses, Pretty Tied Up and The Band When I Paint My Masterpiece.
Meanwhile, the marketing translation service was going well but I saw pretty quickly that it was not a long-term prospect for me. The more ads and brochures I translated, the more I wanted to be the original writer and my desire to become an advertising copywriter, mostly dormant since my departure from The Sharper Image, began to reawaken. I first tried to get a job in Germany. I approached a few of our agency clients and they politely turned me down, saying that even if my German were flawless, which it was not, I still had to show that I could actually write ads, not just translate them. I so I hatched a plan: I would return to the States and get a job with an ad agency and prove myself as a copywriter and then return to Europe in a year or so and get a job with an agency and be back with Michelle. I sat with the idea for a while. Could I really do that, could I actually return home, get a job, build up a portfolio and return to Germany and get picked up by a German agency all in the space of a year or two? The truth is I will never know because I never really tried to return after I was back in the States. But I’m getting ahead of myself.