Musical Memories of East Berlin

Late UCSB Professor’s Article About Life Behind the Berlin Wall

(Originally published in UCSB’s Daily Nexus, January 12, 1989, as part of the “Best Music for 1988” issue; that title was “Sergeant Carmen Walker, bringing you home…On the Edge!”)

Since I spent most of 1988 teaching in Berlin, Haupstadt der D.D. R. (“East Berlin” to George Bush and his kind), I had, shall we say, limited access to what was happening in American rock and roll. Not till I got back did I find out from my students here and from Rolling Stone that heavy metal is to be taken seriously, that the Boss has lost it and is now just the CEO, that U2 is as overrated as Kahlil Gibran used to be, and that Michael Jackson has made the difficult transition from weird talent to weird nerd. But hell, I suspected all that before I left.

So thank God for AFN, American Forces Radio (not “Armed Forces Radio” — we don’t say things like that anymore) which we could pick up from Berlin-West. Now AFN is like going back to the ‘50s, the real seedtime of rock, which is to say my generation, right? Like, the DJ’s patter never, never rises out of junior high humor: these guys make the KTYD jocks sound like George Will. And nobody makes solemn distinctions among “new wave,” “pop,” “metal,” “rap,” or whatever. It’s all, you know, like – music (remember that Elvis’ early idol, lord love him, was Dean Martin). And, most important, the elementary unit of rock in the AFN timewarp is the single. How refreshing to be reminded that, before the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Who invented that loose and baggy monster, the “concept album,” an album was just that – an album, as in “photo album,” a collection of singles if you had the money to buy them all at once ($3.98 as opposed to 35 cents – yes, really, those were the prices of my youth).

So: Based on an admittedly skewed and delightful sojourn in Haupstadt, here, for what they are worth, are my picks for fave raves of the year.

1) Rick Astley, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Has to be tops, because, as my wife says, it’s the best bar song since “Proud Mary.” We used to fantasize about GIs boogeying to this with various and sundry Ulrikes, Ingrids and Katrinas – or, for that matter, Jurgens, Erichs and Gottfrieds.

2) George Harrison, “When We Was Fab.” Almost as much as “Heading for the Light” from the Wilburys album, a dead-on recreation of the Beatles sound in all its glorious silliness. Harrison, like Entwhistle of the Who, turns out to be the faithful keeper of his group’s flame.

3) Pebbles, “Girl Friend.” Why the hell not? She sings better than Tiffany, has more soul than five Whitneys, and the song is a beautiful recreation of high school crisis, which, after all, is where rock begins and ends.

4) Tiffany, Anything because it all sounds the same. So did Brill Building pop, and if you think being mass-marketed stops it from being great rock and roll, you’ve become too sophisticated – or not sophisticated enough.

5) George Michael, “Father Figure.” If Roy Orbison was the Caruso of rock, brother George is its Sinatra, or, better, its Mel Torme. He’s got miles and miles of chops, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

I’m not sure Robert Hilburn would agree with this list. But whenever I hear any of those songs, I know that part of me will always us find itself back under a grey rainy sky in a city I love. And if that’s not what music is for, what in the world is it for?


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