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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2007/09/23
by Mike Gruenberg

Music for the Soul

In My Life
For those of us who came of age in the 60s, the music that we listened to at that time was spectacular. New directions in music with new groups and new artists gave us a cornucopia of vastly different sounds virtually every day. The intensity in the amount of new music released at that time has never been matched .It almost had to be that way because our world was bursting apart at the seams with tyrants whose nuclear threats were just as potent as ours in the U.S. In those days, it wasnt hard to imagine that an itchy trigger finger by an unbalanced world leader could ignite the planet.
Young, handsome and intellectual, John F. Kennedy was thrust on to the world stage by the most narrow of margins in the Presidential election in1960 Although he had been a highly decorated war hero and a Senator from Massachusetts, his experience on the international political circuit was somewhat lacking. Although he was accepted by many of the world leaders at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, Prime Minister of Russia was not impressed with young Jacks good looks, charm or Harvard educated wisdom. Thumbing his nose at the U.S., Khrushchev in 1961 blatantly built a wall dividing the city of Berlin and country of Germany thus keeping democracy out of the Russian controlled Eastern sector as Kennedy stood helplessly by. That wall divided Germany and the whole of Europe. With the building of the wall, The Cold War between the West and the East was compete.
Construction of the Berlin Wall began in August of 1961.Twenty eight years later; the wall was torn down paving the way for the full reunification of Berlin and more specifically for all of Germany. Eighteen years later in 2007, I had the pleasure of visiting Berlin. In these past eighteen years, Berlin has been transformed into a modern city with new structures fitting in aesthetically with the remaining old ones. Restaurants, museums and a general sense of well being are pervasive in this unique city that has felt the ravages of war and politics only to survive stronger than ever before.
Aside from the beauty of the city and the commitment to a dignified remembrance of those people who died in the holocaust, the most overwhelming aspect of Berlin that I noticed during my recent visit is the predominance of western music. It was everywhere. In music venues, restaurants, shopping malls and elevators, all types of music from the west could be heard. Not that I expected only oom-pah band music in Germany, but when I checked into my hotel and got into the elevator, I was pleased to be serenaded by Eric Clapton as I went up to my room on the seventh floor.
The former East Berlin is now a thriving city that rivals New York, Chicago, London, etc. Part of the reason is the enormous financial investments made there by all the major industrialized countries of the world. However, another reason for their success is in embracing the western musical culture to take hold there as well. Every major rock act that is touring the world today makes a stop in Berlin. That type of activity was unheard of when the wall was up.
Although, over the years there have been many German bands and performers. Many German based sounds have found success outside of the country. In 1968, Kraut Rock as it was affectionately called came into being. In essence this sound was a mixture of British based rock melded into U.S. rock. Not very creative, but they were able to copy the best of both U.S. and British rock In 1971, the group Tangerine Dream came into prominence with their extensive use of synthesizers. At this time, German singer, Nico who sang with the Velvet Underground in New York went back home. When she returned to Germany, she recorded a number of landmark albums there. Nicos unique style accentuated a morose and skeptical view of the world based on whatever traumas she may have suffered as a child. That style could best be described as dark and foreboding. In 1971, she released her album Desert Shore considered a masterpiece, but not for the faint of heart as it built off the angst of her first album Marble Index that came out in 1968.
Following Tangerine Dream, the group Kraftwerk found success in their huge world-wide Autobahn hit. Giorgio Moroder, who was of German descent, but born it Italy took the robotic music style of Kraftwerk and melded that into a disco sound being the producer of the Donna Summer classic, Love To Love You Baby and many other disco hits. One could not speak of the success of German bands without mentioning the global success of the heavy metal band, The Scorpions. From the 60s and through today, Germany boasts a very active and vibrant music scene.
While I was there, on one of the shopping plazas, there was a promotion going on for a particular brand of hearing aid. To support this promotion, two guys were housed in a large transparent box. Outside the box, were headphones. Once you put on the headphones, you could hear the music inside. There was a singer and a guitarist in the box. I put on the headphones and enjoyed the music which was sung in English. I knew that the two guys were German because in between songs, they spoke to each other in German to decide which song to perform in English. Music as a means of communication is universal.
When McCartney gave his now famous concert in Red Square in Russia a number of years ago, he was stunned to see that the audience knew all of his and the Beatles songs that he was performing. Young and old knew the lyrics. It turns out that during the 60s, when the wall was up; western music was banned in Russia and also East Germany. However, people smuggled in the records, made copies and an underground distribution system of western rock n roll thrived. Music and freedom is universal.
If we have learned anything from the Berlin Wall episode, its that you can build artificial barriers, but freedom and good sense will always win out in the end. Despotic political leaders will always try to subjugate the masses to force their will on the people, but in time, influences from the free side of the barrier will unite the people. Music knows no boundaries. The people who lived for all those years behind the wall still were able to hear and feel the music from the other side.

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