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FRED DE VRIES
Blixa Bargeld: Something better than death, we can always find

photos by Ali Kepenek

I feel slightly tense. Turn my head, to loosen my neck. Five times to the left, five to the right, as my physiotherapist has taught me. When I hear a small crack, I wonder if I could sample it and turn it into music.

Twenty minutes to go. At three o'clock I'll have my interview with Blixa Bargeld, founder member of Berlin post-punk metalbangers Einstürzende Neubauten, long time guitarist for Nick Cave, writer, composer, 80s survivor, artist, cook. Yes, cook too. He once made a television meal, consisting of black pasta with inky squid-sauce, accompanied by a deep red cabernet.

I stroll along Berlin's Potsdamer Strasse, looking for #93, where Blixa holds office. A taxi stops across the road. The door opens. A tall man in a grey suit steps out, into the fine drizzle. He pays and wipes a lock of hair from his eyes. He carries his guitar-case like other people would carry a brief-case. Leaving the greyness of the street behind, he disappears into the building.

I cross the road and look at the dozen or so copper door-plates of #93. One of them indicates our joint destination: Bargeld Entertainment. Commisioned Music. Emmerich. Emmerich is Blixa's real name. Good, I think, at least he's on time.

photos by Ali Kepenek Fifteen minutes later I ring the bell. The door opens. I walk into the courtyard, reach a flight of stairs, go up. Blixa's assistant is waiting for me at the door. She leads me into a dim room with red and black walls. The colours of anarchism, wine, blood, the universe. The colours of Blixa's fixations.

There's a long wooden table, black as well. On it are two glasses of water, opposite each other, as if for a duel. Three spotlights in a row work like tiny floodlights. 'Blixa will be here in a minute', promises the assistant.

I sit down. The words Blixa and Bargeld tumble in my head. It sounds perfect, Blixa Bargeld. I repeat it several times. Less proto-punk than Johnny Rotten. A name you can grow old with. Blixa, I've read, comes from a felt pen brand. Bargeld means cash. But it also refers to Johannes Theodor Baargeld, a late 19th century German Dadaist. Together with Max Ernst he established the Cologne chapter of Dada. Being the son of a banker, he used the pseudonym Baargeld.

Legend has it that it was Iggy Pop who blessed the name Blixa Bargeld. One day in the late 70s Iggy visited an exhibition in café Anderen Ufer. A young Berlin artist had displayed a white sheet with sperm. He and Iggy started talking. Iggy asked the skinny artist for his name. "Blixa Bargeld", he answered. "Oh", said Iggy, "that sounds like washing powder, but it's a good name." And he wished him all the best.

Thus Christian Emmerich became Blixa Bargeld: a narcistic speedfreak, a bag of bones with ratty hair. In his black rubber outfits he would frequent underground discos like Dschungel. Those were the days of Christiane F., the days when hanging around, being cool, coked up or speeding, brought you instant fame. Blixa was good at that.

The alter-ego had an artistic reason as well. It gave Christian the possibility to slide into the persona of a detached observer of the 'self', in whose work there was no place for sentimentality or biographical ebullitions; Blixa Bargeld as an empty shell.

*

Blixa enters the room. Under his photos by Ali Kepenek three-piece suit he's wearing a black shirt. He looks reasonably well, no longer that sickly insect of twenty years ago, and no longer the fat alcoholic who in the mid-90s fell off barstools. Substantial nose, fish-eyes, sensual mouth with a cruel touch. Although he's just back from San Francisco, he looks frighteningly grey.

A bottle of beer in his hand. For his guest there's water.

He walks towards me, shakes my hand. "So what do you want?" German accent. Sits down, leans back, feet on the table. Takes a swig from his beer. Impressive entree.

I take out my list of questions, still tense. Blixa doesn't suffer fools. He scoffs at people who don't know their facts. He also suffers from what Chekhov called 'autobiographobia', the fear to divulge things of the past that would damage a carefully constructed image. The past is banal.

So when I mention we know so little about the pre-Blixa Bargeld days, when he was still Christian Emmerich, he yawns. "My youth? There's nothing spectacular about it. Born in West-Berlin in 1959, grew up in Schöneberg. My father was a carpenter, my mother a housewife. Dropped out of school. Was at social security for the unemployed, worked on a graveyard, then in a factory, ended up being a projectionist at a cinema, then started a band when I still was a projectionist. Then did several bar jobs and got more famous. Quit my bar job and became a full time musician."

That's it. Twenty-eight seconds. Done youth.

A little more is known. He developed an interest in rock when he was twelve. Three years later he played rudimentary bass guitar. He also had an acoustic guitar, for which he got lessons. When he was eighteen, he owned an electric guitar. His first vinyl purchase was Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother. Then, influenced by his class-mate Andrew Chudy (with whom he would subsequently found Einstürzende Neubauten) he switched to German bands, Krautrock: Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!.

Blixa places Einstürzende Neubauten firmly in that Krautrock-tradition. "We were one of the first bands to deconstruct rock. In that sense we were post-modern, or early industrial band or whatever you wanna call it. But we were one of the last Krautrock bands. Neu! I regard to be one of the greatest bands ever. I preferred the Düsseldorf, Cologne scene. The only thing I liked about Berlin was Ton Steine Scherben."

'Liked' is a euphemism. Outside Germany, Ton Steine Scherben may mean very little, but in Berlin the band is of a mythical order. They were the biggest cult band of the 70s. They invented anarcho-slogans like Keine Macht für Niemand (no power to nobody) and Macht Kaputt was euch Kaputt macht (destroy what destroys you) Without the Scherben there would have been no Neubauten, and without Scherben-singer Rio Reiser there would have been no Blixa Bargeld. "It would probably have never occurred to me to sing in German if it wasn't for Rio", admitted Blixa in Der Spiegel shortly after Reiser's death in 1996.

The name Ton Steine Scherben implies 'making music to throw stones to crack capitalism'. The band took a defiant political stance, with informal contacts with terrorist organisations like Rote Armee Faktion (RAF) and Bewegung 2. Juni.

Those were the early 70s. The days of love & peace had ended. The revolution of '68 had failed. The system had fully recovered. Despair led left-wing radicals into urban guerrilla warfare. For a teenager there was something unmistakably romantic and heroic about long hairs who didn't make peace-signs but were carrying guns and subsequently crossed the fine line between violent protest and terrorism - and couldn't go back.

Says Blixa: "At the time RAF was around, there was a concurrent group here in Berlin, Bewegung 2. Juni, which was always the one we favoured. They were first nicknamed the Niggerkussbande. Because when they robbed banks they put a Negerkuss [a dark chocolate cake, literally 'Negro-kiss'] there and left. The difference was that Baader and Meinhof come from a generation before, after-war Germans, still fighting their fathers' generation. RAF, had to do with communism, while 2. Juni was anarchist. They were the black part of the black and red flag."

In Germany the border between squatters, anarchists, artists and terrorists was often very blurred. Neubauten-manager Klaus Maeck, for example, distributed RAF-statements from his shop in Hamburg. How did Blixa feel about the ultra-lefties? "I was too young anyway, but never would've joined the RAF or 2. Juni', he says. 'That's not my cup of tea. I was more interested in terrorism as a media phenomenon and the cracks in reality that it created. I was a communist when I was going to school."

As soon as he left school, Blixa said goodbye to Maoism. Daily life, he realized, didn't go hand in hand with endless discussions about class struggle. "It's easy to be in grammar-school and say you're a communist. After school when I was unemployed, on social security and without a flat, I got really political, with the squatter-movement."

The first political squatting in Berlin took place in 1971, in Mariannestrasse 13. In the early eighties there were about 300 bastions, often decorated with pirate flags, loud graffiti and wild slogans. Berlin became 'squatter capital' of Europe; the Ton Steine Scherben-hit Macht kaputt was euch kaputt macht became the battle cry. Einstürzende Neubauten used sound recordings of riots on the album Haus der Lüge (1989).

After Berlin became the capital of a re-united Germany in 1990, the squats were cleared or legalised. But Einstürzende Neubauten survived. They now look a bit like a refurbished squat: not as fierce and threatening as before, but still standing proud. Bloodied but unbowed. As an alternative rock-band or as a subversive force?

v Blixa thinks for a while, then says that the band has stayed true to its artistic principles, but hasn't succeeded in truly undermining the music industry. "From the path from right down anarchism to being subversive we have not come much closer to the mainstream."

The romantic notion of a parallel universe in which alternative bands kick against the pricks, and try to stay completely autonomous, doesn't excite Blixa. It's a world that's possibly even more short-sighted than the mainstream, like over-zealous vegans. "Independent bands get criticized as soon as they make one thing different from the previous one. It's: hey, you've weakened down, or softened, or sold out. Meanwhile the mainstream is still the same shit. And it will always be shit."

Shit. The word resounds, hangs in the air like a lead balloon. Is an advert for a jeans label not shit? That 28 seconds jingle for Jordache which Neubauten recorded in 1988 and put on the compilation Strategies against Architecture II - with the subtitle sellout. So ironic.

"We did that because they paid us", explains Blixa. "For us it wasn't peanuts. We were always poor. I didn't think it was a big thing to do radio advertising for a jeans company. We didn't get a lot of flak. The ad is more popular because we put it on a record. I don't think anybody noticed it before."

I tell him about young Berliners I've met the last couple of days, who invariably criticise Blixa and Neubauten. They say the band has sold out. They find Blixa complacent and note that he seems to be very at ease with the champagne crowd at art openings. They reproach the band for a lack of radicalism. Blixa, they sneer, is no longer a rebel but a dandy.

"That's always a great thing to say", retorts Blixa. "The people who say you're not political enough are the ones who have no problems listening to Street Fighting Man or White Riot, thinking that is political. It sounds political, but they are in the same kind of distribution and pop culture mechanisms as everybody else. Ton Steine Scherben founded their own record label. That was difficult in 1970. Record labels were in the grip of major companies. Now that is political to me. It's not political to just sing about street fighting and fuck the system."

And Neubauten?

"If you would look at what Neubauten have done: we are our own record company. We've been fucked by the industry many times. But we've tried to do whatever we could to stay independent. We are independent! We can make the records the way we want, and when we want them, because we are not signed to any major label."

Of course, he agrees, being subversive entails more than keeping control. But he still finds more integrity with Neubauten than with most other bands. "When Neubauten started, we came out of the squatting movement. The living situation in Berlin was catastrophic. The squatter-movement was then the biggest political tremor in Germany. It was a time of demonstrations, of solidarity, of streetfights, which we all have taken part in. We supported free concerts. But I don't like calling the activity of a band playing or supporting squatter-concerts a very political thing. Our choice of instrumentation was much more of a political statement. Our denial of working within normal structures or with normal setups and equipment, was much more political."

Any momentous incidents? Blixa thinks for a few seconds, then tells an anecdote about the first time Neubauten played in Eastern Europe. It was in the city of Pilsen in former Czechoslovakia. "There was maximum security, with police and dogs and everything. It was one German band, then a Czech band, then a German band, then a Czech band. The audience was throwing stones at the Czech band, who were kind of like Alphaville in silver costumes. They hated them, all the East German punks who had made it to Pilsen. They started mayhem. And we supported the mayhem.

"We were banned from the backstage area. We were put on stage with our equipment, surrounded by police. We never played one note. First we were separated from the stage, then put on a bus, still surrounded by police. I eventually wrote a message and handed it out of the window to a guy breaking through the barrier, who ran away with it."

He gulps down some beer. "The next time Neubauten played the Czech Republic, after the Velvet Revolution, they had a huge press conference and somebody presented me that note which I had handed out. It said: 'They don't let us play and throw us out, not because of us but because of you'. They did get it right. It was not because of what we did, but because what they did."

Blixa smiles and apologises. Time for the loo.

So far, he has turned out to be a pleasant interlocutor. Not exactly warm or affectionate, but certainly not haughty or bored. Every now and then he laughs out loud. I look at my list with questions. We have hardly spoken about Bargeld the artist. Nor about his influences. And then there's the Big Subject: Love.

*

From the early days when they were banging away in a basement under a freeway, to the recent interactive recording with fans, Einstürzende Neubauten have always tried to be unpredictable and elusive. Even when Depeche Mode had a huge hit sampling Neubauten-sounds on People are People, the Germans didn't blink an eye.

Or did they? Did they never want a hit single?

Blixa returns, fresh bottle of beer in his hand. I ask if I can have some water. "Sure", he grins. "As much as you want."

Of course Blixa wanted a hit single. Especially when he saw how easily Nick Cave surfed the charts with Where the Wild Roses Grow, his duet with Kylie Minogue. A hit opens the doors to a different world: TV pop shows, new fans, money. The hunger for a hit almost meant the end of the band.

Let's rewind, to 1996, to the endless recordings of EndeNeu. We find the band in the Hansa-studios in Berlin. Blixa has locked himself in a room. He's struggling with a gigantic writer's-block. Everything is stuck: him, the band, the recording. The machine has come to a grinding halt. It's all directionless and powerless. They have reached the end, or so it seems.

One morning, after days of isolation, Blixa thinks he has found the key to break out of the deadlock. He has composed Stella Maris, and will sing that as a duet with actress Meret Becker. It has a sweet tune. Could be a hit. Bit like Nick and Kylie.

The other Neubauten, Alex Hacke and R.U.Unruh, are glad that things are moving again, and duly play their parts. But muscleman Mufti, the main metal-banger, only comes in late that evening. He listens to the song, mumbles 'oh well, that turned out to be something', turns around and leaves. Never to come back.

A few months later he phones and announces his departure from Neubauten. "I never really questioned why", says Blixa. "But I'm sure he wanted to do something different from what I wanted to do."

Mufti himself said in an internet interview that he had left the band because 'he couldn't bleed for Neubauten anymore'. To him it had become an institution.

photos by Ali Kepenek Maybe he was right, maybe Einstürzende Neubauten had become formulaic. In the beginning, gigs were like free-jazz: nothing was planned, there was no practicing. Blixa: "We just went on stage and played. I improvised the lyrics. I made up my skeleton, phrasing around something and developing it live on stage in different ways every evening. Some of it made it on a record."

The second album Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T. (1983) was completely improvised. Blixa compares it to automatic writing, an almost psychotherapeutic technique which is related to grubbing in the subconscious. "It's tricky. Because as everything that has to do with the subconscious, it does not really want to be there. So you have to try harder and harder. And the harder you try, the more difficult it gets. There were really bad states during the recording of O.T., where I thought I had lost my soul, because I was trying so hard and nothing came out."

A performance artist can possibly maintain such a technique, but for a touring rock-band it's impossible. "The repetition is the problem", says Blixa. "The pure excitement of going on stage once in a lifetime and playing to an audience would have been enough for me. But going on tour and doing it on a nightly basis really makes it harder. Most people then start taking whatever loosens the tongue, whatever makes the words fall out of their subconsciousness. That's what I did too. It worked for a while. But the subconscious is not stupid, it makes it even more difficult. Then I started writing things down."

Eventually this method resulted in proper songs. Improvisation disappeared into the background.

Since the departure of Mufti, it's Blixa and only Blixa who's the centre of attention. In the 80s he was the emaciated punk with spiky hair and leather pants. Now he's an ageing gentleman in a suit, with hair that seems glued to his face. He's pathetic, theatrical, with more than a whiff of Marlene Dietrich. The German journalist Karin Aderhold put him firmly in the German tradition of 'Weltschmerz and the desire for a devouring, romantic love, which is pure, noble and innocent'.

When I read him that quote, Blixa listens impassively. "Which is Novalis. Die blaue Blume, which is basically a minor work by him. Other things he has written are much more interesting. But yes, that tradition as well. Also German Krautrock and electronica. And in a larger bowl it would be Dada and the Surrealists. Larger it would go back to the German romantics. And if you would go even larger, I'm sure you would find more subversive activities that go back to the antique times."

OK, let's forget about Achilles and Prometheus, and jump to the Situationists. That radical, international group of drinkers and thinkers, led by the Frenchman Guy Debord, who were partly responsible for the '68 Paris Revolution. Blixa shakes his head. Has only recently discovered them. "I didn't know anything about them, although I had heard of Guy Debord. Actually I used the same sentence as Debord: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni [from Salamandrina]. He made a film with that title. I wasn't aware of that."

I push on. I suggest that the Situationists looked for ways to beat the 'Society of the Spectacle', so as to avoid the colonisation of the mind. Drunkenness and love were two escape routes. The Situationists felt an affinity with the French writer/poet Aragon who saw love as the key to making humans irrational and lawless. 'In love... in love there resides an outlaw principle, an irrepressible sense of delinquency, contempt for prohibitions and a taste for havoc', he wrote in Paris Peasant.

I mention that love has played an increasing role in Blixa's lyrics. I add that the first verse of Dingsaller from Silence is Sexy (2000) is pure Situationism. It puts love above the law. 'Über die Liebenden gibt es kein Gesetz/ Unter den Liebenden zählt die Regel nicht/ Wegen die Liebenden gibt es Möglichkeit/ Und ohne die Liebenden lohnt die Suche nicht'.

Blixa looks at me, mockingly. Love more powerful than the law? "Yeah, well" he says. "That sounds like New Testament to me. But sure, I haven't met anyone who doesn't give this the highest priority. I'm sure there are people around, but I don't necessarily want to be their acquaintance."

Love, it turns out, is a tricky subject. Blixa does agree that 'nothing is worth anything without love', but denies that the yearning of the heart is playing a more prominent role in his lyrics. "No, absolutely not. It took me, with my punk attitude, quite a while to mention it, to hit the word on its head, that word, the famous four letter word. But it has been in there all the time. Sehnsucht is on the first record. And Schwarz is probably the first love song we've written. Oh no, on the first double single there's already two love songs. Aufrecht gehen is one of them. So it has been there all the time."

He also denies that the more explicit pointers to love in his later work stem from a gentleness and melancholia that comes with the years. He stresses it all boils down to composition. "Around the time of Tabula Rasa (1993), the music we released became more and more song structured. Before, they were pieces - in the best experimental and Deutschrock tradition. It is imminent in song structure to follow one or the other thread, a communication that is possible within that structure. One of the most adorable and achievable is the love song. It's not the theme of a song, but the form. The song that is creating a communicable universe from A to B, for two persons living within the song. Again: that is form, not content. So the invention for us of song structures created more love songs. It's the ultimate of what you can achieve as intimacy within a song."

I push on. Isn't love the ultimate possibility of subversion and autonomy in a world where autonomy becomes more and more elusive?

Interesting idea, smiles Blixa, but it's not at all like that. "Keine Schönheit ohne Gefahr is considered to be one of our love songs as well, because it's the first one where the word Liebe is sung with all might. It was based on Alex [Hacke] playing two guitar feedbacks. It was anything but beautiful during all the rehearsal times."

I frown. Maybe a straightforward question will do the job. How does he see love?

Blixa: "It doesn't last..."

He empties his bottle of beer and belches.

Booze and love. For the interviewer still only water though. And I'm dying for some alcohol. That moment is near, because Blixa is getting restless. He has to cook for some friends tonight. One more question.

I read to him: "You said in 1982 that one day you would like to know the benefits of your endeavours."

He gets up, walks around the table, picks up my sheet and reads. "Endeavours? What's that?" Actually, he prefers the next sentence on the page, which says: 'Writer Maggie Estep compared attending a Neubauten show with a dangerous love affair.'

He grins. "Which is exactly what I had with her after the interview."

Yeah, that was pretty obvious, I reply.

Blixa, still grinning. "You could read that between the lines of the article, yes."

But that wasn't the question. The question was about the benefits of all those endeavours, two decades on.

"Well," says Blixa, sitting down again, "I wouldn't know what I'd have done if I had not done this, so it's better I've done this."

Then he remembers something. "There's a fairytale of Grimm called the Bremer Stadtmusikanten. There's this old donkey who's to be put to sausage. But he has a premonition and runs away. He goes down the road and next he comes across this dog who is not really fit anymore. Then comes a cat… I don't know, there's five of them. I think there's a goat in between. They become an orchestra and they all stand together and say: 'Etwas besseres als der Tod können wir allemal finden'."

Something better than death, we can always find.