I’ve arranged to meet Casey at Zoologischer Garten, the big main train station in the West, as we think that the West Berliners will have more money to give out. I head over there, noticing again the marked difference as you go from the Eastern into the Western part of the city. Zoologischer Garten station is full. East Berlin still feels like a backwater, even when it’s full of people. It’s more subdued, as if the years of totalitarianism have made the people quieter, warier of expressing themselves in any way. The clothes even are less bright. Zoologischer Garten is somehow a relief when I get out of the train there. It’s packed full of people and I realise that I’m returning to the West. East Berlin, even though the wall’s been down now for a couple of years, just isn’t Western Europe.
I walk happily through the throng, the brightly coloured clothes and the backpacks of young people alighting or waiting for their train, the thousand different dialects and languages all around me. I walk out into the sunshine and walk down the street. There’s a sense of urgency here that is lacking just ten kilometres across the city to the east. I look up and see the broken remains of a church, as if it had just been bombed. It’s weird to see among the multitude of modern shops and buildings. I notice the time and turn and stroll back to the station. We’ve arranged to meet outside the Pizza Hut which I now see is by the main doors and as I walk up I see Casey standing outside it, leaning up against the glass, reading a paperback.
„What’re you reading?“ I say when I’ve stood for a moment as yet unnoticed in front of her.
She looks up and fixes me with a stare. „On the Road,“ she says.
„Ah,“ I say knowleadgeably.
„Yeah, I mean I’ve read it obviously, like at kindergarten, but it’s good to reread from time to time, you know?“
I nod. „Yup. Do that myself.“
„Reread On the Road“?
„Er, no….but, I mean, reread other books.“ I say lamely.
„You have read it, right?“ she asks me.
„Yeah course, at kindergarten, or well shortly thereafter…“ I stop. „Okay, no, actually I haven’t read it.“
„Well, I mean, I know who he is obviously, and, well, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading him, you know, just haven’t got there yet.“
She shakes her head.“No Grateful Dead, no Kerouac…man, you’re a babe in the woods!“ she says with a laugh.
„Well, I’ve read – and listened to – other stuff, you know,“ I say. I don’t want to start talking about cliché because what I read and listen to and think is probably cliché to someone else, it’s all I suppose relative…and, I admit to myself, because I’m standing with a very pretty American girl who likes me, is going to sing with me, is going to help me launch my new street music career, and, let’s face it, who I deep down hope I can get into bed at some point.
She closes the book and gives it to me. „Here. Read it. I don’t need it right now…well, not as much as you do…“
She grins jokily.
I smile and tuck the paperback into my back pocket. „Okay. Thanks for the education. I’ll give you something too, later…“
There’s a sudden moment of awkwardness as we look at each other – I’m sure I’m blushing – and then she claps her hands and says brightly, “Right! Where do you want to do this – here or – I was thinking maybe at the entrance to the Europa Center there….”
“Yeah, big mall here. Well, big for Berlin, you know…”Suddenly she is all business.
”Lead the way,” I say.
She walks through the throng with me behind her. All at once I begin to feel nervous. I only busked once before, with a saxophone that I hadn’t yet learned to play, in Nottingham in England. Took me two hours to make a pound. Which I had to pay for the car park.
We stop outside some double doors over which stands the name “Europa Centre” and look around. “Are you nervous?” I ask her nervously.
She laughs suddenly.”Yeah! You too?”
I laugh too. “Yep….come on, let’s just do it.”
So I put my guitar case on the ground, we throw a couple of coins on it and I tune up. I look at Casey, she looks back at me and then I start strumming. I wait for her to join in. The guitar isn’t that loud in the busy street but the sound carries enough for people walking into the Europa Centre to hear it. I watch the people walk past, workers on their lunch break mingled in with the tourists.
No one looks at us. Casey starts singing. She sounds okay and after a couple of minutes she feels more confident and her voice picks up. After we finish the first song I start on the next one and we look at each other. She smiles vaguely back at me.
We get to the end of the second song and no one has even looked at us, never mind given us any money. But I’m having fun, now that the stage fright, or I suppose pavement fright, has gone. We keep strumming and singing, and after a while I improvise some chords and Casey hums along and then improvises some words too, about free love and sunshine and then about the people walking past us. With the improvement in our mood a few more people look at us but no one gives us anything.
After ten or fifteen minutes like this Casey motions me to stop. “Well it’ s fun, but we’re not makin’ anything,” she says.
I nod. “That’s true.” Actually I’m really enjoying this – getting out playing in front of people for a change is different from sitting in my room and playing, and I’m getting a buzz off it. It’d be nice to be making some money but I’m not so bothered. Then I think, well, if I’m going to try and make enough to live on from doing this, I’d better figure out how to do it properly.
“Okay. What do you suggest?”
“Let’s change our pitch. There’re always some people playing on the steps of the old church, why don’t we try that?”
I assume she means the church I’d seen before I met her…it strikes me that if other people are playing there we’re less likely to make money there rather than more likely, but I don’t say anything, at this moment I’m happy, following this pretty American hippy girl around in the sunshine in West Berlin singing.
We walk down the main road a while. In front of us is the huge ruined church – the entire roof of it is missing, and it’s completely incongruous here in the middle of the main shopping drag in the middle of West Berlin.”Did you know…” Casey begins, then breaks off with a smile and says,”…yeah, well, this church got bombed in the war, and instead of clearing it away, they left it just as it was, as a memorial. It’s pretty cool huh?”
I nod, looking up at it. It is pretty cool.
I look down along the street and as the tide of pedestrians opens up I see the steps she’s talking about – three long steps that run almost the entire length of the street up to the church, leading to a plaza that’s four feet higher than the street. Ranged along the steps are a long line of what looks like every type of casual street activity you could think of: I see people selling teeshirts, people begging, a whole band of African drummers sitting on their instruments, portrait artists with their easels and their wares,old Turkish women in shawls, young American tourist kids, scrawny East European kids, a cross-section of urban Europe.
I look at her and shrug. “It looks cool as a place to hang out…I’m not sure if we’ll make money there though….”
“Yeah, well let’s check it out.”
We stroll along among the circus, and when we come to an empty couple of feet Casey gives me the nod and we stop. I step onto the first step and tune my guitar. Then I start playing. Casey starts singing. There’s so much going on around us that no one really notices us, apart from a couple of street kids who are ogling Casey. She smiles benignly at them. Then she starts to dance, arms waving, generic hippy dancing but getting into it. A couple of men in suits on their lunch break walking by smile at her and she smiles back. One comes back and drops a coin onto the case.
Yes! Our first drop! I’m absurdly excited by this. The first money I’ve made playing on the street in Berlin! I start to play a little more funkily and Casey steps up her dancing, grinning up at me. Two of the African guys from the drum band who’re not playing wander over. They stand and watch, moving a little to the beat. I love the fact that I’m playing here, on the street in Berlin, having two African drummers and a cute Californian dancing to what I’m playing, and the sun shining down.
After a few minutes one of them drops something into the guitar case and then starts talking to Casey, who’s still dancing but stopped singing. She chats back to him as she dances. He says something and she laughs and shakes her head. He laughs too and wanders off with his friend. I stop playing as Casey walks over to me. “That was fun,” she says, out of breath.
I look down at the guitar case. Just the one Deutschmark that the suit guy threw in and what I see is not a coin but a little twist of paper. “Yeah, it’s fun, but we’re not going to get rich this way.”
She nods.”I see your point.” Then she leans down and picks up the little twist of paper. “Sweet. Mr. Drummer gave us a joint. C’mon, let’s grab a beer and roll this up.”
I agree. I pack up the guitar and we wander off in search of a takeaway where we can buy a couple of the little cold bottles of Berliner beer, my first Berlin busking experience behind me.
Random extract from the Berlin Diaries by Noel Maurice, out in Autumn 2014.
Noel Maurice is one of the founders of indieberlin. Originally from the UK via a childhood in Johannesburg, he has been resident in Berlin since 1991. Describing himself as a ‘recovering musician’, he is the author of The Berlin Diaires, a trilogy detailing the East Berlin art and squat scene of the early 90s, available on Amazon and through this site.