Anton Newcombe, leader of the psych-rock band The Brian Jonestown Massacre, is one of my more unlikely acquaintances in Berlin. His recording studio is just a few blocks from my apartment, north-west of Nordbahnhof, where affluent Mitte begins to meld with the predominantly Turkish, working-class neighbourhood of Wedding. I sometimes cycle there for a late afternoon tea with him.
I have a choice of three routes – one of 1.3 kilometres, two of 2.4 kilometres. On most days, I opt for the shortest – through a maze of cobbled and blacktop backstreets either side of Invalidenstrasse, between refurbished 19th-century altbau, brutish neo-Soviet tenements, and 21st-century new builds with wide, multi-glazed windows and steel-framed terraces. But one of the long routes – and the straightest, north-west along Gartenstrasse from Torstrasse, then south-west on Liesenstrasse – is an opportunity to ride the perimeter of Berlin’s history.
A kilometre-long stretch of the Berlin Wall once ran up Gartenstrasse, close to where I live. From just north of Invalidenstrasse to an old iron railway bridge over a roundabout at the beginning of Liesenstrasse, it created a ‘death strip’ on the East German side that was every bit as infamous as the one along Bernauer Strasse, which Gartenstrasse meets at a corner that is now part of die Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, the Berlin Wall Memorial. A section of the wall also ran along Liesenstrasse and fragments of it, decayed, graffitied concrete overgrown with unruly vines, are still standing there. The railway bridge was one of the few that crossed from East Berlin to west and wary border guards of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik would train machine-guns on the rolling stock.
Anton’s studio is a converted, single-storey coach house at the rear of an altbau, on a quiet street that was the northern-most of East Berlin’s city centre, a block from the Chausseestrasse/Reinickendorfer Strasse ‘gate’ or border checkpoint.
The last time I was there, on a dull, rainy afternoon last week, the Canadian singer, Tess Parks, was putting the finishing touches on an album.
Set at the rear of a courtyard cluttered with bicycles, the studio itself is weird and Tardis-like but welcoming, especially in the middle of a dismal Berlin winter. The walls of the large living and dining area are blood red. Antlered skulls and a gilt-framed painting of a nativity scene frame the sky blue walls and yellow door frames of the adjacent hallway. A large, sculptural collage that suggests an American flag hangs on the longest wall, alongside a commemorative plate featuring a head and shoulders profile of Pope John XXIII, and a framed portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. There’s also a large blue butterfly under glass. On a wooden trunk beneath the collage there’s an ornate but tatty faux-mother-of-pearl accordion and an ugly piece of taxidermy, a stuffed weasel baring its fangs on a length of desiccated tree branch. Opposite, the narrow window ledges are like voodoo altars, filled with pot plants, wax skulls, kitschy statues, toys, African and Arabic-like busts, Polaroid instant photos and odd pieces of bone, shell, and porcelain.
There are a couple of worn-out replicas of a ’60s Scandinavian-modern sofa but most visitors sit at a pine table that takes up half the room.
The last time I was there, on a dull, rainy afternoon last week, the Canadian singer, Tess Parks, was putting the finishing touches on an album. Tess was at the table, sipping tea, and leafing through pages of handwritten lyrics in a notebook. With her was Joe Dilworth, a Berlin-based English photographer and bookshop proprietor, also well-known as a musician, who was waiting for the rain to stop so he could photograph Tess for the album cover. Anton, and his engineer, a large Liverpudlian woman named Andrea, fussed over a detail of a mix in the sound-proofed room next door. When Anton took a break, he chatted with Joe about instrumental effects on obscure mid-’90s recordings and fingered through the clutter on the table – scraps of notepaper, discarded biscuit wrappers (chocolate digestives), Indian bead necklaces, and coiled, unused guitar strings – to find a crumpled pack of cigarettes. It was empty.
A couple of hours passed, during which, somehow, random strands of a four-way conversation were started, discarded and picked up again as Anton dubbed a new guitar track, Tess laid down her vocals and Joe loaded 6×6 black and white film into a vintage Rollei twin lens reflex before leading Tess out to the courtyard for her portraits.
The rain eased. Joe and I took our leave. I risked the rush-hour traffic on nearby Chausseestrasse to take the second of the longer routes home. The bike lane was blocked by construction work outside the foreboding 30-acre complex that is the new headquarters of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service). I was forced out into the road to cycle close, too close, alongside an accelerating tram. At the cobbled turn-off into Tieckstrasse, opposite the Dorotheenstadt cemetery, where Bertolt Brecht lies beside his second wife, the actress Helen Weigel, just a few feet from the philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a too-sweet scent of shisha wafted from a gaudy Turkish bar. It hung in the damp air like cheap gauze.
‘A New Map of Berlin’ is a series of dispatches by C.C O’Hanlon, in words and photographs, from his exploration of the city on a bike.
Image credit: Kleine Rosenthaler Strasse, Mitte, 2017 by Finn Lafcadio O’Hanlon.