Essay Thought
Essay Thought
Karl Marx Allee

I've taken an apartment in Berlin. It's in the district of Friedrichshain in former East Berlin, just east of Mitte and north of Kreuzberg (the demarcation line -- where the wall used to run -- is the silvery Spree). My new place is on the Karl Marx Allee, formerly known as the Stalinallee.

In 1949 Stalin turned 70. In celebration, the Frankfurter Allee, the road by which, four years earlier, the Red Army had entered Berlin, was renamed the Stalinallee and dubbed 'the first Socialist road of Germany'. The Stalinallee became a propaganda centrepiece, 'the foundation stone of socialism in the capital of Germany'. In 1952 construction work began to transform the rubble left by firestorms and Allied bombing into a gargantuan socialist boulevard fit for heroes.

A six-lane tree-studded highway was flanked on either side by huge ceramic-fronted apartment buildings in a style seldom seen west of Leningrad. Two socialist skyscrapers in 'sugar baker' style stood like sentries at the Frankfurter Tor. Reports from a radio station installed at Weberweise followed the construction work and announced that 'worker palaces' were being created. Working class families signed up for flats designed to showcase the high standard of living enjoyed by ordinary people under East German socialism. Balconies, bath-equipped bathrooms (quite a coup at the time), elevators, ceramic tiling, and marble staircases -- no expense was spared.

Stalin died in 1953. In 1956 Krushchev made a 'secret speech' at the 20th Party Congress, criticising Stalin for his crimes and personality cult. In 1961 the Stalinallee was split into two, with one half reverting to its original name of Frankfurter Allee and the other half being renamed Karl Marx Allee. All monuments and busts of Stalin along the avenue disappeared overnight. In their place came new monuments -- the Cosmos Cinema, for example, a boxy, domed structure with colourful tiles built in 1962, which manages to evoke both the Soviet space program and Montag's fire station in 'Fahrenheit 451'.

The Neighbours

An exhibition on the Frankfurter Allee documents the lives and flats of elderly East German workers who have lived in this 'homeland of heroes' since the 50s. Their flats are often magnificently kitsch, decorated with ornate cuckoo clocks, lace doilies, sewing machines, cheap electronic home keyboards. This makes me wonder whether they haven't weathered the Stalinallee's own transition to post-communist kitsch rather well. For these days the 'sugar baker' buildings, still cheap (my 64 square metre two room flat is $600 a month, including hot water and heating), are attracting new residents, 'westies' and 'yuppis' drawn by the proximity of both Mitte (restored to its former glory as the centre and soul of Berlin) and Friedrichshain, the new district of choice for students, squatters, clubbers and style victims.

For the young people streaming into the area, socialism is nothing more than a distant memory, a warm fuzzy glow. When I signed the lease on my 'Stalinbau' flat, the man from GEGEWO (a letting agency evolved from the old socialist workers' housing allocation bureau) proudly handed me a glossy brochure which vaunted the Stalinallee's socialist pedigree as if it were a Palm Beach condo and Stalinism its sea, sex and sun.


And now I'm selling you the same schtick. Nostalgia for the Cold War! Has it come to this? Are bio-terrorism, Islamic jihad and the prospect of endless bullying mini-wars on the part of the sole remaining hyperpower so horrific that we're running for comfort back to the world of Strangelove, MAD and the Berlin Wall; the good old days of the ever-threatened universal nuclear holocaust? ('We'll all go together when we go!' as mathematician-satirist Tom Lehrer put it.)

I certainly feel a glow of pride when I tell people my new address. Karl-Marx-Allee just rings with radical chic, doesn't it? Is there a Karl Marx Street in London? Well, they should have renamed Greek Street Karl Marx Street, since he lived there with his whole family stuffed into two tiny, unhygienic rooms while he was writing 'Das Kapital' (if only he'd lived long enough to sign up for the fruits of his philosophy, a luxurious workers' showcase apartment with good plumbing and a balcony in Berlin!) But of course they didn't. Neither are any streets in Highgate, where Marx lies buried, named after him. And, although Paris has its streets of communards and a subway station called Stalingrad, you certainly won't find any Karl Marx Streets in American cities. Marxism remains taboo in the land where tax breaks for the rich and the endless erosion of state support for the old and the poor pass for sound economic and social policy.

The Caretaker

My new song 'The Last Communist', written in Tokyo, becomes super-topical now I'm moving to Berlin, and particularly to the Karl-Marx-Allee. The song, described at length here, presents a caretaker who's been left alone in an emblematic building symbolising 'the Soviet Union', that disappeared state. He firmly believes that people will come back to live in 'this promise', the unfinished experiment in human organisation represented by the socialist project. And so he's keeping the building clean, ready for the return of 'the people':

I like it here
I like it fine
The radiator's warm
The bus is on time

And health care is free
A job is for life
The caretaker is me
I'm switching on the lights...

The caretaker really is me. My moral sense has been profoundly marked by Marxism. I believe in capitalism, sure, but I believe in an international framework of legislation which monitors and tempers the market system, making it more just, defensible and sustainable, giving it the conscience and the longterm vision it tends to lack left to its own devices.

I do believe there will be a return in the 21st century to many of the values brainstormed by socialists and communists. (My 'last communist' also describes himself as 'the first communist', because this experiment has only just begun.) The new communism will, of course, be mixed with capitalism. It'll be commucapitalism. The social organisation you see in China shows one way this kind of hybrid might work, and the European Union another. Both the EU and China are due to overtake the GDP of the USA within the next dozen years. There is Marxism-Leninism deep in the DNA of both of these emerging superstates.

Hatred of communism, still the dominant trait of US Republicans formed intellectually during the Cold War, will ensure that semi-socialist superpowers like the EU and China will remain the ultimate anaethema for hawkish Republicans. The current scuffles with terrorists and Islamic revolutionary states are a mere sideshow designed to demonstrate US power, ruthlessness and resolve. We, the Europeans and the Chinese, are the real threat.

Missing America

Shuttling between Paris and Berlin recently, I've had a lot of time to gaze out of train windows and ponder things. At a time when the premier of my homeland seems intent on turning our island into US Airstrip One, cutting it, like an aircraft carrier for hire to a hostile power, further adrift from Europe, I began thinking about my cultural orientation, not just in the sense of where I feel I come from and where I feel I fit in, but about the geo-cultural landscape I've created in my records. And the figure in the carpet seems to be 'missing America'.

In my records the cultural topography is Europe-centric, yet I've been working in an era when the world has been dominated, economically and culturally, by America. Although I lived there for two years and made an album about its folk culture, America is shockingly absent from my records. It's conspicuously missing.

'Circus Maximus' is about ancient Greece and Rome. America not yet invented. 'The Poison Boyfriend' is full of Islington girls in 'bolshevik glasses and black', the terrorists of Ireland and the Piazza Fontana (and of course the Red Brigades were the theme of my pre-Momus album 'The Man On Your Street'). 'Tender Pervert' dwells on Soviet ice skaters and Japanese homosexuals. North Africa makes an appearance in songs like 'Monsters of Love', 'The Charm of Innocence' and 'In The Sanatorium' (it's a North Africa seen through the lens of French writers). The references (and my songs are almost entirely made up of references) to America can be counted on the fingers of one hand: there's some 'Louisiana creole music' in 'The Cabriolet'. There's 'the wrath that Charles Bronson let loose on the Lower East Side' in 'What Will Death Be Like?' But mostly, overwhelminging, my songs play out their narratives in Europe, the Mediterranean (still, in Momus, 'the middle of the world'), and Japan.

The Barometric Mr Bowie

It's not hard to explain why this is. Firstly, I'm a European. Secondly, it became fashionable to notice this. Britain's marginality and American cultural imperialism made the simple, geo-cultural fact of being European feel somehow glamourous and transgressive. Denatured by endless episodes of Starsky and Hutch, it felt both alienating and liberating to immerse yourself in Goethe.

And all the while my European-ness -- romantic and infused with otherness -- became more actual, more factual. The EEC and the EU were created. The most innovative pop music was coming out of Europe -- Kraftwerk, punk, synthpop. David Bowie, typical of his generation when he said in the mid-70s that 'America had colonised a whole expanse of my imagination', moved in 1976 to Berlin, sick of LA, needing to kick a potentially fatal coke habit. His 'Berlin trilogy' redrew the cultural map, resonating through countless albums by zeitgeist-defining artists like Japan, Ultravox, and Gary Numan.

In the 70s German New Wave was the most exciting thing happening in cinema, and the influence of Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders filtered into Joy Division, the Cure, the Comsat Angels and all the other 'miserabilist' groups dominating the British music scene. It felt like a style gaffe, back in the early 80s, to make reference to America. Even when Bowie 'went commercial' with his 'Let's Dance' album, he shot the videos in Australia, not America. The landscape of songs by groups like The Scars, Josef K, The Associates, the Fire Engines -- my Scottish peer group -- was mittel-European: the references were to Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Germany, Italy. The Fire Engines were typical. One of their mini-albums was titled 'Aufgeladen und Bereit fur Action und Spass'. The band, agitprop art school Marxists, originally called themselves The Dirty Reds. Later they morphed into Win, whose first single put things in a nutshell: 'This is an un-American broadcasting'.

The Scottish east coast bands looked east to Brussels and Berlin. Meanwhile, there were people over on the west coast of Scotland looking westwards; my own cousin Justin Currie with his band Del Amitri, Roddy Frame with his Buffalo Springfield fixation, or Orange Juice hung up on Al Green. As the 80s wore on, America crept back (by 'Never Let Me Down' cultural barometer Bowie was singing mediocre songs about being 'stuck in some high dollar joint somewhere'; by now nobody was listening). But Momus records continued to look east. 'Hippopotamomus' focuses on the Michelin man, Marguerite Duras, Gainsbourg. 'Voyager' is abstract and spiritual, an album of travel which rides with the conquistadors, pushes east towards Siberia and north to the Arctic. 'The Ultraconformist' spends time in the past, a Vorticist cabaret version of London, 1910. 'Timelord' marks the beginning of the heavy Japanese influence that will mark Momus productions for the rest of the 90s, with Shibuya becoming the cultural epicentre.

The Inner American

There's this thing we all have, the inner American. Because America is a synthetic state made up of relatively recent immigrants, it fosters in its citizens a two-tier identity. You have your original identity as 'arriving other' (you're a post-Norwegian amongst the post-Norwegians of Minneapolis, for instance), and you have your synthetic identity as 'an American'. Now, as the American empire spread through the 20th century, this two-tier identity system was generalised. People all over the world developed an 'inner American' which could be invoked by Hollywood movies, moonwalks, theme parks, slushy ballads. (It seems to have been aspirational, cultural products which invoked it. Nobody's inner American was invoked by the sight of a vast, tinny, finned American automobile.)

The crucial difference between Americans with an inner American and people in other parts of the world with an inner American is obvious: only those in America were enjoying American standards of living, and only those in America were able to vote in American elections. Imagine what a liberal and kind America we'd have now if all the inner Americans worldwide could have voted in actual American elections! The country would certainly have swung left instead of right, and developed a conscientious foreign policy. As it was, they -- we -- had taxation (in the form of a strong compulsion to purchase American cultural products) without representation. Some of us felt this was unfair, and felt that the very least we could do was exercise our right to be from the places we were actually from. Or even pick and choose from other places, and aspire to other notional nationalities than the prescribed American one. Some of us started turning a deaf inner ear to our implanted 'inner American'.

Eye of the Storm

It's only in 2000, with my move to New York, that I finally succumb to America. But by this time I've perfected my protection against the inner, ideological America. I'm so secure in my identity as an 'unAmerican' that I'm able to play with America. I find this playfulness, this disrespect, ironically gives me a lot of common ground with my fellow New York Americans (artists, dissidents). We're all triumphing over conditioning. My 'American album', 'Folktronic', is cavalier in its treatment of the charisma of this great world power. In 'Folktronic' America is a funny folksy place of crab apple Grandma Moses dolls, Scottish-Irish electro-hillbillies and HTML folk heroes. It's misconstrued and misremembered. Deliberately.

In spectacles devised for sophisticated American audiences, like the 'Electronics In The 18th Century' series at the Knitting Factory, I began to incarnate a neo-baroque European eccentric. The absence of American imagery didn't seem to put Americans off at all -- it probably added to the intriguing 'otherness' of the world mapped in my songs. I was helping my audience to discover their inner Japanese-European. I was returning the imperialist favour, allowing Americans the fascination of reconstruing their own culture as something alien, bizzare and fascinating.

'Folktronic' was a European's take on America, a bizarre travel guide written by an unreliable De Tocqueville or Munchausen, perhaps as intriguing in its distortions of the real America as the 'Japan Explained' guides written by foreigners and intended for tourists, but consumed avidly by the Japanese themselves. Synthetic or secondhand landscapes are, after all, the most suitable ones for the propagation of national myths.

Meanwhile, living in Manhattan's Chinatown, what I experienced in my daily life in America was a marked absence of 'America'. In London I'd been oppressed by the replacement of British cafes, shops and cinemas by Starbucks, Borders, McDonald's and Hollywood multiplexes. But living in Manhattan I had Chinese cafes, Jewish esoterica bookshops. My local cinema was Chinese, my friends were almost exclusively exiled Japanese. I found that living in the eye of the storm, in America itself, I had escaped 'America' almost completely. It was only when the jets smashed into the World Trade Center that 'America' returned, even to Lower Manhattan, 'America' in its most concentrated and lethal form, America with flags, America smoking us all out of our holes, America demanding oaths of allegiance and declaring that we were either for it or against it. And it became immediately clear that with this 'America' there was no compromise, no negotiation. I had to leave.

Cultural Embargo

'America' is chasing me still, chasing us all still, an America more evangelical and imperial than ever, asking if we're friend or foe, demanding our capitulation, soliciting military and financial aid, and forcing our leaders here in Europe to choose whether to side with their own people or with 'America'. It's a hysterical and dangerous America which, by making itself increasingly shrill and challenging, is annoying the hell out of virtually the entire world.

This new, shrill, paranoid and invasive America makes its appearance on 'Oskar Tennis Champion' rather briefly, in amongst the orientalism and the lefthanded Germanic imagery of the other songs: 'You lived a long time ago,' sings the Caretaker narrator of 'The Last Communist', clearly to 'America':

'You shake our palm trees violently
Until the coconuts fill your plastic tray
You're writing up the budget and you're purchasing supplies
It's always someone else's turn to die
You're launching major missile strikes
To prove you'll never drink Zam Zam cola
The car protecting your child is killing mine
You're blinded by the headlights on the autobahn
A chimp made off with your sports jacket, boy
Your king is a monkey and a mongoloid'

On the news page of this website there's a small annoucement that there will be no more Momus US tours until the Bush regime has been voted out of office. I really hope that can be as soon as next year, but a part of me believes that the new inescapability of America, and perhaps a corresponding collapse of American interest in 'otherness' as anything other than a threat, is perhaps a longterm policy, a symptom of the paranoid decline of a giant, and won't be much changed by the arrival of Democrats at the White House. Let's hope I'm wrong, and that the current nightmare will be shortlived. And if I'm right, let's hope that the supernova collapses without sucking the whole world into its black hole.

Some thoughts in this essay were prompted by Timothy Garton-Ash's article in the New York Review of Books, Anti-Europeanism in America.

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