In 1989 I was dancing on the Berlin Wall as it crumbled into the ground, I was pulling chunks of the wall out with my bare hands…here’s an account of that epic trip 20 years ago…
1989 was some year….a pop culture youthquake, Nirvana, Madchester, acid house- the old order was crumbling- the sterile eighties was over and the stage was being set for some pop insurrection.
Meanwhile in real world the same sort of thing was happening but with a million times more power.
The tremors that had been shuddering through east Europe that decade suddenly became an earthquake as the iron grip of the totalitarian regimes in east Europe were loosening fast.
Some fools called it the end of history.
Some thought it was the triumph of capitalism even though those bastards had already won.
It had been great TV.
Watching the collapse of the Soviet empire was prime entertainment- all those people walking out of East Germany with their suitcases. They had enough and no-one believed in the system anymore. The border guards eventually stood back and the party was literally over. All that revolution stuff everyone had been singing about in rock n roll was finally happening. Years later a friend of mine in Russia told me that Glasnost started when the sixties youth saw the Beatles long hair and then heard the fab four’s music on smuggled in seven inch singles ‘it was the sound of freedom’ he explained his eyes still glowing with excitement at the power of pop. He could trace a convincing line from there to Glasnost.
1989 was the culmination of this and a proper people’s revolution and it was all over for the men in grey.
East Germany was dissolving in front of our eyes and the hated Berlin wall was on the verge of losing all its meaning.
And you knew you had to be there.
So me and my fellow membranes Nick Brown grabbed a couple of train tickets and hit the express across Europe. Crammed into a carriage with riotously drunk Polish country folk and their fiery jack vodka and stinking chickens we spent hours heading east towards history.
Stumbling off the cross European train we alighted in Berlin one stop too late. It was 6 in the morning, freezing cold and we were marooned in East Berlin- lost and without a visa.
Luckily for us East Germany didn’t exist anymore. Or at least was in a state of suspension- suspended belief maybe.
In the old days of literally a week before we would have been in a bureaucratic nightmare full of stern faced fools interrogating us and making money from the cock up. In the bad old days of merely days before wandering into East Berlin was with no visa was not allowed and wandering out again impossible.
Everyone seems to have gone home.
In the last couple of weeks history had gone fast forward and the so-called communist bloc has just completely collapsed. The streets on the west side were full of celebration and there was more than a whiff of revolution in the air.
Of course I had to be there.
The gloomy early morning streets of East Berlin were deserted. It was quite spooky. Not being sure of how to get to west Berlin we set off for the Berlin wall figuring that if we walked around it we would eventually stumble onto Checkpoint Charlie and blag our way back in to the more familiar western bit of the city.
We walk down the old East Berlin high street, Unter Dem Linden, and were astonished by its grandeur. When they carved up Berlin the commies got the best bits- there was none of the western concrete and tack here- just the wealth and grandeur of old Berlin.
In the distance I could hear a strange clanking sound, chipping away, sounds like a lot of people on a construction site I mused.
Suddenly in the distance the wall loomed up. Its brooding concrete always unmissable even in a city of this size. Our theory had worked- keep walking and you will always find the wall. We walked towards it. Again it’s strangely deserted, Strangely quiet. The eastern side of the wall was very, very different from the western side. For a start there seems to be no graffiti on it, it makes it seem larger, higher…perhaps it is?
I walked up to the wall, ripped down my flies, pulled out my cock and pissed all over the wall. It was a very small satisfying moment for democracy and a bigger one for my bladder, which has been busting for for a piss. All the guards have their backs to me. They are looking towards the west at the massed ranks of celebrating locals waiting for the endgame. We can hear the people shouting and cheering and the infernal clank of the hammers literally ripping apart the hated wall.
Ten minutes later we’re at Checkpoint Charlie.
It’s a mad scheme when you think about trying to blag through from the east to the west with no visas, nothing. But somehow we do it. The customs look confused, no-one is very sure if East Germany actually exists anymore, it’s like the country has just fizzled out over night. The guards still wear the uniform and are going through their guard functions, no-one has told them to go home yet so they turn up pretending that the whole game is still on.
As we passed through unapprehended we bumped into some friends who are going the other way- it’s that kind of day. Everyone on the west is up early and the mood is crazy.
On the western side there are loads of people hanging around and the infernal clanking din gets louder and louder- hundreds of people are down at the wall with hammers, shovels, saws, spoons, forks and bare hands- pulling bits of the wall away- tearing it down. I borrow a pickaxe and smash some chunks of concrete out for safekeeping. Nice chunks with bits of graffiti on them for safe keeping which are still sat on shelf in my office covered in their original graffiti.
Through the cracks in the thick wall you could peer through and look at the bemused soldiers standing there with their guns pointing back. Some of the troops are stood on the wall with their guns pointing down at us not sure what to do. Everyone is waving at them and they glare back- po-faced, defeated.
We put our hands through the cracks in the wall shouting ‘its all over! give up! go home now!’ and ‘how much is your trendy commie army hat?’
Of course they perk up at the last question. They are not fools.
There is a roaring trade in second hand military gear as the broke vanguard troops of pretend communism try and make a few quid before they fuck off back to their barracks in deep dark Siberia. Some shake hands and every now and then one would smile back as relieved as everyone else that this farce was now over.
For the next 24 hours we party by the wall. Hanging out with a multinational party mob. It’s the best rave in Europe and the crowd builds up to an epic size. As John Lennon didn’t quite sing- The wall is over.
I’d been to Berlin before. A few times. In the old days it was a weird, freak island surrounded by the grey mass of East Germany. A strange place full of paranoia, great music, wild squats and dance till the apocalypse 24/7 lifestyles. A mixture of paranoia and hedonism, a western endgame perfectly captured by the genius music of the likes of Einsterzende Neubaten.
It had become a bohemian bolthole as every freak in Germany would move there to avoid national service which didn’t exist in West Berlin which had a separate constitution to the rest of West Germany. There was an all night party scene, with views over no mans land and deep in the night time you could clamber up look out posts and look over the Berlin wall shouting stuff at the grim faced guards in the distance who would occasionally wave back breaking up the boredom and cold.
I had once tried to visit the other side.
You could go through Checkpoint Charlie as a tourist and we planned to visit our friends in the east but I got stopped at the border by a granite faced Mongolian border guard, ‘have you looked in the mirror’ he quipped not au fait to the freak- out- punk- rock- look- and my mid winter coat- covered in glue from sticking up Membranes posters look I was sporting at the time- ‘have you looked in a mirror yourself, fat boy’ I replied. Luckily he was short of English.
The rest of the band got through and spent a freezing afternoon in East Berlin trying to spend the 25 quid they were made to exchange into that weird aluminium East German money. All they could find to buy was loaves of stale dry bread and they came back exhausted and frozen with tales of taking the tram round the city to keep warm.
Berlin has changed a lot since then. I was there last year and went back to the wall. There is a small chunk of it left by a dirty main road near Kreuzberg and the rest of it has gone.
Well sort of.
Because the land, the no mans land of a thousand heroic escape attempts has become prime real estate and the space that the Berlin wall used to occupy has been filled in the glass towers of banks and offices- its like a new wall has been built- the capitalism wall and its gleaming chrome money belt snakes its was way through the city along it more notorious ancestor.
And every time I go I think back to that wild night in 1989 when everything seemed possible. It was one of those euphoric moments of history when all the hope and yearning and sheer, adrenalised excitement that you often only ever hear in a truly great record suddenly become real life. That night the biggest and best party I ever went to was happening as millions of people literally danced a wall into dust…and when I think about it I still feel the tears of joy welling up.