I’m in Paris. I’m sitting, elbows on the bar, a pint in my outstretched hand. Pigeons are racing outside, and the hum of Paris traffic in the distance can be heard from the end of the street. I am not at home. I have stepped through the tunnel and gone to the other side as if through a magical wardrobe or down the rabbit hole. I’m on the road.
I’d spent the night before in a dingy Paris rehearsal space in a suburb called Pantin. Up the stairs and outside, there were drunken homeless men reclining against a tall brick wall opposite a group of orphaned Algerian children playing football in the street. Fuelled by beer, scotch, and hash, and the sound of the mind breaking down its doors, I played music long into the morning with some newfound Parisian friends. From that place underground, I realized it had taken me what felt like years of coming to Paris to feel like I’d finally connected to it: there’s so much power and soul and mayhem and virtue here, though most of it lies hidden away, like rats in the sewer. I felt like I’d finally discovered the true heartbeat of the French capital. The Paris beneath Paris, beneath Paris, beneath. Friendship through the blood of music.
The next afternoon, at a café, I was meeting Fangs, an old friend of mine. I closed my eyes and rubbed them in circles, trying to shake off the night before and prepare myself for our conversation. I downed a beer, ordered another, and Fangs walked in.
“Holy shit. It’s been a long time. ”
I used to write for Fangs back in Edmonton, before I’d gone and surrendered my life to the road. He was an editor at the local music paper but had moved on to a bigger city, better things. Fangs used to sneak me into bars when I was underage, to review bands for him, and slip me pints of beer like I was Cameron Crowe in a prairie remake of Almost Famous. Before he’d even sat down, the arguments about music began like no time had passed at all.
“I hate the Dirty Projectors. Bullshit Brooklyn spoiled-white-kid afrobeat wannabe crap. ”
“The vocal harmonies, though. C’mon and be a man about it. What do you think of the War on Drugs?”
“Best recording band right now. Stole the torch from the Drones post Gala Mill. ”
“I saw the first Murder City Devils reunion show. Was great. The follow-ups were tragic. ”
“Should’ve been at the Replacements reunion. No bands do that anymore. ”
“Alien Lanes, Alien Lanes, Alien Lanes. Bee Thousand is true Pollard. It’s got ‘Tractor Rape Chain’ for Christ’s sake. ”
It went on like that for hours: two writers yelling at the top of their lungs with beer falling down their throats until grammar and punctuation were lost. Claude Mysterieux, the bartender, circled around the café with Exile on Main Street blaring from the speakers. He closed the shutters down and lit a cigarette.
“Madames et monsieurs, it’s that time,” he said, waving his hands. “We have hidden from the authorities—smoke whatever you want in here. ”
When you measure the passing of time in kilometres or the number of shows you’ve played, it becomes viscous. You get trapped in it, a fleck of sand in sunscreen. Fangs and I were now immersed in this substance, sliding down the neck of the bottle together. I told Fangs that I was going to try to write a book. “But I’m trying to figure out how to start it. I just don’t know how to start. ”
Fangs laughed the way a great editor does. “Start at the end. ”
That night Claude the bartender and I went back to his apartment with a bottle of Ballantine’s and a can of soda, winding our way through the complex streets of Paris, along a canal in Oberkampf. While pissing in the water, Claude told me that in the summertime everybody dives in, and he’s picked up tons of girls that way. The water moved slowly, a thick Parisian black: filth with an undisputed elegance to it. We stayed up all night drinking, and as I got my bag ready for the morning, we talked about the next round of shows. When I awoke, I headed to the Gare de Paris-Est and began my journey east to Berlin.
The first time I went to Berlin it was the middle of December, during what I would come to know as one of those dark, grey stretches of hibernation and north German solitude. It was in the middle of a tour that had begun in Holland and Belgium and woven its way through the streets of Paris, down to the south of Germany and into Switzerland, then carved a tunnel through the snow northeast along the Czech-Saxon border to the German capital, our easternmost destination.
There were five of us, including me alongside western Canada’s legendary Stagger Tecumseh on bass, Alberta expat Jack Valentine on keys, James Herbert Billiards behind the drum set, and guitarist and singer Ivan Reservoir. Doing two sets a night, we’d first act as Ivan’s backing band, then climb back onstage and perform a set of my songs to headline the shows.
When we drove into Berlin the sun was long down, and we found the venue in a storm of students crossing the street and drinking in pubs to hide from the cold. Immediately I knew this city went miles and miles deeper than it appeared to the naked eye, that underneath the concrete lurked something far more menacingly beautiful.
It was about seven o’clock when we entered the bar and introduced ourselves to the owner, a short and stocky Berliner named Pietr. This tour was ripe with overindulgence in the shadow of deep sadness: we were all strung out on booze and drugs, hopelessly broke and cold and miserable, driving through one of the worst European winters in recent memory, and Berlin itself was a slimy slew of snow. We were constantly in a cycle of coming down and getting high, and it was one of those tours where it seemed like every single night you met somebody who found a way of putting something up your nose. Pietr showed us our hostel room and explained the situation with the upstairs residents, how we had to play a subdued and quieter set because we weren’t allowed to have a full drum kit in the bar—noise complaints had made loud punk rock impossible. So we compromised with a suitcase kick drum and a towel over the snare, turned the amps down, dropped off our bags in the hostel after soundcheck, and poured some beers at the bar.
The scope and magnitude of the city began with the sight of the towering S-Bahn tracks, with all the people drinking on the street and in the bars, with all the lights and all the snow. Coupled with how little I knew about it at the time, not to mention how little sleep I was getting, I felt like I was in a little over my head.
After the show, Pietr was overjoyed: he’d loved the music and thought we played to the space perfectly. The songs came across, everyone in that little unlit backroom on some side street in Neukölln locked in a green applause. He took us over to the bar and gave us another round of fresh, cold beer.
“I’m really sick tonight,” Pietr explained. “So, I’m sorry, I can’t really drink with you, even after such a great show. ”
We told him it was fine and got to talking. Pietr told us about the city, about its life outside of everyone who visits, about how Berlin has always been a churning mass of culture, about how it’s really this glowing, swirling, alien thing. One thing about Berlin that you learn before almost anything else is that Berliners love Berlin.
After a few more minutes, the conversation turned to the subject of German bitters. Someone said Jägermeister and there was a tension in the conversation that you could have plucked like a guitar string.
“Jägermeister?” Pietr exclaimed. “Jägermeister tastes like the shit of a donkey!”
Either his sickness had subsided dramatically or his outrage had cured his exhaustion, because Pietr animatedly ordered us each three great German bitters, which came in shot glasses, full to the brim. James Billiards was off gallivanting with the women who existed on the edges of the night sky, and Ivan Reservoir had gone off to chase the future. Those still inside were thinking about the past.
It was just the three of us now: Stagger, Jack, and me. We consumed what felt like a gallon of alcohol between us in under three minutes. Stagger thanked Pietr and stepped outside after rolling his tobacco, and I joined him. Jack Valentine stayed inside, talking up a girl with the hope that maybe his pillow wouldn’t be the window of the van.
“So should we go and see the Wall?” I asked as Stagger took a drag.
“Yeah, I think so. Seems like the appropriate thing. ” Stagger was up to his knees in a bank of wet snow. The whole sidewalk was covered in empty bottles and footprints that trudged through two feet of grey, sloshy stew. “Okay, we’ll need a taxi to take us there. I have no idea where I’m going. ”
Feeling our thin blood finally make its way to our brains, we stepped back inside. Pietr was slumped against the wall in the corner, staring into space, his eyes dead from sickness and exhaustion, a thin line of drool dangling from his bottom lip to the floor.
“Don’t worry about him,” a regular said from down the bar. “He might not have shown it, but Pietr was trying to drink himself better hours ago, well before you guys showed up and did all those shots with him. ”
The girl Jack was talking to had vanished into the falling snow of the Berlin night. We convinced Jack to join us, and the three of us got into a cab and told the driver in extremely broken German where we wanted to go.
“The Wall,” we said from the backseat. “Take us to the Wall. ”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he replied. “You want to go to the Wall? The Wall is in lots of places . . . ”
“Take us to see a chunk of the Wall. It’s our first time in Berlin. ”
His sly grin seemed to be hiding something when he said, “It’s your first time here. Of course. ”
He stepped on the pedal and drove us through Neukölln and Kreuzberg, probably revelling in the fact that he could milk the last few bucks from the near-empty wallets of three Berlin first-timers. We tried to make conversation in a drunken soup of English, French, and German until, finally, he stopped the car and let us out.
I’m not sure how I imagined the tombstone to the end of the Cold War: a thick, invincible piece of rock, twenty feet high, racing through the middle of the city? Gun turrets, armoured cars, and then steel and stone covered in graffiti? Did it slice through the decaying urban landscape like a blade from the north to the south?
What I saw instead was a thin piece of chipped concrete that only stood about ten feet high. What was depicted throughout history as the greatest dividing line in the Western world seemed like a sheet of vandalized cardboard. I know now that we must have been at the East Side Gallery, a few football fields’ worth of graffiti-covered Wall along the river Spree, on the border of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain at the foot of the Oberbaumbrücke, but at the time it looked like this puny, unassuming joke. Right then, Berlin made so much more sense to me.
“This is the Wall?”
The taxi driver laughed, and we tried to figure out what all the fuss was about. Stupid kids, we realized that all that post-war tension was over something that didn’t really stand so tall. Without the soldiers, without the guns, without the turrets, and without the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall was just a canvas for kids with spray cans.
If you squint and imagine a Berlin Wall without the armies that protected it, it doesn’t seem so scary or important. Berliners had all their lives to learn that trick, and because of that, over time they’d learned that the Wall was more or less made of paper. That moment must have been when the city just walked right through it.
There was a kind of stillness in the December calm. The engine of the car was a faint hum over our drunken, astounded silence and the headlights illuminated the gently falling snow. We felt like we’d crossed this rite of passage, our heads tipped back as we gazed up at the Wall. The driver still snickered at us, basking in the warmth of his heated car. In that moment, our hardships seemed endurable, comical even. All of us forgot where we were going, and where we had come from. We sighed and got back in the taxi and I drifted off into the dark realms of a dreamless night, my mind painted a solid black with the powerful palette of alcohol.
Disaster followed disaster on that tour. The day before we left I fell off a roof and lost some teeth. Ivan Reservoir, the morning after a Belgian beer and amphetamine frenzy, ran headlong into the thick black Belgian woods. A rolled-over semi truck stranded us motionless for fifteen hours on the autobahn between Freiburg and Frankfurt, so we polished off a case of Beck’s and slept in the van, in total gridlock in the snow. We cancelled a show in Switzerland because the mountain passes were closed and we would have been stuck there over the whole of Christmastime. The tour ended with us having to sleep on the floor of Heathrow for five days and four nights because of grounded planes. All of us were broke. It was not a happy time.
First, my teeth. It was after a long day of rehearsing. Stagger and I were sitting on the roof of my girlfriend’s apartment at Bloor and Ossington, staring out through the dark black night at the Toronto skyline, a massive, sprawling entity full of red and blue beckoning lights.
It was raining and we were drunk. The rain began light and easy and then it started pounding down. We kept laughing and talking about me leaving Edmonton—I’d only been living in the Big Smoke for five or six months at that point—and about touring across Canada. We talked about driving through the Rockies in snowstorms and about soldiering through the rainy muck of the Maritimes to make it to Halifax in time for soundcheck.
We talked about going overseas and hitting the road and how excited we were for a new frontier, away from the Canadian Prairies, which was the only home we’d ever shared. There was a great sense of optimism in our young minds. The band was sounding good. We were all excited and looking forward to the future and to new horizons, to that place where the highway disappears into something bookmark-thin, an otherworldly place where the signposts are written in words from a mysterious, unreadable language.
It was about then I got the great idea to scale down the sloping roof and climb into my girlfriend’s window, a young and stupid Cyrano de Bergerac hoping to romantically coax her to come outside in the pouring rain and drink with us.
“It’s okay, Stag,” I said. “I’ve done this tons of times. ”
She wasn’t waking up, although I was banging louder and louder on the window, so I decided to leave it alone and climb back up. As I did, my foot hydroplaned from under me and I started to fall.
Somehow I had the wherewithal to grab a telephone line that dangled across the roof and I swung into the side of the wall. I smashed my face against the building and it was like a searing blast of impossible pain. I could feel my wrist extend, and I landed on my back on the balcony that stretched out beneath her window, at least another two storeys down. Stagger yelled and ran to the side of the roof. I lay there for a moment, soaking wet, as the rain just kept falling.
“Help,” I shouted, moving my arms and legs to make sure nothing was broken. It was my mouth and face that hurt the most. I kept yelling. “It’s my teeth . . . my teeth are dust . . . ”
My tongue felt around my mouth and I noticed that everything was chipped and mangled. Two teeth wiggled around in my jaw. Throbbing pain surged through me with every heartbeat. I stumbled to my feet, knocked on my girlfriend’s roommate’s window, woke her up, pissed her off, went up the stairs to my girlfriend’s room, and passed out on the bed in a torrent of madness. When I awoke in the morning, there was a halo of blood on the pillow.
“Why the fuck didn’t you go to the hospital?” she said to me, wiping blood off my face with a damp rag. She shone a flashlight in my eyes to see if I had a concussion. “You’re such an idiot. What the fuck were you thinking? What the fuck were you doing?”
I told her I was drunk, just trying to be romantic, just trying to be funny. I didn’t go to the hospital because I felt all right. I was, however, worried about the loose, punishingly sore teeth. I had to go to a dentist, immediately. Things felt dislodged and out of place. I felt crooked and out of order. And I was to leave that night for Europe.
Valentine went to the dentist with me and sat in the waiting room as I lay in the chair waiting for an answer. The X-rays came back and my teeth had completely shattered, still lodged by the root in my gums, ready to fall out any second. The dentist was shocked that I wasn’t in even more pain, and I told him that I was catching a plane in under eight hours, so he took me upstairs and yanked the bastards out.
I came out to the waiting room, tears welling in my eyes and blood pouring into the gauze stuffed in my mouth. Valentine stared at me and I stood as pale as a ghost. I’d lost something I was never going to get back.
“Jesus,” he said. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah,” I replied, unsure. “I guess. ”
I took some painkillers, packed my stuff, said goodbye, and we got on the subway headed for the airport.
Then there was the bump of speed that sat quietly on the key in my outstretched hand, pointed toward Stagger’s nose, as he was behind the wheel. He had slept the night before and so had all five working senses while the rest of us had stayed up all night drunk and high as shit and arguing to the point where the band was breaking up and we thought we weren’t friends anymore.
There was no turning back from that kind of evening. Relationships are beyond repair when you say the kinds of things we said to each other that night. All rational thought was missing in action and our emotions were the soldiers left holding the rifles. Lashing out, lashing in, nothing was sacred. With every line of speed and shot of whiskey we punished each other, and ourselves, for what we’d put each other through.
As the sun rose, we realized that it was time to leave for Groningen and Stagger was the only one fit to drive, even though he couldn’t drive stick. As he sipped his coffee behind the wheel, he tried not to stall as he motioned with smiling eyes at the little bag I’d taken out of my coat pocket. We both laughed, he cranked Motörhead, and I spooned some speed on the end of my house key. There was only madness now.
I saw Ivan’s eyes open in the rear-view mirror as he caught a glimpse of Stagger snorting what was perched on the end of my key and lost it.
“That’s it. Pull the van over,” he said, the volume in his voice increasing. “Pull the fucking van over now. ”
As we pulled to the side of the Belgian highway, hazards blinking furiously, Reservoir leapt out of the side door and bolted like a fork of lightning into the northern forest. He had the clothes on his back, his laptop bag in his right hand, and the toque on his head. He was psychotic with exhaustion, coming down, perpetually hungover, and completely lost at sea.
Jack Valentine, just as high as we were, looked at us with wide, condemning eyes. “What the fuck, you guys?!”
“Let him go, I’m not stopping him,” I said, twist-tying the bag shut.
Stagger laughed. “Me neither. ”
Valentine burst out of the car, ran after Reservoir, and, with the energy of all those amphetamines in the stride of his sprint, finally caught up with him.
From the side-view mirrors, we could see the weary and exhausted figures yelling at each other, two small black dots against the sun low in the sky, the backdrop of the Benelux highway and black woods behind them. Everything had totally collapsed. Disaster after disaster.
The argument I imagined them having might as well have been real.
Reservoir: “I’m getting on the first flight outta here. I’m going home. I can’t fucking take this anymore. ”
Valentine’s response came out of his mouth like a comic-book balloon, lost like us in the middle of nowhere. “How are you going to get a flight out of here, exactly? Where are you gonna go, Frankfurt? Schiphol? Brussels? How are you going to get there? How the fuck are you going to get to Frankfurt?”
“I’ll . . . hitchhike. ” The highway traffic sped by. “I’ll get to the airport, I’ll get on the next flight home to Toronto . . . ”
“No one is going to stop for you. No one will pick you up. We’re going to this show. Drink some water, get yourself together, and let’s get outta here. ”
“No, I can’t, I . . . ”
Stagger and I sat in the front seat of the van, shaking our heads and laughing. Everything except the van had broken down.
“Is it kickin’ in yet?” I said to him with a grin, Lemmy screaming through the small, tinny, blown-out speakers.
“Not really,” he said, “to be honest. Not really sure what all this fuckin’ fuss is about. I’m still better off to drive than anyone else here. ”
After what seemed like hours, Valentine finally coaxed Reservoir back into his place in the van.
“I’m not cool with the driver doing speed behind the wheel,” Reservoir said.
“Yeah sure, man, whatever, sorry,” Stagger replied. “But you’re not going home. There’s no way outta this. So buckle up. ”
I turned Lemmy back up and we kept heading north.
A few nights after that, there was the gridlocked madness of getting stranded on the autobahn.
“Why the fuck are we stopping?” somebody said, can’t remember who, as we ground to a halt on the highway, the snow pummelling us from all directions. We’d gone from well over one hundred and twenty clicks to not moving at all. I reached into the back and opened a Beck’s from the case we’d taken from the last venue.
Like a common cold, the contagious sound of a cracking beer cap echoed and within a few hours everyone—except Reservoir, the driver—was well on their way to being completely wasted.
“So what’s going on, anyways?” I asked him, after getting out to piss.
“I think it’s an accident,” he said, “and what the fuck? Are you guys actually all drunk on me, already?”
“Come on, man, what else are we gonna do?” I replied. “Besides, it’s been like four hours!”
By that time, we’d missed our soundcheck and it was looking like there was no hope for our show. We’d called the venue and things were not sitting well.
Another two or three hours passed. There was more fighting, can’t remember about what, and the snow continued to fall outside. I passed out for a while.
I awoke with a jerk as the van was moving forward. Everyone else was now unconscious, except for Ivan Reservoir, still behind the wheel.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. “How long was I out?”
“About five hours,” he spat, pissed off. “I’ve been sitting here alone and awake for five hours, man. ”
“Fuck,” I said. “I’m so sorry. ”
As we moved forward, inching along the autobahn, we passed an eighteen-wheeler completely rolled over, hiding behind what looked like solid walls of snow. Someone had extinguished a fire. There were three cars, in pieces, surrounding it. Nothing was left of the driver’s cabin, the windshield was crumpled, a door was off its hinges.
Reservoir had a thousand-yard stare and we both sat speechless as the wheels slowly turned. I looked out the passenger side window at the accident, the sound of three sleeping bodies conducting the steady rhythm of the van driving forward through the night.