Swish-swish, I am cruising towards the northern city of Hamburg from Berlin. A Google maps search tells me that it would take about three hours to drive, but on Deutsche Bahn’s Intercity Express service, it takes only half that. As a man with a first class rail pass I have the privilege of sitting in a very large seat. It’s an island unto itself, without anybody next to me, only an aisle. The seat reclines back, and I am swept back into blissful comfort. I almost wish that the train ride were longer for me to fully appreciate it. Like most forms of travel these days, riding first class doesn’t entitle you to a whole lot, especially on such a short journey, but I enjoy the free bag of chocolate malted balls (like Maltesers, but not materially enough like Maltesers to cause branding issues).
Arriving in Hamburg, I remember the last time I was there, five years ago, as a short stop on the way to Copenhagen. It had been a Sunday and a quite awful one at that. There weren’t many things going on then, and I am excited to see what the city has to offer me as I will be there all day Friday, overnight, and back to Berlin only at dinner time on Saturday. Please, please me, I think to myself. Show me what you have to offer.
I’ve come with one purpose: to see the Manic Street Preachers in concert. Everything else is secondary. In fact, it was so secondary that I didn’t really look into accommodations until earlier in the week. I discovered that for fifty euros I could stay at an average hostel. For thirty, I could stay at an absolute dive. I thought about these options and decided against either. For tonight, I am on a mission of fun. I will commit myself to just riding the wave of the evening, from the concert and onwards, and see where it takes me. I’ve done a few late nights in Europe and the prospect of partying until the daylight does not phase me. In fact, I think about how far thirty to fifty euros can go at three euros per beer. Who needs to pay for a bed that won’t be slept in? The main train station (Hamburg Hbf) has 24 hour lockers that I can throw my stuff in, so I can move unencumbered.
I wander the streets and see much of what I saw last time. It’s a pretty enough city, with cafes and galleries, and a nice area by the water, which I’m told is a lake, but find hard to believe because it appears to be a very square entity that juts into the centre of town. Like Berlin, there are lots of vendors selling currywurst mit pommes frites und eis (ice cream). In front of the city hall is a nice little square, where like most nice little squares in Europe, pigeons come to poop, people come to hover, and street performers come to be ignored.
I’m at the Markthalle, the venue for the evening. I’ve climbed stairs, shown my ticket, climbed more stairs, shown my ticket again, and reached a roadblock. A scruff biker type gives me the pat down. I apparently pass inspection and am sent forward to the actual entrance, which is across a rooftop gangway, where I show my ticket again. I read the sign clearly stating in about six languages that absolutely under no circumstances are cameras permitted and if found will be punishable by expulsion. I gulp a deep gulp remembering that in the front left pocket of my jeans is the Samsung ST90 that I’ve been taking all these lovely pictures with. It’s funny, in a way, because I remember the pat down included a very particular slow down when my biker friend got to the pockets. He definitely touched the camera, the outline and the face of it, through denim, of course. He must have thought it was a mobile phone and moved on. I had bought the camera mostly because of the fact it was very slim, so in this case it proved its worth. I decide to play it cool and discretely slide the camera into my coat pocket (hiding the contraband as I should) and check my coat. I feel pretty proud of the fact that the offending item is safely stored until I leave the club.
The Markthalle (or “Marxhalle” as the clever signs inside read) is divided into three rooms. The first room you enter is the main bar area, with appropriately a bar, some tall counters and stools and not much else. At one end is another room, which based on the amount of smoke building up behind glass and the absence of smoke anywhere else in the club, makes me assume is probably for smokers. At the other end are some doors. Through the other side of the doors is the actual concert hall. It is not big, with room for 500 sane people or 1,000 otherwise inclined individuals. The hall has no seats, except for at the very back, in a sort of balcony area. However, in a rather clever design, the standing room floor is built in a series of half-circle tiers, so that those at the front and centre are lower than those at the back and sides. I find a spot that I judge to be pretty awesome, as it is right at the front of the hall, along a sidewall, with a raised view of everything. I’m fifteen feet from the microphone at stage centre and I’m leaning against a wall. Very nice! I can see that the only disadvantage of the spot is that I can’t see where Sean Moore, the drummer for the Manics, will be playing, but I’ll have a spectacular view of James Dean Bradfield (singer and lead guitarist) and the flamboyant Nicky Wire (bass). Sorry Sean, I think to myself.
The opening band is called the Joy Formidable and they are a cool group of late-20, early-30 somethings. They look exactly like every indie rock band you can imagine, with the cute blond female lead singer/guitarist (like a smaller Karen O.) and guys wearing plaid and skinny jeans. I hadn’t heard their music before, so I was pleasantly surprised when I did. The first thing that came to mind, and it might have been due to the song and not necessarily the entirety of their set, but the Joy Formidable sounded a bit like Veruca Salt. Does anyone remember them? I saw them as the opening act for Bush (or Bush-x as they were called then) when I was 12. I also got a bit of a Metric vibe, but only if Metric were darker and angrier. The band is charming and has the crowd appreciating everything (rare for opening bands, so I am impressed with Hamburg already). They tell us that it’s a big pleasure to be opening for the MSP (obviously), and that they remember being teenagers in northern Wales listening to them and it’s a thrill to be there today.
Same with me. Except for the northern Wales part. The point is that I remember the Manic Street Preachers being a huge part of my teenage years, and they’ve continued to be. I remember the first time I heard the song “If You Tolerate This (Your Children Will Be Next)”. I might have been thirteen and it was on the radio (CFOX 99.3 in Vancouver) loop every two hours. I’d listen to the radio all day just to hear the loop come around and hear that song again and again and again. I don’t know of any other song that I’ve heard on a radio that made me do that before or after (and to be fair I’ve long stopped listening to the radio) but there is something special about the song. There is something special about the band.
I have a handful of musical artists that I’m not ashamed to say I quite enjoy. They range from the singer-songwriters that I go to for melancholic emotional affinity (Damien Rice, Ray LaMontagne and Ryan Adams) to the quirky indie pop bands I secretly dance to when I clean my apartment (Camera Obscura, Belle & Sebastian and Peter Bjorn & John). Throw in a few others, like Fleet Foxes, the Black Keys, and the Arctic Monkeys, along with classics like the Beatles, the Clash, and the Smiths and you’ve almost got my core tastes. There are lots of others, of course, covering other genres and styles, but that’s almost it.
Then there are the Manic Street Preachers, who stand alone. I don’t think they are the greatest band ever. I won’t argue with anyone over that. I won’t argue that they are one of the most influential bands or anything else, either. I will say that they are my favourite. They have produced a very large series of albums over twenty-plus years that span genres. I won’t say that every song is a gem, or that I even like all of them. I will say that some of them are masterpieces. I will argue that some of their albums are, too. They challenge me. I listen to the lyrics and I hear the music and I experience their art. It’s not something I throw on for a laugh or in the background with friends around. It’s something that I listen to with my headphones or when I’m alone. They ask questions. That may not mean much to anyone, but I like it very much. I think they are far more intelligent than can usually be given credit to rock bands. They ask questions about our understanding of life, love, history, religion, politics, war, art, and death. When I listen to them, I am forced to think of these questions, too. The most challenging thing, I suppose, is that there are always fewer answers than questions.
But tonight is not one of those times to ask questions. It’s a time to breathe in the same air as the Manics and to just enjoy the music. The smoke machine starts and they come on stage. I am here. This is happening. Later we can ask whatever questions we want about the meaning and purpose of life, but for the next ninety minutes there is only one thing in my life and it is perfect. So many people here all going through the same thoughts and feelings as me. When James asks us to sing along, we sing along loudly. It’s brilliant. The one time in my life when I can actually remember every lyric when it’s needed. Songs from every era are played. I can only smile. This is glorious.
The concert is over and I decide to follow the crowd to find the nightlife. But first, a minor pit stop at the coat check. Half an hour later, and we’re off. Following the crowd down the street I notice that they’ve led me to the train station. No! You were supposed to take me to the nightclubs and dance halls, not retreat back to your suburbs!
I’m down by the lake and there is a restaurant with an outdoor patio that’s open. It’s almost one, so I’m glad just to find something open. Hamburg has let me down again. I order a beer and sit and ponder what I’m going to do for the rest of the night. Can I honestly sit outside at this near empty restaurant forever?
No. Evidently, I cannot. It’s quarter to two and my waiter has asked me for my last call. I order a second beer and decide to milk it for what it’s worth. I am in no rush. I watch the staff in the background packing up cabana furniture under the palm trees. Are they real? Surely palms can’t survive in this climate. The staff scurry to and fro, rushing through their tasks, with an urgency that makes it clear that I probably shouldn’t linger too long. I look around and there are only two other tables occupied. They are all finishing up. I sigh at the mice that I can see running around underneath the empty patio tables.
I decide that I am going to go for a walk around the heart of the city. Hopefully, if I have some luck, I’ll find something worthwhile to join. I walk through the nice part of town and as nice parts of town usually are at two in the morning, it is absolutely deserted. There are bars here, all the lovely little places I walked by in the afternoon, locked and shut. One sushi restaurant has been converted into a karaoke bar, but looking through the windows I can see that it’s really just a small group, possibly all family and the front door has a closed sign hung.
I head east and make a circle through a not so nice part of town. It’s filled with sex shows and doner kebab shops. I walk down a couple blocks and hear dance music. Finally! I turn the corner, expecting the normal nightclub look. You know, a doorman and maybe a small line. Instead I see a sketchy looking dude smoking a cigarette. I look at the wall he is leaning against and it is not a nightclub. Where is this music coming from? I look up and there are big glass windows and a strobe light. I can clearly see into this “dancehall” that there are only a handful of people there and none of them seem to be dancing. This is awful. It couldn’t possibly get worse.
It was maybe five minutes later when I was propositioned for sex. Now, I’ve seen Pretty Woman, and that basically sums up my entire knowledge of the sex trade. This woman was not Julia Roberts. I’ll admit that I’m not Richard Gere, but that’s really beside the point. This woman was by my guesses to be anywhere between thirty-five and seventy-two, depending on where she stood in the shadows of the lamp standards. I barked back quickly the word “no” in as many languages as I could remember. I decided that I better get a doner kebab.
On my way back to a shop that I had seen on my way to the sketchy dancehall, a genuinely cute prostitute (if I can make that judgment) stood, doing what can only be described as negotiating. She was entertaining the possibility of fulfilling whatever requests it was that the three British louts, likely over for the weekend on a stag party, could come up with. I heard some pleasant laughter on her part and boorish chuckles from the louts. Numbers were being tossed around. I carried on walking.
I sat at the sidewalk picnic table and looked at the beef doner. I looked up and saw the doors to a sex show. People came and went. A young couple, laughing, popped their heads in. Shortly thereafter they came out with the man frowning and the woman smiling playfully. Further down the street I could still see that old haggard woman waiting for someone to love her. The young cute prostitute and the Brits had disappeared. I ate the doner.
After being propositioned for money for sex, I was taken aback a bit by a voice asking for a very small sum of change. It was a beggar. I said sorry, but I didn’t have any change. It was the truth. I had thirty euros in my wallet and had spent the last coins I had on the doner. I said no, sorry. I felt awful, as I usually do when I am asked by beggars (a nearly daily occurrence for me no matter what city I’m in). In a rather sad, though touching moment, the shop assistant popped out with a small bag that he handed to the beggar, whom he seemed to know by name. It was just a bit of food, but I could tell that the beggar appreciated it. He said something to the shop assistant and a small piece of baklava was thrown in, as well.
It was only two thirty and I was already done with Hamburg. I cursed my train reservation at six pm. That was foolish planning. I suppose I had thought that I should want to maximize my short time in the city. Foolish! You’re now at two strikes, Hamburg. I’ll come back here again in another five years and you’ll have your last chance at redemption!
I turn down a street and start walking with no real intention. A crowd of young people come bouncing down the street, laughing and holding bottles of beer in their hands. I smile, thinking that I’ve found the way to or from a party. A pretty girl, wearing a long tight top over tights (the way pretty girls do), spoke to me. I smiled, and apologised in my limited German. I said I spoke English. She smiled a big wide smile and in broken English asked me if I wanted to join them. I was delighted. A friendly group of people, finally, inviting me to join in their partying. That would be perfect. I said sure. She said it would be fun; I could even have sex with her and everything. I thought it was just my luck that I was being whisked away out of the blue with a fun group of people and the pretty girl was already making advances (a bit forward, but this is Europe, right?). I pointed at her and asked dumbly, “with you?” She nodded and smiled. She then told me that they were all going to a room (there were three girls and another dude). I realised, though a bit late, that this was just another proposition. It was an interesting and baffling one, but a proposition nonetheless. She said that if I could chip in fifty euros it would be nice and the sex would be fun, too. I’m not a puritan by any means, but that’s one line that I’ll never cross. I did what anyone ought to do when confronted by people that only want you for your money; I told the pretty girl that I didn’t have any money. None at all. Her smile disappeared. I felt vindicated that I was correct in this assessment, though I also felt a little disappointed that it wasn’t my dashing good looks that caused a stranger to offer sex.
I continue down the street and see that I’ve found an area that if it isn’t the “official” red light district, certainly had a lot of red lights. Sex bars lined the street. I peer through the windows and sadly laugh that even these are empty on a late Friday night (or early Saturday morning).
I’m sitting in the train station because it is warmish and the lights are on. It’s three in the morning and I feel as low as I’ve ever felt before. Maybe lower in absolute terms, as I don’t think I had ever felt as high as I did during the concert. Falling from such great heights to these depths takes a lot out of a man. I’ve found a small stairway that has a locked gate across the top. I sit on the steps, slightly out of the way of the passing traffic. People come and go, as you might expect at a major train station. I have no idea where they are coming and going from, though.
There are three teenagers, no older than fifteen, walking up to the passersby and asking for change. They see no success. They play a three-person game of rock-paper-scissors and the loser asks the next passerby for twenty cents. Still no success. I watch them and wonder what they are doing at the Hamburg Hbf at this hour. They aren’t dressed poorly like a “typical” beggar and just look like a group of kids that forgot to put aside a bit of cash for the return train ride.
A drunk stumbles down the corridor, eyes closed. His feet slide along the ground slowly, moving in short strides. It is taking him several minutes to walk past me. He turns, blindly, and starts stutter-stepping his way towards my perch on the steps. I don’t know what to do, so I sit and watch. He makes it to the bottom step, eyes still closed, and falls down across the stairs. His head lands not more than a foot from me and I can see that it has gashes and abrasions from bumping into things, presumably more stairs and walls. I sigh and leave the man to sleep.
The McDonalds restaurant in the station is packed with people, all wearing their finest dance clothes. Where did they come from? Which great party did I miss? I feel so disconnected from everything. German words and German laughter surround me. Here I am just this fool who came for a concert, experienced the best concert of his life and has to deal with the fallout of not knowing what to do in life Post-Manics. I sip a coffee.
Time to get out. I just need to leave. I take my rail pass and jump onto the first train that I can get back to Berlin. It is packed and a quick glance at the displays above the seats indicate that everything is reserved. I feel immediately defeated and know that I will likely have to try another train.
I sit and watch the sunrise and realise that I survived it all. In a moment of clarity I just accept that it was a rotten night, but not to think much more of it than that. This trip has been great overall, with a few rough patches, but I need to focus on the positive and push through. There are too many people that would love to be where I am to feel awful.
Having decided to make the most of my remaining time in Hamburg, I head to the Hamburg Kunsthalle (art gallery) and spend four hours absorbing everything. It is like a reset button to my soul.
I get on the train and ride back to Berlin with nothing on my mind but sleep.