Saturday, September 3, 2016

Postscript: Krautrock book now available, here is a passage that didn't make it into the book

NOTE: My krautrock book is now available from the University of Michigan Press. 

Here is a personal narrative that didn't make it into the book:
I was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1972, in the midst of the krautrock boom. Can had just released Tago Mago and were recording Ege Bamyasi at the time. Faust were turning heads in Great Britain. Tangerine Dream were experimenting with the glacial sounds of Zeit. Werner Herzog was shooting Aguirre, supported by Popol Vuh’s harrowing soundtrack. Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser was encouraging his musicians to take LSD. Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother had left Kraftwerk and were now performing as Neu!. However, I would be oblivious to these major events in the history of popular music for another three decades. What kindled my interest in krautrock was intimately connected with my move to the United States just before September 11th, 2001.
Growing up in West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, I developed an early interest in pop music, partly in opposition to my mother, who only cared for European classical composers, and my father, who collected records of music from India, China, and Iran. With my sister, I listened to bands of the short-lived Neue Deutsche Welle, German-language new wave, on our transistor radio instead. Gradually, music from Germany completely disappeared from my interests. My sister bought the Beatles’ Blue Album on cassette and we watched Woodstock in a movie theater. For my 13th birthday, I got a stereo system with a Sony record player. My first album was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. During recess, my best friend and I argued about who was the greatest pop star of all time, Elton John or John Lennon. By the time I was 16, I had seen Santana, B.B. King, and Neil Young live in concert.
As my interest shifted more toward African American music in college, I became enamored with blues, tracing its sites on a U.S. trip in 1992 and writing my M.A. thesis on Robert Johnson. After studying abroad in Austin, Texas for a year, I now also listened to indie rock, soul, and old country. My wife, who had spent the first three years of her life in Argentina and was eager to leave Germany, convinced me that I should put my fascination with America to the test and go to grad school in the U.S. With two small children, we moved to Iowa City in 2001. Over the next decade, while I was finishing my Ph.D. in American studies and got a job at the University of Wyoming and eventually even a Green Card, we had two more children. Their first language was German, but their passports were American.
It is this liminal space, located somewhere between a hypernationalist U.S. and a self-deprecating post-war Germany, that I share with my wife and my children, and it is this liminal space that made me seek out semi-obscure krautrock bands from the 1970s. Learning that British and American artists I admired, artists like David Bowie and Afrika Bambaataa, drew inspiration from West German groups somehow made me feel less like a stranger in a strange land. Recognizing my Germanness through a U.S. perspective on krautrock, I understood that I did not have to become fully Americanized, even if I was losing my accent. I had grown up in a place where displays of nationalism were only permissible during the soccer world cup, a place where nobody celebrated German Unity Day on October 3rd although it was a national holiday. Now I lived in a place where, in particular after the World Trade Center had collapsed, American flags were everywhere, international news were reduced to a “global minute” on TV, and the 4th of July was celebrated with fireworks, while bombs exploded on foreign soil. In this climate, it was reassuring to listen to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, an album that defiantly rejected American sentiments, but still cracked the U.S. Top Ten in 1974.
I should note, though, that never since moving to the United States back in 2001 have I regretted that decision. This book, then, is not an attempt to celebrate the essential Germanness of artists like Klaus Schulze or Amon Düül II. Instead, I investigate how national identity gets transformed when it has become impossible to defend (as in the case of post-Nazi Germany). As I argue throughout the book, krautrock represents a process in which the nation-state becomes deterritorialized, hybridized, and ironically inverted, as well as increasingly cosmopolitan, communal, and imbued with alternative spiritualities. I situate the music within its particular context of national identity and globalization and address krautrock’s intersections of transnational musical production and the reshaping of the globalization of U.S. popular culture within this framework. Although it emerged with an emphasis on a specific white West German counterculture, krautrock’s expressions of sonic identity proved to be varied and conflicted. The transnational focus of my analysis within the context of globalization demands a broader definition of the term krautrock that is inclusive of developments on the periphery of any German “mainstream,” in particular in terms of gender, “race,” and nationality. Therefore, unlike other accounts of the genre, this book prominently features artists like Donna Summer and David Bowie.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Nothing was delivered

As I'm undertaking my research semester, spending three months in Germany, I'm beginning to realize more and more that the project I have chosen to investigate has a lot do with my personal history and my subject position. To some extent, this was true for my first book, where I applied my own history of having attended blues concerts at a young age and about my evolving consciousness of racialization processes and racial contentions, but it's much more true for my Krautrock project, as it deals with issues of national identity and belonging. Having brought my 6-headed German-American family with me to Germany, it brings up questions of what "home" means and how American/European ethnic identities are formed and transformed.

To put it in a different way: I catch myself being surprised at how little I have "accomplished" so far, how little I am interested in pursuing specific research tasks such as conducting interviews and going to archives and how much I am trapped in dealing with deceivingly simple issues such as who I am as an individual and who we are as a family. Don't get me wrong, I'm keeping busy writing book reviews, reader reports, preparing for a string of guest lectures at German universities, contemplating possible options of publishing my research as a book. What's becoming more important to me, however, is not so much that I can successfully continue to play the academic game and do all those things you need to do to get tenure, but that I am working on something that is meaningful to both me and an audience (no matter how small that audience may be). More meaningful than "just" getting tenure.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

An den Landungsbrücken raus...

And so the research semester begins. I've been thinking a lot about how my autobiography connects to my topic. I opened my second article about krautrock that got accepted, a piece on the musicians from Neu! for the Journal of Popular Music Studies, with some personal stories -- how I didn't know much about this music growing up in Hamburg and how I really only came to appreciate it by moving to the U.S. and realizing what a huge impact a band like Neu! had on musicians outside the U.S. (finding all of their three major releases at the Iowa City Public Library). But what's also important is that Neu! and many other krautrock groups also express a specific sense of national identity, something that has become so much more important for me after I became an expatriate. It's exactly what I'm struggling with right now, preparing for a three-month return to my "homeland." I've been reading Döblin's Berlin, Alexanderplatz, I've re-watched most of Edgar Reitz's TV series Heimat with my 13-year-old daughter who is excited about getting out of Laramie to a country she feels she belongs to although she left it when she was three years old, but, most importantly, I've been listening to a lot of German music, and not just what would be labeled as krautrock. The Hamburg band Kettcar, in particular, expresses the conflicted feelings I have for the place I've left behind but will be returning to. Hamburg, the city I love but the city that wipes the smile off your face. A city so globalized that you can see containers from its companies rumble by on the railroad right here in Laramie, Wyoming -- yet, a place so parochial that even moving to Berlin can be considered a sell-out. Kettcar is playing two sold-out shows while I'm over there. I'm still trying to get a ticket.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Krautrock Soundtracks: From Herzog to Porn

Because krautrock is often instrumental and atmospheric, it is not surprising that much of the music has been used for or even composed for soundtracks. Both Can and Tangerine Dream scored multiple second-rate German TV programs (Can even issued an LP with those "Soundtracks"), which I haven't watched yet. What I have watched are Werner Herzog's movies with the music of Popol Vuh and with the one and only Klaus Kinski -- "Nosferatu," "Fitzcarraldo," "Aguirre" -- but I will have to re-watch them and pay more attention to the soundtrack. The new field of Sound Studies asks us to pay attention to sounds that are not music as well, so that could be interesting too. Here are the opening credits to Herzog's 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau's 1922 vampire classic with music by Popol Vuh, one of the underappreciated German rock bands of the 70s:

Another movie with a krautrock soundtrack I just watched is Lasse Braun's "Body Love" with music by synthesizer genius Klaus Schulze. Lasse Braun was a pseudonym of the Italian director Alberto Ferro, who took on a Swedish name to make state-of-the-art porn movies in the 1970s (this is the time before the change to video technology in the 80s decried as artistic decline in the movie "Boogie Nights" and of course long before the age of the Internet). I have to admit that despite a few well-done and "captivating" scenes, I found the movie rather boring (although it apparently played at the Cannes festival) and thought Schulze's music works better without images of people engaging in hardcore sex. Here's a nudity-free scene with some music by Schulze halfway in -- it's the setting-up of a sex scene but ends before the flesh fest begins. The building of suspense is actually quite interesting, with some synthesizer sounds by Schulze mixed with female moans that foreshadow what's to "come."

The movie is available in its entirety on the Internet but I recommend simply listening to Schulze's soundtrack -- released on LP in 1977. Another, later, Schulze LP, "Body Love 2," is actually mislabeled as it contains no music from the film.

Friday, November 11, 2011


It's been a long time since my last entry -- the simple reason being that the semester descended upon me and kept me busy with classes unrelated to my research and all those other things professors do -- evaluate grant proposals, serve on search committees, advise students, etc. The good news is that my next semester is a research semester, meaning that I won't be teaching but devoting a lot of time to my research and even spending three months in Germany. So I can promise to keep this blog active and running in the early part of 2013 -- it will be my research diary for those months I hope to spend on and with Krautrock.

Some of the groups that I want to spend more time with:

Popol Vuh -- and their connection to the movies of Werner Herzog

Faust -- avantgarde DIY from Hamburg

Amon Düül I and II -- and the connections between commune politics and Krautrock

More soon!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Christiane F.

So, yeah, the semester has started and I haven't had time to post anything. But I've been reading one of the two books on Bowie and Berlin -- still waiting on the German one -- and I've been considering investigating the connections between Krautrock, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Iggy Pop. With Bowie, I wasn't aware that his fascination with fascism began not too long before he moved to Berlin and that he became a bit more careful about the topic after actually moving to Germany and meeting German people... well, cutting down on the cocaine might have helped too. In any case, it is interesting that Bowie lived in Berlin for three years but never really collaborated with any of the German musicians. He didn't seem interested in Krautrock musicians who actually were from Berlin (like Tangerine Dream, for instance), and why it never came to a collaboration between Bowie and the musicians from Cluster, Harmonia and Kraftwerk is up for debate. Apparently, his record company wanted him to make albums that sold better, and working with German musicians seemed less commercially promising. Bowie and Kraftwerk name-checked each other in their songs "Trans Europe Express" and "V2-Schneider," and there are clearly musical influences of Krautrock on Bowie (interestingly, less influences of Bowie on the German scene). One example would be the German lyrics of "Heroes" in the excellent German movie Christiane F -- Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo about a 13-year-old heroin addict in Berlin -- the movie also features Bowie in a small role as -- David Bowie. In the movie, Christiane is obsessed with Bowie, and having to sell his records is shown as the low point in the teenager's addiction. But let's check the facts -- was Bowie maybe more obsessed with his own construction of "Germany" than vice versa...?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Sophomore Slump?

In many ways I'm still trying to figure out what I actually want to say about Krautrock although I have written two articles on the subject, read everything I could get my hands on, and of course have listened to hours and hours of the actual music. I'm reflecting on this as the paperback version of my first book is on the way (which will be out some time in September). My book was on the racial politics of blues music in the 1960s, and in discussing "white" appropriations of "black" blues, I moved from being somewhat of a fan to somewhat of a hater to a hopefully somewhat balanced view of "white" blues. The jury is still out on this, as I've had different kinds of reactions to my book, but in some ways, after spending so many years on the dissertation and the book manuscript, after publishing articles in some of the best journals I could have dreamed of publishing in (the American Quarterly in particular -- I still can't believe I did that!), after getting a tenure-track job in an excellent program at a nice university, after getting Green Cards for me and my family, I really feel like I'm "done" with the topic of blues music in the 60s and I'm ready to become fully immersed in something else. Still, I'm worried I'm in the middle of a sophomore slump.

Talking about Krautrock has become a more "positive" project, as I'm less out to "expose" problematic forms of identity construction and more interested in showcasing a music and national identity construction that I'm "fond of." The questions then become more about how my project connects to my academic field -- American Studies -- and what exactly I want to argue about Krautrock. Having even more academic freedom than I had in moving from dissertation to book also poses different challenges. For a while, I thought of writing a trade book about Krautrock, targeting a non-academic audience. I have moved away from this idea a bit, although I'm still interested in writing something less inscrutable than an academic book. This blog might help me develop something like that. The three months I will spend in Germany next spring will hopefully too.

Going "home" to deepen my understanding of Krautrock shows another difference between my current project and my first book. While there was some reflection on listening to blues as a teenager and while one of the chapters of my book dealt with Germany (which also meant that I traveled back to my home country to conduct archival research), the personal connection with Krautrock is much more immediate. I have already learned this in different ways. Looking at old music magazines at the Pop Music Archive in Bremen last summer, I came across an issue I had owned when I was ten and that I had read so often that I still remembered every image in it. Also, although I didn't really know or listen to much of the music I now study when I was younger, I was the singer of a band in Hamburg for a few years before I moved to the U.S., and the music of this band (even my own contributions) have some striking resemblances in particular to the music of Krautrock group Can. Why that is when none of us was even remotely interested in any Krautrock at the time is still something I would like to find out.