Teen Angst and Handcream [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

photo by SG 

Ginger Green’s destination is a showcase for a supposed rock group at an unlikely venue at the corner where the Ku’damm is crossed by Uhland Strasse. It is an intermittently overcast day. The clouds look like spit on a windshield. It was not easy getting this venue. It was Ginger’s idea but it was Ollie who pulled it off. How Ollie pulled it off…what he threatened or offered…Ginger is almost too frightened to wonder. Ollie refers to the golden demographic of 11-22 as The Bosses. As in, “Yeah, but will The Bosses fall for it?” The band hasn’t taken the stage yet. The band is called Chocolate Chainsaw. Ginger’s brainchild. Ollie didn’t like the name… he lobbied for Soul Soda… but Ginger and Reason prevailed. 

A well known Belgian manufacturer of hand cream wanted greater penetration into the youth market. Don’t we all. They commissioned Ginger and his partner Ollie to write a catchy song which wouldn’t reek of jingle and could pass for actual rock. The idea… the good lie… being that the song pre-existed the ad campaign. The song should be able to fake a plausible life of its own. The song should represent a fresh young authentic reality. The song should appear to be written by some movingly struggling band… struggling as in authentic…a band that would have come by sheer coincidence to the attention of the executives at the Belgian manufacturer of hand cream. The story will be that a Belgian executive “fell in love with the song and just had to have it for this great new product”. The whole project was reverse-engineered from the plasticky song that Ginger and Ollie slapped together in four hours after lunch the day after the initial call from the ad agency (otherwise known as the House of Good Lies). The song is called “Dreamwalker”. The lyrics have nothing to do with hand cream. That’s how the Belgian executives wanted it. 

Chocolate Chainsaw have known each other for two weeks, although they are well-prepared to pretend to be childhood friends. They have been studying. Three of the members are Berliners but the keyboard player Rheinhardt and the lead singer, Lux, are from Hamburg. Lux was recommended as a plausible “rock star” by a manager-friend of Ginger’s and came down by train a month ago, sang the song in a recording studio and began the grueling process of learning the band’s intensely confabulated back story. The back story, as stitched-together as any Hollywood epic by committee, is a group effort from Ginger, Ollie, three executives from the Belgian hand cream giant and three executives from the House of Good Lies. The back story stretches itself the furthest in explaining what the hell they are all doing in Berlin, if they’re British. Lux, according to this tale, is the son of a British diplomat. 

This gig in a McDonald’s is the first showcase. The showcase will be three songs. It’s an attention-span issue. The site was chosen for its strong American associations since the last thing anyone on Ginger’s side of the curtain wants is for Chocolate Chainsaw to read like a German band. The band should seem distinctly British, with Yankee influences. One of the ad guys had said “Clash meets The Strokes” whatever the fuck that meant. Another said “Pogues meet Bon Jovi.”

“The Ramones meet Fleetwood Mac,” wasn’t even taken seriously enough to make a bewildered face at.  

The band all speak English with a British accent… this was a prerequisite more important than fluency on an instrument. Germany divided by America equals Great Britain… therefore the McDonald’s. The Kentucky Fried Chicken would have been too weird. Dunkin Doughnuts too unhip. A lot is riding on this show. It will not be a play-back… it will be “real”. The band’s Past will be fake therefore its Present must be real; there are rules about that; conceptual guidelines. The band will really be playing and Lux will really be singing a song they will pretend is theirs while pretending to know each other: they have been coached extensively on the conspiratorial glances and inside gags and mysterious asides to one another during solos they should indulge in on stage. 

The showcase is deliberately set during school hours in the middle of the week to force kids who show up for it to be skipping classes, which adds to the aura around the event. The kids attending the show should feel that they are seeing it despite the best efforts of the Powers that Be. The experience should feel like a secret that the kids will smuggle from the show and parcel out like arbiters of cool to their classmates. After building grassroots mystique this way for five weeks, The House of Good Lies will leak the song into media outlets, hoping to spark an explosion of kids claiming to have loved it first while buying the product (which Ginger can’t remember…was it lip balm? Was it sugar-based lubricant?) as an afterthought. But even that isn’t the main goal of the campaign. The main goal is to hook the kids now in order to keep them as adults and get a lock on their children. The goal is genetic conscription. 

Look at Lux. Ginger looks at Lux. Lux is a tall, thin, long-haired blonde of about 23…neurasthenic in a way that should seem ‘70s rock but reads more as 21st century atonal. Lux is the victim of too many influences and far too many choices…the self-canceling non-presence of the undecidant who doesn’t know where to start and therefore doesn’t. He feels like an unfinished sneeze. Lux, with his big blue eyes and parenthetical hyphen of a mouth looks and walks like a cartoon. In a rehearsal room he puts on a passable show playing rock star; he prances with a hand on his hip and goes down on one knee with the mike-stand or detaches the mike and windmills it on the end of the chord without hitting anyone or knocking his own teeth out. Milling around in the McDonald’s before show time however he looks awkward and self-conscious in his black sleeveless t-shirt and the long white scarf around his neck and his huge red satin elephant bell-bottoms and Ginger realizes that a drug-free “rock star” is a sad and disappointing thing. He only hopes Lux doesn’t choke. Ginger has seen many a performer choke and is sensitive to the half-dozen or so telltale predictors…cardinal of which is excessive humility and/or politeness before a gig. Which Lux is displaying. He’s clutching a complimentary burger, enjoying the freebie perk. Or maybe he’s really hungry. But Germans are strange when it comes to free merchandise.  

Ginger spots, in the growing crowd of surprisingly attractive teenage girls, silver-haired men who look out of place in a European McDonald’s and pegs them as guys from the ad agency, or maybe Belgian guys from the company, or perhaps a smattering of both. They had evinced little interest, both camps, in having representatives at this first showcase, which everyone very coolly predicted would be “inevitably rough-edged”… but it’s obvious they’ve changed their minds. Or had planned on spying from the start. If any of the well-dressed, silver-haired men are in fact from either the ad agency or The Company, there’s a good chance that this is the only “rock” concert they’ve ever been to and are using a professional excuse to do just once what they never had the chance to do as teenage boys already on the fast track of Euro-Corporate life. Upper-class Germans can guess with an accuracy of within a 5% deviation a man’s income merely by being told his age, his last name and the kindergarten he attended. A name with a “Von” in it is also significant. 

The McDonald’s is now packed to its capacity of three hundred and fifty and to mollify its normal clientele the management is distributing free ice cream in little plastic cups with wooden spoons to everyone and meanwhile giving Ginger fervid looks meaning get them going exactly at the scheduled start-time and get them finished exactly at the scheduled wrap-up time and get these non-buying kids the fuck out of my franchise immediately after. A space of perhaps ten square meters has been cleared around the drumkit and the amplifiers in the main dining room and the space is already filled to the extent that female bodies are pressed against the equipment. It is ten minutes until show time and Ginger squeezes through the peristaltic throng (with its absolutely un-Americanly low average body mass index; imagine squeezing through an American mob from the same demographic and actually feeling bones) towards Lux.  

Lux is propped against the wall, down a short hall, next to the door to the unisex WC. He is chatting with Reinhardt the freakishly tall keyboarder and clutching a second burger with a cartoonishly perfect crescent-shaped bite out of it. When Ginger makes eye-contact with Lux he gestures peremptorily at his wrist-watch and Lux nods, chewing vociferously; chewing so vociferously in fact that he looks like an old-time speeded-up Keystone Cops type film of the silent era; and holds up his burger by way of explanation. Lux falls back into conversation with Reinhardt, who has combined elements of a freakishly tall man’s posture (the round-shouldered slouch of a vulture) with elements of the keyboarder’s default stance (arms folded low across the chest and feet splayed far apart) and added the twist of the terminal adolescent’s addiction to the outlandish and/or uncomfortable by propping himself like a stork on one leg. 

Reinhardt is by far the oldest member of Chocolate Chainsaw but hides the fact under dyed black hair, and a skater’s cap, with the fringe of his hair down over his eyes. At the cap-hidden crown of his dye-job there is a large asterisk of gray which appears almost white in contrast. Reinhardt is 37 and he can’t fake a British accent but they handled that by forbidding him from speaking on stage or during interviews: he’ll be the mute one. Ginger barely knows Lux and Reinhardt not at all; Lux got Reinhardt into the project and that was the one concession he demanded in his contract. 

Ginger notices that Lux is clutching the half-chewed second burger in one hand and holding a third in reserve, still wrapped, in the other, and they weren’t plain burgers after all, but, rather, the slightly more exalted filet-o-fish. This is either a good sign or a bad sign, but at least he’s hungry. Singers with hysterical stage fright don’t woof down filet-o-fish sandwiches just minutes before a gig, even if the management is providing them free of charge. Not the Big Macs or the Quarter Pounders, of course. Just the filet-o-fish or the  plain burgers featuring a pickle and a dollop of ketchup on a bun. Ginger would love to see one of those digital bits of postmodern burger data next to the prototype, a real live hamburger… one of which Ginger himself gobbled down at the first official McDonald’s restaurant in creation, known as McDonald’s #1, just outside of Chicago in the scary suburb of Des Plaines in the year 1964 as a guest of his Uncle Man. But everything these days is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy… 

A very pretty and tallish fifteen year old brunette in a pink sweater and a low-cut white top and skin-tight white jeans no longer than to the bottoms of her calves…with skin as softly reflective as the surface of a sugar-frosted cookie… tugs the sleeve of Ginger’s burgundy blazer. Every girl in the room is wearing either a vanilla-based or musk-based scent and she seems to have opted for the vanilla, which heightens Ginger’s impression that licking her face would yield frosting. 

“Excuse me, are you, like, with the band?” Her English is advanced MTV. It will take another few sentences before Ginger can be sure that she isn’t American. Her voice is throaty and older and sexier than it should be.  

“I’m the body guard.” 

“That’s very cool.” She reaches to shake Ginger’s hand. “I’m the Tanja.” 

“Nice to meet you, Tanja.” Her hand is a mere trinket in his.  

“Can you tell me, please, what does Chocolate Chainsaw really mean?” She manages to make the question extremely suggestive. Or maybe Ginger is projecting. 

Ginger says “You’ll have to ask the singer, Lux, that question,” and he nods towards Lux, who squeezes just then past both of them with an ironic salute, with Reinhardt in tow, both Reinhardt and Lux giving Tanja craven side-long glances more appropriate to roadies for the band than the lead singer of the band itself but there’s nothing Ginger can do about that. It’s disturbing enough that this fifteen year old hasn’t stopped flirting with 45-year-old Ginger long enough to give 23-year-old Lux the eye. With her weird European sophistication about power this girl has gone right for Ginger over the lead singer of the band she’s supposed to adore, despite Ginger’s pose as a hireling. Germans girls know to look for the boredom… the ones worth knowing are always truly bored. American kids are much more sophisticated consumers of media which is why their pop culture is better… but sophistication about media breeds a crippling innocence towards the real world of power and fucking and animal life. The fatness of the American teen is a symptom of innocence. German girls know better. After two local world wars and a local cold war, they are tuned right into the animal verities. 

“Tanja, I want you to look at my shoes.” 

“Oh, they’re nice. Where’d you get ’em?” 

“The store I bought them at is no longer in business. Out of business for fifteen years. These shoes are older than you are.” 

“I guess that means it’s, like, time to replace ‘em.” 

“How old are your parents, Tanja? I bet they’re not as old as I am. I bet your father would give me his seat on the U-Bahn.” 

“My father wouldn’t be caught dead on the U-Bahn.” She looks at him quizzically. “Are you American or not?” 

Ginger says, “American? Yeah, I’m American. When I was your age I was an all-American virgin, and there was no such thing as cell-phones, the internet, VCRs, CDs, DVDs, reality TV or AIDS. We didn’t even have answering machines. Don’t you think you’d be happier without all that junk, Tanja?  Don’t you think you’d be happier having picnics and climbing trees and flying kites in the sunshine for a change?” 

“Sounds, like, romantic. Are you free this Saturday?” 

“You’re not getting my point.” 

“Maybe my English isn’t, like, good enough. What is your point?” 

“That I’m old enough to be your grandmother’s gigolo.” 

“Na, und?” 

“You’re just a child.” 

“You make it sound like it’s, like, my fault.” 

“I’m talking about wrong and right.” 

Tanja puts her hand on Ginger’s face and pushes it gently to the left.  

“See that pretty girl in the expensive clothes over there? Talking on her handy? Looks like Paris Hilton but with much bigger boobies?” She pronounces “clothes” as cloe-thus. She pronouncesboobies” as boob-eyes. 

 “Yes.” 

“She’s sixteen, she’s my best friend, and she drives, like, an S-Class. Okay? She’s the happiest person in, like, the world. Her dad is, like, in really good shape. She has her own flat in London and gets really good grades in school and she… goes on dates with her dad because her mom is like, a total, like, bitch… you know? She got the boob surgeries because her dad has… wie sag man… suggested it. Is suggested a word? You know what I mean. Don’t you like German girls?” 

The drums and the guitars kick in and Tanja gets on her tip-toes and shouts “What’s your name, anyway? You never told me!” but Ginger shakes his head and waves bye-bye and pushes his way back towards the main dining room to stand in the deafening epicenter of the Chocolate Chainsaw experience. Anything less than a rude exit would have been a seduction. Ginger is trying to be scrupulous about that. He is trying. The silver-haired men are nodding to the beat at various stations around the room. They are all wearing sunglasses. 

The first song has a thirty-two bar intro to give kids outside or in the WC a chance to drop whatever they’re doing and rush to a spot in front of the”Stage” without missing Lux’s entrance. The third song, the hand cream song itself, scheduled to commence in exactly six and a half minutes, is to be the high point of the gig… it’s the song that the silver-haired men flew down here to see. The first song, the opener, is just the mood-setter and is built around a two-bar sample from the head riff of the Animals cover of the Nina Simone song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood… they are not seriously thinking of releasing a tune built around such an expensive sample, of course, but if the kids flip over it, who knows? The beat is already hooking them. It’s such a heavy, cocky, storm-troopers-on-the-march-into Paris kind of groove. 

The drummer, a hefty kid with black horn-rimmed glasses and a modified Mohawk (short strip on top, lines on the sides) is the best musician in the band. He was participating in a dozen other projects until Ginger began paying him a modest monthly allowance not to. The kid’s a monster. Ginger likes watching him slamming the skins with the professional frown of a proctologist on the toilet. The beat is so solid you could nail sheet rock to it. But the guitarist is merely a mammal and only there because he’s Japanese, which is still considered cool in Berlin; not Japaneseness in and of itself but Japaneseness with a guitar. And the youngest at 18, the bass player, he’s so cute he looks like his own little sister but is far from a Jaco Pastorius…see him grinning that 5-gee moonlaunch grin of terror. He pinches off each elephant-dung fundament on the downbeat with a sexless thud, but it’s okay because the drummer makes it all right. A good drummer is a panacea. Lux has his back to the audience (as per instruction), waiting for the upbeat at the end of bar 31 before he’s to whirl around and grab the mic and deliver the first line of the song, titled Ms. Undastood, which is “Hey I ain’t your toy, little girl, and I ain’t your baby boy, little g-r-r-r-r-l…” 

Everyone in the densely packed McDonald’s, as far as Ginger can see, is bouncing like beans on a bongo, locked into the song before Lux even opens his mouth. He scans the crowd for his partner Ollie Daumen and lo and behold he catches Ollie standing on the very spot that Ginger himself vacated just twenty four bars ago, proving the theory that nature abhors a vacuum, or that Ginger and Ollie are matter and anti-matter… for Ollie is standing with territorial intensity right there next to Tanja, looking quite sly and irresistibly bored and more than old enough to be her father. 

Lux whips around with his wild blonde hair and his eyes screwed shut, lurching across the stage to reach blindly for the mic like it’s a loaded rifle in a room full of lions and he opens his mouth and a buttermilk-colored python of vomit springs out. It coils around the shoulders of several little girls in the front row, suspended solid in the strobe of a camera flash for a millisecond before collapsing down the fronts of their dresses… setting off screams and a stampede in which several teens are severely rattled but none are very seriously hurt. 

Advertisements