Kraftwerk – Computer Love

The title of my last post was Talk, Talk, which wasn’t so much a reference to the 80s band. I was more thinking about the song Talk by Coldplay which was inspired by Kraftwerk’s Computer Love. I had never even heard of Kraftwerk until 2009, when I visited Europe for the first time. It was an 11-day trip. After flying into Düsseldorf, I spent three days in Cologne, three in Paris, four in Amsterdam, and flew back out of Düsseldorf.

On my second day in Cologne, I met a gang of street-performers. Jugglers, fire eaters, an escape artist and a few randoms. I drank beers with them near the Cathedral on the Rhine, and after sundown they invited me to a party at the little trailer park they were staying at while passing through town. I accepted their offer, and the next thing I know I’m sitting on a floppy mattress in the back of an old VW van, a dresser and a rack of colorful clothes to my left, a black and white photo of a bald man in clown’s makeup banging around on the wall above my head. Driving the van was S., the escape artist, a fortysomething Italian lady from Rotterdam. In the passenger seat was Barry G., a juggling comedian from San Francisco, living in Europe since 1994. We drove about twenty minutes to the outskirts of town, then came to a gravel road and parked. I was let out the back. The three of us walked up to a door in the fence. The door must’ve been twenty-feet tall, this massive wooden structure with little spikes on top. It looked like something out of medieval times. Barry rang the buzzer and we were let in by a tall blond named Klaus.

The trailer park was on about an acre of land, surrounded on three sides by towering pine trees. There were about ten or twelve small trailers scattered around it pitched at various angles, and in the middle, under the stars – it was a perfectly clear night – a little bonfire burned. We sat down on some railroad ties in the glow of the flames. We talked and drank and passed a joint around. Then a few other street-performers came out of their trailers. One of them, a long-haired German named V., started doing headstands, spreading his legs out and twirling around. And I started talking to Klaus about my fascination with the German culture, and how I wanted to move across the pond one day. Back then it was only a dream. I didn’t think it could ever possibly happen, although I’d been saving up for it for a few years already. We talked about German philosophers and poets and musicians, and I remember asking what I’ve been asking for years. Where are the modern-day Bachs, Beethovens, Handels, Wagners? They must be around, I said. Are they in some other genre than classical music? Have you heard of Kraftwerk? Klaus asked. I hadn’t, so he invited me to his trailer to watch one of their videos. V. of the twirling headstands, who was Klaus’ roommate, also came with us. I stood at the door just outside his tiny, cluttered trailer and looked in as he turned the video on. The song he played was Autobahn, and in the video, which was of a live concert, you see the four members of Kraftwerk dressed like space creatures, standing behind podiums and working their clairvoyant magic. I didn’t think it was magic at the time. I thought it was so rudimentary and dated it was comical. But I wasn’t laughing. I was paranoid. The weed made me so. Not to mention the red-hot glares V. would give me now and again. He didn’t want me there, that was obvious. Was it because I was an American? Did he just not like my face? Was it because I wasn’t a street-performer, but instead a lowly faux businessman? I’d made the mistake earlier of admitting I owned a tool rental shop in South Florida. Soon he started speaking to Klaus in German and I didn’t understand a word. I stood there watching the four space creatures on TV and suddenly the reality of the situation struck me. I am 3000 miles from home. In a foreign country. On the outskirts of a town I know nothing about. In a trailer park full of jugglers and fire eaters and escape artists. And one of them hates me. And the music and the androids playing it can not make the mood any stranger. And I’m stoned. Too stoned. Is this the part where I get clubbed over the skull, dragged into some unterwelt cubbyhole and buggered? I could picture the headlines: AMERICAN TOURIST WITH THC IN SYSTEM GETS RAPED, BODY FOUND IN BLACK FOREST.

Finally the song ended, and Klaus asked me what I thought. I nodded and there was some uncomfortable talk, and we headed back to the bonfire. We sat down on the railroad ties and V. seemed to have lightened up a bit. Klaus started telling me a little more about Kraftwerk. He said they started the band in a garage in Düsseldorf in 1969, and are considered the inventors and pioneers of electronic music. He told me a few vignettes about this and that, and I made a mental note to do further investigating later. Maybe Autobahn is just one bad song, I thought.

That was eight years ago.

I have since grown to really like Kraftwerk, even Autobahn. But what I love most is thinking about their origins in that little garage in far-flung Düsseldorf. The music they were playing in there was so different from everything else being played in 1969, how could they, or anyone who might’ve heard it in those days, predict what a monumental impression they’d soon be making in the music industry? Was it even music they were playing? I’m sure some people had their doubts. But Kraftwerk followed their intuition regardless, and seemed to have developed a sort of prescience by doing so. Twelve years later, they released Computer World. Here are the lyrics from Computer Love, the 5th track on the 1981 album.

Computer love
Computer love
Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen

I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous
Computer love
Computer love

I call this number
For a data date

I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous

Computer love
Computer love

If that doesn’t speak for the internet culture of today, I don’t know what does. It’s almost as if Kraftwerk had thrown little feelers out the garage and into the future and turned what they’d apprehended into art. Which is why I say: as much as I love the scientist’s bar graph & beaker, qualitative analysis, mathematical models & cross-sectional data, the best instrument we have to illuminate the unknown is the artist’s heart.

“There is nothing in the intellect that wasn’t first found in the senses.” ~ Aristotle


2 thoughts on “Kraftwerk – Computer Love

  1. I meant to comment on this when you first published it but then EVENTS pulled me away… I love the personal, societal details that you give, leading up to the observations at the end: I love that you display your initial recoil, and I love even more that you articulate your change of opinion, how you come around to liking and wondering about the group’s origins… And I could think long and long about that question that you pose, “Was it even music they were playing?” My bias may change someday, but right now I favor most the type of art that makes one ask “Is it even X?” (Confronted with Duchamp’s “Large Glass”: Is this even a painting? Or different writings by Raymond Roussel: Is this even a poem? Is this even a novel? And on and on, many more examples…) For if we are moved to inquire in this way, it means at least that boundaries are being tested. And I like best the works that lure us to answer “Is it X?” with “Yes and no, for this work is BEYOND the medium, BEYOND the genre.” But I also am happy either way: I’m both pro-form AND anti-boundary; because, when boundaries are fortified, we get good, strong, lengthy, sturdy traditions (I’m thinking of tried-and-true formats like the sonnet), and interesting MEANING can grow here, because it thrives on subtle change within repetition; whereas it’s also thrilling when artistic boundaries are broken, since it means freedom to wander, freedom to experiment. (I realize with a little embarrassment that I’ve maybe strayed from the thrust of the above entry, but take it as a compliment that your thoughts engender further thoughts in your readers!) …And what you conclude about the online culture seems spot-on to me. I hope that the sad, lonely simplicity of it all is just a trait of its infancy — as it matures with age, I hope that we can make the desert a paradise.

    • I am with you in favoring art in which we ask, ‘Is it even X?’ People are so anxious to classify a person or thing, usually by using the suffix ist. When they can’t do that, they either cheat or lie and do it anyway, or just ignore and hope it goes away. ‘So and so’s a SOCIALIST!!”

      And yes, as you say, there’s much to be said for working within the old traditional form. I thought e.e. cummings did some wonderful and revolutionary things with his sonnets, but often it’s like wearing a straightjacket. If I have any goal with this blog, it’s to always be inventive…. never get stuck in one form or way. Nothing ages you like that.

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