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 crew of street-performers, drank beer with them in the shadow of the Cathedral and afterwards they invited me to a little campfire gathering they were having at a trailerpark on the outskirts of the city.
I drove there with S., a Dutch-Italian escape artist, and Barry G., a juggler-comedian from San Francisco who’d been living in Europe since 1994. The escape artist was driving the VW van which she lived in and I was sitting in the back of it with all her furniture and all her busking outfits and there was a bowler’s hat suspended from the ceiling and on the wall there was a large, framed black & white photo of a bald man in clown’s makeup who seemed to be looking into my soul the whole ride.
It took about 20 minutes to get to the trailerpark. S. parked and let me out of the van. Then the three of us – the escape artist, the juggling comedian and the tool rental guy – walked up to the entrance. The door must’ve been twenty-feet tall, this massive wooden structure with little spikes on top. It looked like something out medieval times or the Legend of Parsifal. Barry rang the buzzer and we were let in by a tall blond busker named Klaus.
The trailerpark was on about an acre of land, surrounded on three sides by a mass of black towering pine trees. There were about ten or twelve small trailers nestled around, and in the middle, under the planets and stars – it was a perfectly clear night – a little golden bonfire burned. We sat down on some railroad ties in the glow of the flames and talked and drank while passing a joint around. Then a few other street-performers came out of their trailers. One of them, a long-haired German named Volker, started doing headstands on the railroad ties, spreading his legs out and twirling around. While that was happening, I was talking to Klaus about my love of the German culture, and how I wanted to move across the pond one day. Back then my moving to Europe 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’d 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 over to his trailer to watch one of their videos. Volker came with us. The two of them entered the trailer and I stood just outside the door as Klaus turned the video on. The song he played was Autobahn, and in the video, which was from a live concert, you see the four members of Kraftwerk dressed like automatons, standing behind podiums and working their clairvoyant magic. I didn’t think it was magic at the time. I thought it was kind of absurd, I must admit. Comical too, but I wasn’t laughing. I was paranoid. The weed made me so. Not to mention the menacing, red-hot glares Volker kept giving me. 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 capitalist tool rental store guy? (I’d mistakenly admitted my job earlier in the night).
He started talking to Klaus in German while the video was playing. I stood there not understanding them and watching the four automatons and suddenly the reality of the situation struck me. I am 3000 miles from home. 2nd night ever in Europe. On the outskirts of a town I know nothing about. In a trailerpark full of jugglers and fire eaters and escape artists. And one of them hates me. And the music and the androids playing it can’t make the scene any stranger. And I’m stoned. Too stoned. Paranoid. Is this the part where I get clubbed over the skull, dragged into some unterwelt cubbyhole and buggered? I stood there shifting my weight from my right foot to my left and back again. Finally, the song ended. Klaus asked me what I thought of it. “Yea, yea,” I said, and some uncomfortable talk followed. We headed back to the bonfire. We sat down on the railroad ties and Volker started doing headstands again. Klaus then 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 eleven years ago.
I have since grown to love Kraftwerk, even Autobahn. But what I love most is thinking about their origins in that little garage in far-flung Düsseldorf. The music that was echoing in there was so strange and different from everything else being played in 1969, the impact they’d one day have on the music industry could hardly be imagined. Was it even music they were playing? I’m sure some people had their doubts. But Florian and Ralf followed their intuition nonetheless and twelve years later the eerily prescient Computer World was born. Here the lyrics from Computer Love, the 5th track on the album.
Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen
I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous
I call this number
For a data date
I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous
If that doesn’t sum up modern life, I don’t know what does. It’s almost as if Kraftwerk had gotten mystical a little glimpse into the future, 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 there is to throw light on the unknown is the artist’s heart.
“There is nothing in the intellect that wasn’t first found in the senses.” ~ Aristotle