MARC REEDER, DANGEROUSLY
Berlin for many is a stepping-stone. You do your Berlin thing and then you move on. That’s how it was for Berlin’s most famous expats: Vladimir Nabokov, Christopher Isherwood, David Bowie, Nick Cave. Mark Reeder never managed to get over Berlin.
Reeder has seen it all since coming to Berlin at twenty in 1978 to become Factory Records German representative, promoting acts like Joy Division. He has experienced the highs and the lows of this city, basking in the limelight when Berlin appeared to be having its day, while riding out the boring bits, hopeful that something interesting would happen.
He has been a behind-the-scenes force, as founding member of synthpop duo Die Unbekannten, in the eighties, touring Europe with New Order. He brought Die Toten Hosen to East Berlin and was the first and the last Englishman to record in the East. Following the fall of the Wall, he founded his own electronic dance music label “Masterminded for Success” or MFS and discovered teenage Paul van Dyk.
All the while Reeder has proved to be a great proponent of Berlin – East and West – a cicerone and contact-man for visiting English journalists and writers, who were intrigued by Reeder’s ambiguous personality and slightly suspicious penchant for uniforms, immortalizing him in books like Zoo Station and Once Upon a Time in the East. Most recently, he is the protagonist of B-Movie, a documentary film on the music scene of West Berlin of the ‘80s.
I first learned about Reeder through a book, now out of print, published in 1987, which I picked up at the old US army bookshop at Truman Plaza in 1992. Zoo Station tells the story of a young English journalist’s adventures in West and East Berlin and is an intriguing portrait of the divided city in the eighties by a writer who was won over by the simple – yet doomed — pleasures of East Berlin, and irritated by the nihilism and insouciance of West Berliners.
In the book we learn of a young man named Mark Reeder, who worked as doorman at the Loft, in the old Metropol on Nollendorf Platz, who used to shock all and sundry with his militaristic fashion statements.
“Standing next to Mark I was, as always, conscious of his clothes, conscious of the looks flung in his direction whenever he was in public,” we read. “Mark dressed like a Nazi and sometimes I felt tainted by association…he was a cartoon version of the post-war flirtation with the Nazi aesthetic”.
I often wondered whatever happened to the author Ian Walker, who seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth after the book was published in 1987, and was shocked to learn from Reeder that Walker had committed suicide in 1990, jumping from the window of a London building, after announcing to friends that it was the second coming of Christ. In retrospect something of the tormented mood of the book seemed to foreshadow the tragic event.
In 1992 Reeder was further memorialized in Dave Rimmer’s Once Upon a Time in the East, which recounts forays with Reeder into the wonderland and dangerous Disneyland that was East Berlin in the eighties, leading to road trips into crumbling and decrepit East Block countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, where, from behind the Iron Curtain, Rimmer, Reeder and other road buddies learn of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As with Walker, what amused Rimmer about Reeder was his obsession with military regalia. He described Reeder as “a diminutive Mancunian, then just into his thirties yet still looking like he’d barely started shaving. Mark had big baby blue eyes and an austere short back and sides that suggested the 1930s or 1940s. Together with a penchant for dressing in a collage of the assorted militaria he devoted great energy to collecting, this could add up to what Mark himself admitted was a slightly ‘dodgy’ impression. Sometimes he’d appear completely costumed as a Russian soldier or East German border guard. Riding his mountain bike he might sport jodhpurs and jackboots. Yet he never looked even remotely macho. A mutual friend once described him affectionately as a ‘sort of Third Reich version of George Formby’”.
Over the years Reeder has remained true to his original look. He still sports a graying version of his 1930s short-back-and-sides hairstyle and when I met him in a café near to where he lives in Kreuzberg 61, he was wearing clothes of a vaguely military cut, with trousers tucked into army boots.
“It’s not about Nazi stuff,” Reeder strove to make clear. “I don’t know if you got this from Ian. It was all about how I could adapt a particular piece of kit into, like, my every-day usage. If I got a bread bag from the Wehrmacht, you know, it would suffice as a bag to carry my crap in. That’s what it was about. It wasn’t about being a Nazi. I’m a socialist, actually,”
Iggy Pop was once asked what attracted him to Berlin. “The uniforms,” Iggy said. “I love the uniforms”. For Mark, who grew up playing Tommies against the Gerries on the streets of Manchester, the reason he came to Berlin had something to do with the Cold War glamour of the city.
Berlin was then a crumbling, war-scarred, Wall-scarred city. Germans Reeder met on his travels through West Germany tried their best to dissuade him from going to Berlin. It was a city with too much history – unpleasant history.
“One woman said, ‘Oh, I’m from Berlin. It’s really great. You should go there’. And then she said, ‘Ssshh, I shouldn’t say that’. I was, like, ‘Okay….interesting’. And then I decided in ’78 to leave Manchester and come here.”
Reeder threw himself into the nightlife of the city with a vengeance. He started hanging out in the famous Dschungel, where risqué haircuts and black leather trousers were de rigueur and Blixa Bargeld from Einstürtzende Neubauten and the whole panoply of West Berlin arty types held court.
“You’d go to SO36 to hear a concert. There’d be complete mayhem, or whatever. And then you’d go to the Dschungel and just chill out really and have a drink and lounge around.”
Reeder and his mates would drink at Leydicke in Schöneberg, one of Berlin’s oldest bars, former hangout of Bowie and Iggy Pop, and an old hippy watering-hole, disdained by the New Wave crowd.
“It looked like the ceiling was brown from nicotine smoke. It had all the original fittings in there. When I just came to Berlin they had celebrated their one hundredth anniversary. It was packed out full of people because it was cheap, you know. Cheap alk. They make their own wine. They make their own schnapps. So people would just drink cheap bottles of horrible gooseberry and blueberry wine. You drink a bottle of that and then the next day your head’s coming off, you know. We just liked the ambience of the place. We would go really early, at the opening time at four o´clock in the afternoon. It was empty then, and you could get a decent drink and a nice sit-down. The feel of the place was so authentic, you know. For us this was like what real old Berlin used to look like. The interior. The old Gothic wooden panels. All the bottles looked so original. They had all these really old labels on them still. Still do. And they still do their own schnapps, burn their own schnapps.”
In 1983 Reeder helped put together the Berlin special of The Tube a popular UK Channel 4 pop program. The show featured music from both sides of the walled city, debuting bands like Die Ärzte. Initially Reeder was supposed to be behind the scenes, organizing bands and arranging venues. But presenter Muriel Gray took one look at Reeder in his black leather Gestapo coat, and knew the English eccentric had to appear before the camera.
The footage of Reeder showing off his Berlin is the center piece of B-Movie. The film comes at a time of renewed interest in the old west half of Berlin. West Berlin neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding are today where the action is, rather than slick and touristy Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and Friedrichshain. Still, Reeder and the makers of B-Movie couldn’t manage to persuade Berlin money sources that it was a venture worth investing in.
“The Berliner Filmföderung gave us not one penny,” says Reeder. “They said, “Ah, it’s not a cinema movie”. The woman said to Jörg Hopper, “I can’t see a love story here. There should be a love story in there somewhere”. And Hopper was like: “But the story is about Mark Reeder falling in love with the city. That’s the love story”.
As fascinating a portrait of West Berlin as B-Movie is, it only tells half of the Mark Reeder story. The other half is Reeder’s romance with East Berlin.
West Berliners – having grown up in West Berlin, I know how it was – studiously ignored the Wall and East Berlin. It was a chore getting over there and once you were there, there was nothing that held your attention, for a person weaned on the pop culture of the West. “I’m not interested in East Berlin,” says Blixa Bargeld in B-Movie. “I like living in a city where I never see the other half”.
But for expats like Reeder and his friends East Berlin was an adventure fraught with risks and a respite from the hedonism of the West.
“Berlin was a city of opposing halves, a hall of mirrors, a symbolic contest,” wrote Walker.
“Berlin offered in one neat package an evocation of both childhood games and teenage fascinations, all tied up in the related notions of a supposed decadence sanctioned in literature, film and pop music and the possibility of dallying, even dancing, with the devil,” wrote Rimmer. “Whether that devil wore a bible-black swastika or a blood-red star, it all added up to the same thing. Berlin in some senses represented the Enemy – an enemy that one had almost grown to feel comfortable with.”
“It was like being beamed down on this planet that resembled our world, but was different,” says Reeder. “Being sent into the fifties. It was all these things and more for me. And on the cultural side – all the museums and art galleries that were there at the time, the Communist art, which I loved, actually – the East Germans hated it, the West Germans hated it. I thought it was fucking brilliant. I was like, if I could have that on my wall, shit. For East German kids it was all grim and miserable. And I tried to brighten their lives in some way by smuggling music into East Berlin. For most West Berliners the East was like this thorn in the side. It was just like, they didn’t have any interest to go there. It was all miserable crap.”
Part of what fascinated Reeder about East Berlin, of course, were the uniforms. Once he smuggled out an East German uniform under his clothing. Back in West Berlin he wore it all the time, went on tour with it.
“Today you can go to Checkpoint Charley and there’s this guy selling full uniforms for nothing. But back then, I knew at the time if I got caught I’d have been shot, probably. They would have exterminated me.”
All the while – Reeder had suspected it, actually – tabs were being kept on him by the secret police. Later, after the Wall had fallen, when Reeder went to Alexander Platz to read his Stasi file, they asked him if he needed a psychologist.
“I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you will be seeing things and reading things from people that you know. It might disturb you.’ You sit in this big room with all these big tables and people sitting there huddling over their Stasi files crying their eyes out because they just discovered that their wife or child or brothers and sisters have been denouncing them for the past forty years. And I’m sitting there reading my Stasi file thinking, what did they not know? I’m actually not allowed to see my entire Stasi file. I was only allowed to see a certain quarter of it.”
For a city renown for its subcultures, Reeder has seen a lot of it. He was there for punk, New Wave and techno. And he still continues to DJ, riding the current retro-eighties trend.
I suggest to him, however, that what passes today for subculture in Berlin is in fact pallid mainstream, and that the real subcultures of this city are to be found in the so-called “parallel societies” of the city’s immigrant milieus, ignored and given short shrift by Berlin’s mainstream German media.
Reeder sees it differently. Berlin, in his opinion, is under threat from precisely these recently arrived immigrants.
“We live in a very relaxed environment here in Berlin. We are very, very lucky to be living in paradise. We drink water from the tap, we enjoy a very pleasant ambience in the city. So far, so good. But what happens if that starts to change? If we have other elements which start to infiltrate themselves into our society that don’t like the way we live, that don’t like the way we are free, and freedom of thought. They try and destroy that. I think that is a danger which we have to face. Because the more acceptingly we open our arms to our refugee brothers and sisters, who kind of like, come over, we have to start thinking, ‘which one of you is the destructive element?’”
In other words some of these immigrants coming from traditional societies, who are not used to Western freedoms, may want to impose their own weltanschauung? But isn’t this an alarmist view dangerously close to the AfD?
“They come here and they are shocked,” Reeder goes on. “They come here because they have to flee their situation in Syria, or whatever, being bombed to bits on a daily basis. They come here. But they can’t integrate themselves into this society because it’s totally alien to them. And if they go to some place like Berghain, which is all dark and druggy and it’s tscht-tscht-tscht-tscht, it’s like they’re shocked. And they see that this is evil and they want to do something about it. They want to root out that evil, you know.”
Ultimately, Reeder says, Berliners have to stand up and defend the Berlin which they enjoy.
“We have to defend this city and its right to be the bastion of free speech, because that’s what Berlin is. And we have exported that thought to other places like Yugoslavia, to Hungary, to all the eastern places. To Istanbul. To America, Brazil, China, Columbia, or wherever.
“Then you’ve got other places where it doesn’t exist and where they can’t get their heads around it. And we have to defend that. Because of we let them, whoever they may be, try and destroy it, we’ve lost. And the new Cold War, which is on the horizon, is something that we have to work out really. I think about that quite a lot, actually. Because I have experienced so many different things, so many different genres, things in the last forty years. I feel sorry if we succumb. That’s not what it’s about. We have to, like, maintain what we have here, even if it’s the only place on earth.”
IVAN ARZOU FROM BIG WINDOW
So, you are from Armenia?
No, I am from Isfahan. I am from Persia. I was born in Iran. When I was fourteen years old my parents sent me to Calcutta. I was in a boarding school seven years. An Armenian boarding school. And then I came back to my parents in Tehran. They were living at that time in Tehran. And I stayed there about two years and then I left, because I couldn’t stand – you know, when you are in India, especially Calcutta, people don’t lie there. I don’t know if it’s still like that – everything changes. And they are more or less straight forward, and you can trust everybody. And then you come to Persia and every second one is a lie.
So I left Iran and went to Los Angeles because my relatives are all there. I was there around six months.
But you are of Armenian heritage?
Yeah, I am Armenian. Sure. I was christened in that famous cathedral in Isfahan. It’s called Vank…Yeah, after six months I left Los Angeles and came back to England. I could stay My passport was Persian, Iranian. So someone said, “Go to Germany. You get your resident permit”.
So I started from Düsseldorf. That was the first station.
What year was that?
That must have been ’60. Then I went to Munich, here and there. And then the last station was Hamburg. I kind of liked it. But I wasn’t one hundred percent satisfied, and so I came here. That was the time when the Wall wasn’t there. There was no Wall then. That was ’61. Anyway, I came here for 24 hours, flew back to Hamburg, got my stuff and came here and stayed. Ever since, I am here.
What were your first impressions of Berlin?
The first impression was when I got in the S-Bahn and went from East to West, it was electrifying for me. You see things like that in a film or something. But then you come from a liberal part of the town and go to the other side and all are military. Anyway, I liked it very much. And then I found a job by the Americans as a bar mixer. I worked there a couple of years.
Where was it that you worked?
Club 50. El Oso, in the barracks. I think Andrews. Yeah, and then I got married. And that was ’66. We went with a Volkswagen to Tehran. That’s about 7,000 kilometers. And we were there one month and then I came back. And I said, “I’m not going to work for anybody”. And I called my uncle, whether he would lend me twenty thousand for one year. He said, “Sure”. And then I opened this place. And from the first moment we opened this place it started working.
When did you open it?
25 February 1967.
And back then here in Halensee was a little bit different then it is today. There was more action, I think.
It was more bar than dinner. At the beginning. This bar was jam- packed every night. The pilots were here. I had a couple of tables that the Germans came. But the food wasn’t like it is today. I created everything one after another. I started with Bockwurst. Sausage. Sausage with salad. On a wooden plate. Yeah, it was great. Primitive.
And what kind of alcohol did you serve?
The alcohol was more or less the same. At that time beer was very popular. We drank more beer than wine. That’s my story.
What was it that attracted people to this place initially? Why did the Pan-Am pilots come here?
I guess I got friendly with one of the pilots. He was a jolly good fellow.
What was his name?
Andy Bettel. And then he came here and he brought everyone with him. And they were living here, most of them.
In Halensee, yeah. There was an apartment here, where the hotel is today. And most of them, they were there. And when this place got a little famous, when they heard that the pilots were here – when you walked in here there was no one speaking German. And then the Pan-Am started coming. Pan-Am was also here. And after Pan-Am there was another English airline. I’ve forgotten the name. It was a chartered airline.
Was Jack Bennett there as well?
Yeah. His wife comes now.
She lives here in Grunewald.
Yeah, she lives in Grunewald.
And you’ve also had some celebrities.
Oh. I have to look up in my book. So many. A lot of actors, actresses. Kohl was here. Harald Juhnke here practically every night after he finished his theater he came here.
He was at the Shaubühne?
No. Not Schaubühne. There is another theater when you go down the Ku-damm. If you want, I’ll give you those two books and you can find…
Here in Halensee there was more action before the Wall fell, wasn’t there? It was more happening. These days Halensee is kind of dead.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. You’re right. Last year, beginning of this year Farah Diba was here. The king’s…. Here, Aram Chatschaturjan – he’s a very famous Armenian composer….The Captain of Bayern Munich. Anyway.
What was it like here before the Wall fell? In the 70s.
I don’t think there’s much difference. Okay, people are a bit wealthier now. The prices have gone up. And then they can’t afford to stay here. So there are people that are here who have newly arrived. New arrivals. But to tell you the truth, I have hardly any clienteles from this Halensee. From this part.
Where do they come from?
From here and there. I don’t pay attention. But I know that they are not from here. From Grunewald also not.
A lot of Armenians?
No. No, Armenians are not there. Very few. No Armenians. No Persians. No Italians. I don’t care for them, to tell you the truth. Because when you go out to enjoy your evening and enjoy your food, it’s impossible that you can enjoy your food with a bottle of water. And most of them are like that.
There was a shooting, or something, that took place in front of the restaurant.
The shooting wasn’t here. It was around five hundred meters from here. They came in here, two guys: an Englishman – an ex-soldier – and German, they walked in here with a gun, and they said, “Give the money”. They opened the cash register and took the money, and they thought that they could run away. So I chased him. In the meantime somebody called the police from here. And I chased him. I don’t know what’s the name of the street here. And the police knew that they were coming, and they caught them, the both of them.
Was there an exchange of fire?
They had a gun, but I doubt if it….yeah, they shot one at me. But nothing came out. I fell down. But anyway, we got them back in here with the police. And they took my money, and theirs also. So for them it was a bad business. And then a couple of months later I was invited to the court. Anyway, I had to explain what has happened. And they got one and a half years or something. It was, like the Germany say, a Raubüberfall…
Armed robbery is nothing to joke about. And the mother was there. I felt very sorry for her. As soon as she heard the verdict, she started crying. They got one year, or two years, I don’t know. I mean, in America they would have got twenty years. Over here they are very liberal.
Were those more interesting times, when the Wall was still up?
Whether it was more interesting than today? Yeah, it was true. You’re right. As soon as the Wall went down, a lot of my customers – okay, they were inquisitive; they wanted to know if it was easier to pick up a woman over there than here. That’s why I lost a lot of customers. It wasn’t favorable for me that the Wall went down. That I can say. Naturally after a couple of year everything normalized itself.
You like it here today? Is it a nice place?
Very nice place. Especially this street here. Joachim-Friedrichstrasse. First of all, you are not far away from the Kurfürstendamm. It’s a stone’s throw. And, yeah, I’m very happy here.
This place was a bar initially. Now it is a restaurant. What do you serve here?
Different kind of meats from the grill on the charcoal. My pork is very, very famous, because it has a fantastic taste.
What sort of wine do you serve?
Italian wine. Two Italian white, one French white. And the red is all French, and two Italian only. So majority is French. And two kinds of beer. Becks beer, one is with alcohol and one is without. And that’s it.
What is interesting about Berlin today?
Berlin is very open-minded. Naturally, that kick that you used to get, that the Wall was there and there was always friction – you don’t have it anymore. So it’s more or less just like another big city. But it’s broad-minded. And I wouldn’t change it for any other city in the world.