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Will Hermes

‘The Very Top Guy in the Stasi was Personally Involved in Figuring Out How to Destroy Punk.’

"Punkers and policemen face each other during a demonstration against the census on the 9th of May in 1987." Chris Hoffmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images, Algonquin Books

Will Hermes | Longreads | September 2018 | 14 minutes (3,534 words)

Punk rock was revolution-minded from the get-go, at least about aesthetics. Its political consciousness bloomed later –- most vividly in the U.K., then in scenes around the world. Yet for all the anti-Thatcher, anti-Reagan bluster, punk can lay direct claim to just one full regime change. That’s the takeaway from Tim Mohr’s revelatory new book Burning Down The Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It chronicles the rise of the scene — essentially seeded, Mohr writes, by a 15-year-old girl whose moniker became Major — in the Soviet Bloc German Democratic Republic in the ’80s. As its numbers swelled, it attracted the attention of the famously ruthless Stasi intelligence and security force (basically the KGB of the GDR), whose mandate included crushing any murmurs of rebelliousness or dissent, and who employed a psychological warfare strategy known as Zersetzung, or decomposition, towards those ends. Kids were picked up and interrogated, for hours and even days, for their haircuts, or clothing, or scraps of paper with song lyrics. For even minor transgressions, they lost college placements, government-controlled apartments, and jobs, their parents and relatives often punished in a similar manner. Kids were arrested and beaten, spent months in prison, threatened with expatriation.

Yet the scene kept growing. Bands like Namenlos and Schleim-Keim formed, playing gigs in church compounds — pretty much the only places alternative culture could exist, since church “open work” spaces were theoretically off-limits to the Stasi, at least initially. There, communities grew; punks connected with environmental activists and others working for change, sharing strategies and collaborating. They staged concerts and festivals, which the Stasi tried to suppress. When street protests began in force, swelling from thousands to hundreds of thousands, and the Berlin Wall finally came down in 1989, it was a culmination of the civil unrest that began in significant part, Mohr suggests, with a handful of strong-willed teenage punks hanging out at a park in Plänterwald.

Mohr encountered this history during his years in East Berlin, where he deejayed in clubs that had sprouted in the free-for-all communities of post-reunification Germany — clubs often created, staffed and attended by the same culture warriors that came up in the ’80s punk scene. Mohr spoke with us from his current home in Brooklyn, NY.

Listen to an audio version of this interview on the Longreads Podcast:

Longreads: So how did you first wind up in Berlin? This was after the wall fell, right?

Tim Mohr: Yeah, it was ‘92, so two years after unification. I was just determined to live abroad for a while, and I didn’t really have much of a clue about Germany. I guess I’d say I was a stupid American at the time. I thought Oktoberfest and Germany were the same thing, and I expected to get off the plane in Berlin and see everyone running around in lederhosen.

Chugging beer…

Yeah, out of giant mugs. And of course, it wasn’t the case. I ended up in a typical Eastern Bloc high rise, far in the East. This was somewhat disappointing. But pretty quickly I discovered the scene that was happening in crumbling old buildings in the central part of town, where people were squatting and the first generation of clubs and bars were up and running.

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‘Country Music … Was Anything BUT Pure’: An Interview with Bill Malone and Tracey Laird

Carly Rae Hobbins / Unsplash, University of Texas Press; Anniversary edition (June 4, 2018)

Will Hermes | Longreads | August 2018 | 14 minutes (3,585 words)

Read an excerpt of Country Music USA.

First published in 1968, Country Music USA was basically a remix of the thesis Bill Malone submitted for his PhD at UT-Austin. It was, and remains, a staggering work of scholarship that became a cornerstone of American music history— anyone writing seriously about country must reckon with it.

Earlier this year, University of Texas Press issued an updated Fiftieth Anniversary edition, with additional material by scholar Tracey Laird. It includes a new chapter devoted in large part to country’s woman problem — from the excommunication of the Dixie Chicks from the mainstream after Natalie Maines’ 2003 dis of President Bush, through their controversial collaboration with Beyoncé on the 2016 CMA Awards and the rise of “bro country.” Laird writes about how country radio has been effectively black-balling women artists, a situation crystallized in the unfortunate words of a radio exec who described women artists as the “tomatoes of our salad.”

As a real and/or perceived banner of red-state, pink-skin culture, country music can seem purely that. But Malone and Laird document that, like most great things in America, it’s a melting pot of influences, attitudes and orientations, political and otherwise. And while the current landscape might not rival that of the Hank Williams-led halcyon days, artists like Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, and others suggest we’re in a new golden era for the music, a renaissance Malone and Laird put in perspective.

We caught up with Malone in his longtime home of Madison, Wisconsin; Laird called in from Atlanta.

Listen to an audio version of this interview on the Longreads Podcast here:

This book is an amazing achievement by 2018 standards — but Bill, you wrote the first edition a half a century ago in 1968! For the benefit of the youngsters, how do you go about researching a book like this without the Internet, let alone Spotify?

BM: Well, there were no repositories for country music either! In Nashville, the Country Music Foundation was just getting started; they didn’t have an archives yet. I just had to use whatever I could find, and that meant everything from Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, where I read about instruments, to popular magazines, and interviews when I could get them — when a person came to town, or when I could get up enough resources and go and find somebody.

But indispensable were the record collectors. I would really have been lost had it not been for the work that they had done. That was a real starting point.

These were not academics, strictly speaking, but armchair academics, correct?

BM: Enthusiastic and very informed collectors.

Tracey, how did you approach this revised edition? What did you want to accomplish with it?

Tracey Laird: My main task was to take the story Bill has told and extend it into the 21st century. It was a little intimidating because, frankly, Bill is one of the heroes of my own scholarly story. But I decided early on that I couldn’t mirror his encyclopedic knowledge. And so what I tried to do was connect things going on in the 21st century with other, I think, significant dynamics — including new media that’s shaping the way people apprehend country music.

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‘I Love What Human Voices Do Together’: An Interview with Neko Case

AP Photo/Tony Avelar, Getty, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Will Hermes | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (3,994 words)

 

Neko Case’s powerhouse voice often seems like it might level buildings. But during a 20-plus-year career, she’s put it to more constructive use, both as singular solo act and poster child for collective creativity. She formed the ultra-meta power-pop band The New Pornographers with kindred singer-songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bejar in 1997, the same year she released her own debut LP, The Virginian, an eclectic, country-rock-leaning set of originals and deep-catalog covers: Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn, hard-rock-era Queen. Since then she’s worked alternately with the Pornographers and under her own name, with occasional side projects like The Corn Sisters (with Carolyn Mark) and Case/Lang/Viers (a low-key supergroup with k.d. lang and Laura Viers).

Hell-On, Case’s new solo album, is as gorgeous, imaginative, and potent as any she’s made, and for a lyricist given to imagistic fables and emotional meditations, it responds to the cultural-environmental moment vividly. Songs address nature’s ruthlessness (it’s worth noting Case’s Vermont home was destroyed in a fire when she was out of the country recording songs), along with the vagaries and tyrannies of gender, the endless negotiations of love, and even the attributes of the Almighty. “God is not a contract or a guy,” she sings on the title track, a faintly hallucinatory waltz that tilts into an empowered come-on (“I am not a mess/I’m a wilderness, yes/The undiscovered continent/For you to undress/But you’ll not be my master/You’re barely my guest,” she instructs). Another standout, “Halls of Sarah,” casts a #metoo side-eye at the trope of woman-as-muse (“Our poets do an odious business loving womankind/As lions love Christians”). At the same time, “Sleep All Summer,” a song by ex-bandmate Eric Bachmann, is a heartbreaker about faded love that feels like a forgotten classic.

The recording sessions enlisted a busload of other fellow travelers: Viers and lang, punk/pop/queer/ feminist/fashion icon Beth Ditto, veteran grunge crooner Mark Lanegan, Swedish indie-pop scientist Bjorn Yttling, various Pornographers and other long-time associates, a squadron of whom are on the road with her this year. At a tour stop in Brooklyn in May, bandmates Rachel Flotard and Shelly Short formed a powerhouse frontline with Case at the club Littlefield, delivering new songs like a trio of wisecracking Valkyries.

I spoke to Case on the phone some days later, as she was idling in San Diego before another show. She spoke about the album, the fire that recently destroyed her house, and the 2016 WOMANPRODUCER conference, which she described as “the highlight of my professional career.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(You can listen to an audio version of this interview on the Longreads Podcast here:

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