Berlin tastes baked, dogshit concrete curdled with hot döner, pastries and sun cream, Prenzlauerberg families in the park, the suspicious perfumes of old ladies, the endless cigarettes and joints. All this evaporating to soup steam, garnished with sweat dripping from the tattooed forearms of the international youth, congregated en-masse to be free, but in a stylish way, to be damned and empty, but artistically so.
I wanted to consume the whole world, starting with Berlin. I really was that hungry. I tell people I am here to learn German. Seems respectable. Most of these fake artists are here on their parent’s money, all they want to do is go clubbing. I say I’m not an artist, a real or a fake one. I’m here for the culture and the language. I am not here because it is easier to take drugs and have people find you funny, quirky, rather than assume you are sad. I am not here because London parties end at 6 am, and I have to fold myself into a taxi still high to go to a sleepless bed too soon for my taste. I’m not here because I’m lonely. I am here to learn about Germany and to speak the German language. So why not Munich? Why not Vienna? I have no answer. By the second week, I stop saying I’m here to learn German. This question is too annoying. I say I’m here because I don’t know. I say do you want to get something to eat? There’s a Späti on the corner and I’m starving.
And suddenly after so much loneliness, I have made a friend. He is wearing a latex short playsuit, black and white, and a turban style hair wrap, comes to Berghain every weekend, has a part-time job in Lab.Oratory, Berghain’s scat and piss-play equipped lower ground, slogan: ‘play safe, dress dirty, no drugs, no perfume’. I am looking for a key in Berghain’s quieter upstairs, Panorama bar. I find him. Solemnly he leads me to a stall. I make him promise me three times the powder has no ketamine in.
Everything is cash in Berlin. Credit cards are deemed intrusive, and cash is convenient to buy and to take drugs. The joke is that you don’t have anything to cut it and end up using a supermarket loyalty card. He tells me that I am conscientious. He likes that. He says I will need to work hard to keep it that way. He is from Madrid, his name is Carlos, he himself has no problem with ketamine. He hates coke though.
‘Mean people love coke.’
Berghain has an ice cream parlour, of course, and a flat swing, where we spend a lot of time, feeling small again and playful. Accessories like these are barely needed for extra pleasure while on drugs. Because, on drugs, you could fall from a balcony, take a glass bottle to the face, get betrayed by your lover, and feel quite full of pleasure.
The club does all it can to keep us awake in spite of all the things we take. It takes that pre-blackout moment and prolongs it, keeps the anaesthete on their feet for 48 hours sometimes more. How does it manage that? Boring question, answered ten times before. Why do people want that? Better question.
Carlos’ boyfriend Sascha is there too, quiet and smiling.
‘GHB. Such a naughty boy!’
Sascha is Russian, chiselled but acneic, a shock of skinny blonde and eyes blue like coloured contacts. He is dressed for the height of the 2000s: Angel on his top in silver stones, treasure trailed belly out and a ripped up plaid purse, his ‘Burberry flavour bag.’ Contents of the bag: 1 pack mints, 1 bottle ‘luck of the Irish’ poppers, 1 bag drugs, 1 pack lemon lip balm. He grins lots and says little, but I feel sure that he loves me too. They both love me and I love them. We go back to the stall. We snort a second line.
I meet the two Laboratory guys, again and again. Carlos does a lot of fucking, so it usually ends up me and Sascha alone together. Sascha doesn’t seem to want to do what Carlos does. He never says a word about it, and no one wants to pry. I simmer on his behalf sure that he has been cheated, not by the openness but by his own lack of desire to use it. I ask him in a quiet moment. He shrugs and winks and softly smiles the whole thing off. I am projecting. I am judging. I should never mention it again.
I am on a comedown or hungover almost every weekday, so I decide to erase and invalidate those days. I count my life in weekends. I am in Berghain again on the fifth weekend. It’s Sunday and the floor has a lot of smashed glass collected. Sascha and I climb up on the pedestals. The main ones have been filled by a carousel of topless models with matching Nike sports socks and shorts for the last three hours.
Sascha has played his favourite game already: the queer naturalist. He goes around the room saying: bear, otter, twink, twink, otter, bear, bear, bear, like duck duck goose. I feel quite in love with him, and with this whole place. I know I don’t fit, tall wide-hipped femme cis woman, only a percentage gay.
‘Oh, my bisexual queen!’ Sascha names me. I feel clunky in the name and in my body, coming up several sizes too big or small.
If someone is newly out, he likes to teach them his labelling games.
‘But of course, I am a twink!’
His Russian accent is thicker in the night time, thicker with every G laced water, each shot glass of peppermint schnapps, and every vogue menthol. I had thought he was quiet at first but that’s when he isn’t timing his G dosing correctly. Carlos has bought him a Fitbit style digital watch and set little times when he can have more.
‘Carlos thinks too much!’ Sacha chides. ‘Time is relative!’
But usually, he is better now, more talkative and less liable to piss himself.
It is Sunday again, my sixth Sunday. I think. I often lose Sundays. I remember Fridays, but Sundays seem to run away from me in jittery fragments. There is something quite biblical about it. It is Sunday though. I can tell by the oranged light of the air, by the certain pace about things. It is Sunday and I have a piece of gravel in my shoe. I have on these chunky trainers, ugly Nike Air Monarchs. I’m wearing a metal chain, a real chain from a DIY shop. It is a kind of camouflage, not to blend in with other people, but to fade seamlessly into the buildings, buildings that will cut you like a can opener if you step in the right place. It is heavy and cold. For some reason, it has become the fashion to be frightening like a building. More bombs were dropped on Berlin during the Second World War than on the entirety of the UK. Who am I to argue with fashion?
The sun is beating down on my hangover like a child on a drum. I can hear the edges of the Techno from over the garden wall. Berghain has a garden, of course, all very sensual, Eden inside an old power plant. I just want to go in a dark box and dance. This place or another. Steve Bug says Techno wasn’t designed to be dance music, it was a futurist statement. It’s odd to think of this world being designed.
The queue is up to the coffee van. It’s a bad sign. Inside it will be gross, lots of glass.
‘Sundays it’s disgusting’ a voice behind me says.
‘When isn’t it?’ someone chimes.
I feel like my child is being insulted. But there is no time to make corrections, and who am I to do so. I am not Berghain’s mother, if anything I am its child. Yes, more accurate, I think, children always love their parents no matter what they do.
I light a menthol and push through. Entschuldigung. Bitte. Bitte. German is intimidating here; the place is so international, but the history is German. A German voice says Bitte. You move. Bitte means – get in your place! And the Americans and the Spanish and the DJs straight out of Tbilisi and the face tatted English muscle daddies and the Polish Bitcoin rich fuckboys on acid and the waify model girls fucking move. And the person blushes quietly. They can mimic the Berliner Schnauzer, that full teethed German Shepherd of a dialect all they want, but they were probably born in Hamburg, or Munich, or some small conservative mountain village never touched by the kind of localised trauma that makes an Echte Berliner confident that they are in the right place and you the wrong one.
Yes. The wounded blood of the eighties and nineties. The DDR. The secret police. Tears as the wall fell. And the underground, the real underground, where play could mean prison. Where Berghain was the hatch in the ground, the open door to selfhood, to queerness and difference and irregularity as possibility rather than death sentence. Berghain had been a secret passageway under the mud, while the Mauer, physical and of that ‘Mauer im Kopf,’ the ‘wall in the head’ of the East German people, was a barrier. Berghain was the way out, or seemed to be. A heavy dark door opening onto the interior filled with train like hypnotic music, broken glass bottles and horse tranquilliser.
On the door are some mean looking men, the infamous Sven Marquardt, humourless and fat, monster-like in the depth of his facial piercings and tattoos. He looks everyone up and down and stands silently, nodding or shaking his head, bearing a striking resemblance to a prison guard beside that massive single front door.
I have never seen people happier and more relieved to step into the dark.
A couple of hours later I burst into that infamous garden where the light is white and deafening. I am looking for Sascha. Sascha is in the middle of the floor. His skin is mottled. He is dancing very hard. No one is dancing with him. I push up to him. The crowd is a sea of leather black and vinyl hard bodies and model bones jutting and jiggling and sweating and smoking and popping pills and never tiring at all. Sascha is looking like a black hole. His mouth has a fleck of foam and dry skin right in the corner. His eyes seem all-seeing but glassy. I wish I had never seen him like this. There is a reason we party in the dark.
‘You! You!’ He envelops me with his endless arms and squeezes. ‘It’s you!’
I let his excited body warm me. The air is still spring chilled when the breeze hits. He is goose-pimpled but radiating heat. I feel good in his arms. I get the strange feeling he could pick me up like a baby and hold, hold, hold. But he is tiny bodied and would drop me. The drugs hit him especially hard. It happens a lot. The people drugs affect the best like them most. The effect is extreme and complete. I used to feel that the first few times – now I’m annoyed that I barely get there anymore. I get twenty good minutes on a come up, stomach rising like a wave through me of good. Then it plateaus quickly. I feel awake and numbed but normal.
‘You!’ He whispers in my ear. I break his grip to look into his face. His eyes and nostrils are flaring. His skin isn’t mottled any more, it’s white all over. The sweat is not condensing it is pooling. I start asking him what’s up. Shall we sit. Shall we get some water. Shall we go to the bathroom. Shall we go inside. He clasps my upper arm. The gooey flesh there is tender and aching. I can’t escape it. If I do, he will fall to the floor.
‘What did you take? Is it G?’ Sascha talks back in Russian. ‘English baby. What is it? Come sit. Come get some water. Come to the bathroom.’ I take him to a corner, and we sit on the concrete. He is wordless, convulsing. ‘Baby come on if it’s G we’ll be kicked out.’ He fixes me with his eyes like a pleading kitten. I push my way to the bar and tell the woman. She runs. She is shouting German into a walkie-talkie. She is running like it’s urgent. I can’t get there so fast. The crowd parts for her like a cattle herd. Once we reach the corner, Sascha is gone. There is a dark mark I hope is sweat not piss on the wall where I had propped him.
‘Don’t waste my time, Bitte’ she says. She strolls back to her position at the bar. I eye the mark a second longer. I put my back to the crowd and face the wall, dip my finger in my pouch and lick it. Sometimes it is easier to commit to dancing alone.
And if I tell you one thing, after all this time, let it be that partying is circular. Parties only give way to more parties. There is never enough. The drugs wear off. The hangover comes. There’s always another time. There’s the next time and the next. The next weekend. Your job becomes an inconvenience where parties could be. It’s the only thing that stops you going out more often. But it also gives you the money to party without counting. And it gives you the impetus to party because while at work you feel dead and sad and like your life is stagnant. Because it is. Because there is no progress through partying. There is only more. Party leads onto party as way leads onto way. You have a shit week at work, on a three-day hangover or semi comedown. You crave to go out by Friday – forget the shit that came before. When you’re at work you’re sober and see the majority of your life for what it is: not a party. At a party things get suspended. There is only the party. Nothing matters but the party – the steady progress of everyone from newly arrived to fucked up. To many people it is vitally important that everyone participates and to the same deep dark level. Any reminder of the outside world of sobriety is unwelcome here. The party is an end in itself and chases its own tail. The recovery is not to reach life again but to reach a state from which a fresh party can begin. A party needs all the stress and sadness of the guests to be built up before it becomes a rave.
The more years a person gives to the raves, the more stunted their growth becomes. Ten years would have no effect. A party is a party and the end goal is the same: self-obliteration, numbness, unconsciousness, exchange of bodies for images, refusal of the body’s needs, refusal of organic truth: of fatigue, ageing, loss, decay and death. When your goal is such then nothing is healed or fixed by a party, only postponed or worse damaged. A new job isn’t found, artwork isn’t made, a home isn’t decorated, real relationships aren’t nurtured, lessons aren’t learned. There is a repetitive delaying of life: until the rave is over, until the comedown is over, until the next one comes around.
The nature of the intoxication means refusing the thoughts and feelings we have and replacing them with other states: euphoria, fucked-up-ness, hallucination, eroticism, love, energy, confidence and power. When we do this, we tell a lie about our lives. There can be no understanding. There is only the party, and the continuation of the party and the image of the party and the intoxicated party self. But. I cannot say I will never go to a rave again. I can’t promise I’ll never party like this again.
Yes, I’d like to write a way out of this story, for my raving siblings and me. But at the time it is happening I don’t know what a way out would even look like. I had found one thing that I enjoyed – the party that cut through my losses and got straight to my serotonin receptors. The exit to me then looked the same as the door to Berghain: heavy, imprisoning, open only occasionally and at the will of someone else.
They have been using ecstasy for PTSD in veterans. I wasn’t a veteran, but I had seen a lot of people hurt. And I had begun to prepare for my own death while high, each sense fading and fading since living was not bearable. And what about the things that happened to me to get me to this place, to feel such an affinity with the epicentre of Europe’s greatest traumas? I can’t write about them here! Come catch me sometime when I’m high on pills, I’ll spill my heart out, I’ll tell you my life. I don’t know if it really means it’s better if I can only bear it when I’m off my face, and you can only bear it because so are you.
Sascha, for example, told me horrible things, in passing like a mumble on the wind. His mother lamenting him as a failed abortion, his queerness in Russia, a grey Y-fronted truck driver from the internet on a highway at seventeen who slapped him for crying. Horrible things he smiled through with wild wet eyes, laughing, cackling.
‘Life is so shit but it’s okay baby girl!’
And we’re both in the stall doing coke, or on the dancefloor huffing poppers, our faces swelling red and dilated, laughing and laughing and laughing. Two harpies, ecstatic at misery we could now name without feeling it!
Our voices our weaving into each other, overlapping, overlapping, dredging up stories all mixed and out of the order of sense and of history. And I can hear my voice as if detached saying happily that my father left when I was little, the needles on his bedside and how doing drugs made me feel close to him, like I had a grasp on why he did it. And listing my mum’s boyfriends, the times I watched them beat her, one after the other, interchanging, overlapping, being three people at once like people can be in a memory or a dream. And Sascha is smiling and I am smiling, and my heart is getting warmer and warmer and I can feel it tachycardic against my chain top. I think I haven’t needed a piss in four hours and we should get a drink soon and as soon as I’ve thought it the idea is lost again. And we are talking and talking and our voices are overlapping and I wonder if we are listening to each other or only to ourselves and as soon as I’ve thought it the idea is lost again. And this is the first time we’ve met and this is the last time we’ll meet and this is the end of it all and only the beginning. It is running and running like an Acid House baseline and we can end it here but still, I’ll know this place exists, where the dead can speak, those killed off parts of ourselves, where time repeats and repeats until we can speak its name soberly and bear it.
It is 1989 in my dreams, also known as hallucinations, maybe memories. I am my mother and she is twenty. The warehouse is green smoked. Bristol. Suspension bridge bouncing suicidal, technological in the background. In the middle of the woods and look at all this lighting! She hates Techno wants Disco but has taken two E’s and they’re making everything better. E’s were weaker then. Two E’s kill today. But it is 1989 so she has taken two E’s. She is feeling safer than ever in her life. She is feeling softer than ever in her life. She thinks she is good inside after all. Just maybe. This is her first time having this thought. ‘Life is good!’ I am good! Life is safe! I am safe! She thinks fuck ‘say no to drugs’ I’d rather be dead than never have had this thought. She thinks her mother is distant but she tried her best. She thinks her father is a cheater, violent and mean but he tried his best. She thinks the DJ is shit but he is trying his best. It is 1989 and she is trying her best to feel it. She is thinking all nice thoughts. She drinks a lot but that seems to be for the best. She takes pills a lot but that seems to be teaching her something. She is dancing and dancing and dancing. She doesn’t know which is a leg or an arm, a hand or a heart. The sun rises on 1989. The warehouse thins out. The Techno fades to Disco. The afterglow tinges fag butts and bottles, a sofa with a shark bite, a million cartoon printed baggies now drugless like saggy condom wrappers, and a small patch of navy red blood like oil on the concrete, all of it turned orange, orange, orange. Everyone is teetering on the edge of the mountain. Coming down. But for now, my mother and the crowd think of themselves fondly, think nice thoughts. For now, there is a therapeutic value to ecstasy.
But it is also not 1989. And also, in 1989 I was but a speck in the popped black pupil of somebody’s eye. And Germany in 1989, well. The wall is up. Or the wall is falling. Or maybe the wall is already down. It fell in November. Bad weather for a rave. But still we queue in the minuses in fishnets and fur coats, short shorts and dog collars. Still we queue in the rain. We wait. We wait. Even if it has already fallen. We all remember waiting. Kept in the snow on the doorstep as a punished child. We wait for approval: step one. Then we get in, wait for our coats to be taken (let go of what is too heavy): step two. Then we get into the main room. The music comes on. We wait. Techno is very repetitive. It is unlike other music in that is does not have a narrative arc. Or it doesn’t have to. That is the defining characteristic. Techno originated in black communities in Detroit. Lest it be forgotten! Another thing stolen and whitewashed. Another community bruised and waiting. Justice which never comes. Then we all get on the floor in Detroit, in London in Paris in Berlin in 1989, in 1999, in 2019, and we are waiting, waiting. And I am thinking about sex and lovers and my friend is texting me ‘where are you?’ And my friend is texting me ‘Bathroom?’ And my friend is texting me ‘WE r dropping now! Come we are Waiting!’ And the text is full of spelling mistakes. And I think about the etymology of dropping. All this connotation of descent, of falling.