Around 1980, when techno DJ Westbam was about 15 and was still called Maximilian Lenz, living in his parents' house in the northern German city of Münster, he used to listen to the Stranglers, a British punk band. When he heard singer Hugh Cornwall singing that there were "No More Heroes," he was in complete agreement. From then on, Cornwall was his hero.
Today, 33 years later, the hero is standing in a pub in North London, next to Maximilian Lenz, who now goes by the name Westbam and is an international star.
"Here in this basement," Cornwell, now 63, says to Westbam, "we, the Stranglers, gave our first performance in London, but only one person came to see us."
These are the kinds of stories that stars tell each other at a time when pop, more than half a century after it was invented as a genre, is mostly a historic phenomenon.
In the summer of 1990, more than half a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the old men of Pink Floyd gave a concert in the desert that was Potsdamer Platz at the time. Some 500 meters away, in an old power plant, there was an illegal rave. It was like a changing of the guard. Techno was destined to, and would, displace rock music. And Westbam was its most programmatic and popular representative.
"No More Fucking Rock and Roll" was one of his songs at the time, but that is now close to 23 years ago. Today techno itself is a historic phenomenon. Last year, Germany's Suhrkamp publishing company published the first oral history book about the techno era: "The Sound of Family."
Learning About Humility
Westbam, who turned 48 a few weeks ago, was one of the important co-inventors of this DJ movement. He shaped, popularized, repeatedly explained and defended it; he was a co-founder and later figurehead of the Love Parade; and he stood atop the Victory Column in Berlin, directing the movements of 1.3 million people with his music. Under those circumstances, who wouldn't go a little crazy after a while? He wanted to turn techno into a global movement, one that went far beyond music, and he wrote a manifesto calling for a "raving society." Another Westbam track was called "We'll Never Stop Living This Way."
He founded a record company that was called Low Spirit, but was simply referred to as "the techno empire." With Low Spirit, he discovered performers like Marusha and Mark 'Oh, who were soon selling millions of records. He became rich and powerful, and he bought condominiums and houses. Of course he hardly slept for a few years, took drugs instead, and lost friends. Some of his fellow pioneers crashed and burned, as the Love Parade became a drinking party marred by disaster and the movement ended where all youth movements eventually end: half of it in commerce and the other half in rehab.
Westbam was also stricken by an identity crisis, but more about that later. He learned about humility at the time, he says today. He toned down his activities, kept recording music and sold a great deal less, and yet he remained an icon and a pioneer.
His new album is called "Götterstraße" ("Street of the Gods"), which is why he is now in London. He composed electronic songs and thought about who could contribute the vocals. He thought back to his youth in Münster, where, as he says, he was "the first punk," and it made him think of New Order and their singer, Bernard Sumner, Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler and Iggy Pop, but also of modern hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Lil Wayne. And then there is Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers, the hero of his teenage years.
The result is a breathtaking work of great clarity, because the pared-down order of Westbam's instrumentation gives these great voices of pop music space to sing with raspy voices and be imperfect, adding warmth to the spare electronic music.
Mythical Knowledge, Biblical Language
A crew from the German TV network Arte has come to London. They're filming for a show called "Into the Night With…" which chronicles the first meeting of two celebrities. They've brought along an enormous Rolls Royce, which they use to film the rocker and the DJ as they drive through the London night, visiting record stores, guitar shops and a Picasso exhibition, and talking about their lives and music.
Most people find it difficult to have an interesting conversation in front of a rolling camera with someone who is more or less a stranger. Not DJ Westbam, who is capable of immediately conversing about just about everything intelligently, precisely and quickly. It's a reputation he has always had. For instance, he was always said to be a specialist in the works of Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, and to be as familiar with German idealism as with the Bible or the Koran. It was something people never really believed about him, because it sounded too good to be true. And there are too many idiots in the nightlife environment for Westbam to have tolerated it for long.
The first thing you notice is his language. Westbam sounds professional and precise when he speaks, sometimes lending a biblical tone to his diction through the use of big, dramatic words.
Maximilian Lenz was the child of two artists. His parents met at the art academy in Düsseldorf, where they were in the same class with Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. Some time ago, says Westbam, they discovered a few pieces by Polke in the attic of his parents' house. The parents were hippies who later moved to a farm. Westbam tries to paint a picture of a longhaired, much younger version of himself going to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. His father became a professor of art education, but died at an early age, his mother still paints difficult, surrealistic works and his sister is also a painter. His younger brother Fabian followed Westbam into the techno business, where he became known as DJ Dick. He was involved with Low Spirit, but the two brothers eventually had a falling out and parted ways.
On the day after the meeting with Cornwell, the DJ visits the Tate Modern. While walking through the museum, he talks about the anti-authoritarian child he was. When he grew up, he became a self-made millionaire and shaped the hedonistic youth movement that, in many respects, marked the end of the '68 generation. The members of that generation probably wouldn't have had a problem with dancing and drugs, but how would they have felt about the lack of politics, content and protest in the techno movement? Instead there was affirmation, because subversion had become bleak and empty. The children of the techno age preferred being for something, embracing the consumer culture and milking the system. They had no interest in fighting against it.
All of this is horrifying for anyone from the generation of the 1960s. How did Westbam's mother deal with what her son was doing? Westbam thinks about the question for a moment. Then he says: "Even as a hippie, she was naturally glad that she no longer had to worry about her children's finances."
Of course, at the same time, says Westbam, he was his parents' child. There was also continuity between the hippie and the rave movements. What's the big difference between Woodstock and the Love Parade, anyway? And his attempt to create a conceptual framework for raving was always an effort by the child of middle-class intellectuals to give meaning to his actions.
Working For Music, Not For Money
Every morning, Westbam drives to his Berlin studio on the Spree River, as if he worked in a cubicle at an insurance company. On Saturdays, he usually travels to a city somewhere in Europe and plays music in some club until the early morning hours. Then it's back to his hotel, where a driver takes him to the airport so he can fly home to his family. When Monday rolls around again, it's back to his studio. This is the daily work routine of a man who doesn't need to make any more money but wants to work nonetheless.
In the studio, he starts putting on music, listening, layering different pieces of music, extracting individual parts and combining them with others. It's a process of repeated organizing and reducing, which eventually results in new music. For his current single, the melancholic, hymn-like "You Need the Drugs," he extracted chords from a Handel concert recording and modulated them electronically.
At 10 p.m. on a Saturday in March, a Volvo SUV is waiting outside Westbam's building. He lives with his wife and children in a spacious top-floor apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. He is scheduled to go Szczecin in northwestern Poland, a two-hour drive on the highway, to appear on a stage at 2 a.m. A man called Fischi, who smokes electronic cigarettes and works for Westbam as a driver and assistant, is at the wheel of the Volvo. Westbam's manager, Schulz, is also in the vehicle.
The DJ is in a melancholic mood when he steps out of the building. He has a feeling he didn't prepare his set for the evening well enough. Plus he lost most of his soccer bets on Saturday. But he can't possibly be upset about that, can he? Yes, he can, the manager and the driver whisper. Westbam is passionate about betting on soccer matches, and he has a hard time losing.
In the 90s, when techno became a gold mine for this child of back-to-the-earth hippie parents, he and Low Spirit bought a 30-unit apartment building in the best part of Prenzlauer Berg for 1 million deutsche marks. He also bought about two dozen apartments in Bernau, outside Berlin, and "did a little investing in Leipzig," as he puts it. Today he always keeps a few hundred thousand euros in liquid assets, and sits at his computer in the evenings moving them around in various stocks and investment funds.
The Same Magnificent Nighttime Ritual
He's being paid between €3,000 and €5,000 ($3,900-$6,500) -- he isn't sure of the exact figure -- for his all-night performance on this particular night. It will mean giving up the weekend, which is he almost never able to spend with his two children and his wife, whom he always refers to in conversation as "my dear wife." He could live very comfortably on the rental income from the Berlin apartments alone, so why does he do this to himself?
"In a certain sense, I feel that it's my obligation. I have the opportunity to make this money. Most people earn a lot less and work harder for it. I would consider it frivolous to say, 'Nah, I really don't need it.' It's my profession, and it's important for me to do it right."
The Volvo bolts through the deserted Uckermark region toward Poland. And then, shortly after midnight, they arrive at a Polish business hotel that's so grim-looking that it's almost attractive. As always, Westbam wants to withdraw to his room for an hour and meditate. We meet up again at shortly after 1 a.m. in the lobby, have time for one quick beer, then pile into taxis and head for the club.
Twenty minutes later, Westbam is shieded by Polish security guards as he signs autographs and is escorted through the crowd. A number of questions come from his entourage: Where's the backstage area, where are the drinks, how's the mixer, and are there any drugs around? It's been like this for 30 years now, always the same magnificent nighttime ritual.
The trip to Poland is also a trip back to a time when techno was still part of mainstream culture. A DJ named Hardy Hard, one of the first techno kids Westbam signed for Low Spirit many years ago, is performing at the moment. Even Jürgen Laarmann has turned up at the club -- the editor of the former German techno magazine Frontpage, which made him something of a mouthpiece for the movement. But Laarmann became fatter and fatter, and increasingly megalomaniacal. "The Sound of Family," the oral history book on techno, tells the story of how, in the end, Laarmann would use banknotes to snort cocaine and then toss them into the wastebasket. Stories like his are tales of ruin, and Westbam is familiar with them all.
He was in a similar position in 1995. He had achieved his goal, and techno had become part of the mainstream. But then his dream headed in a nightmarish direction, he says. He had lost friends, there were ongoing disputes with the other techno empire from Frankfurt, and soon an increasing number of soldiers began turning up at raves -- as participants.
Westbam stood in front of the crowds and thought of Goethe's sorcerer's apprentice, and of all the dancing brooms he had set in motion, only to realize that he had lost control over them. It didn't have to turn out this way, he thinks to himself in those moments. "If the Wall hadn't come down, techno would never have existed in its current form -- and, for that matter, neither would I. It takes a certain amount of humility to keep that in mind."
He has brought along all of this historical baggage to the Polish club on that night, and yet it also becomes meaningless when, at 1:53 a.m., Westbam steps onto the stage behind Hardy, who is still performing, and slowly begins taking over the controls, bobbing back and forth and bouncing up and down, listening and, before long, breaking out in a sweat. Westbam is a star. When Hugh Cornwell sang "No More Heroes," it was a liberation of sorts, and now Westbam has turned into a bundle of unbridled energy.