Letter from Berlin

By Van Dyke ParksSeptember 16, 2012

    Letter from Berlin

    ROOM 368 OF THE HOTEL Kronprinz, on Berlin's Kronprinzendamm, is hidden from the street by a summer foliage of surrounding linden, buche, and kastanie (chestnut) trees. A shrink-wrapped doughnut on the desk, left by the staff as a hotel favor, is just another distinguishing signature of this place, part of the hotel's unique charm — in a word, Alleinstellungsmerkmal.

    I've been brought here under the auspices of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a great Arts Institute (with a staff numbering in the 40s) that occupies an amazing edifice in die Tiergarten Park. Due to its spatulated form, it's known as "The Pregnant Oyster" (Schwangere Auster). Its architect, Hugh Stubbins Jr., erected it in '57. At nine tons, Henry Moore's heaviest bronze (Large Divided Oval: Butterfly) stands in the front yard, in a circular basin.

    "Ich bin ein Berliner" is printed on a greeting card next to that pastry on the hotel desk.

    My older brother Ben was still alive the day of that speech of Kennedy’s, almost 50 years ago. At age 23, he was the youngest member in the history of the U. S. A.'s Foreign Service and/or State Department.

    A cool, swift breeze blows through my room's 19th century windows. Bold raindrops shatter a dappled glare. Lace curtains dance in a moiré array.

    As Vice Consul to Frankfurt in 1963, Ben would have been at his desk this very hour, during the hottest period of the Cold War, three years after Nikita Krushchev banged his shoe on a desk at the U.N.

    Diplomacy must take grit; Ben had it, in great measure. He was here, in Germany, while elementary school children all over the U.S.A. were learning to dive under their desks, in practice drills. He worked in a mare's nest of espionage and friction between the tectonic plates of Capitalism and Communism which brought the earth as close as it could come to an atomic Armageddon. That ideological dispute had come to a tipping point on October 25th, 1962, when Adlai Stevenson, at a U.N. assembly, revealed U-2 spy plane pictures of Soviet missile sites in Cuba.

    Meanwhile, I was singing Mexican boleros with my oldest brother Carson at The Insomniac coffee house in Hermosa Beach, California. Couched in the waning of the Beat Era, a Son of the American Revolution, I never doubted my place on the Pacific Rim, nor our manifest destiny to question everything — while Ben was covering Uncle Sam's back abroad.

    His, I figured, was a surreptitious role, in what still seems to be the most transparent form of government yet devised. Ben and I were in flight formation, both protecting the American dream by various vicarious means.

    Carson and I drank 100-proof grain-neutral White Lightning with the girls from the Gospel Pearls between sets. Vapors of cannabis snaked across the strand. Silent movies with Buster Keaton or the Keystone Kops played out on an opaque screen before each set. At show time, the projector went dead, and with a yank of a chain from stage left, the screen pivoted up, flush to the ceiling. Musical hell would break loose. Andrew de la Bastide's steel band, Bessie Griffin's Gospel Pearls (accompanied by the great Eddie Kendricks), or the blues of Long Gone Miles, with Willie Chambers at his side: Carson and I followed them all on that stage in Bob Hare's coffee house. Our world-beat acoustics played under the shriek of the espresso and cappuccino heavy machinery. The clack of a Smith Corona, driven by the digital pistons of a local poet, banged out a staccato ostinato as a musical leitmotif. With a final flourish — the slam of a carriage return — a caricatured encapsulated personal profile was served up to the seated patrons willing to shell out a buck for the five minutes it took to have the paper fly finished, and off the spool. All liquidly fluent. Freudische!

    Masculine women mixed easily with feminine men. It was first-reel Fellini. One night, Rod McKuen would read his own redacted Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or deliver his translation of Jacques Brel (adding an iambic dimension to this olio of "disposable art"), in hot pursuit of Warhol's Campbell’s Soup Can in polymer paint.

    One night, a not-yet-21-year-old John Hammond, swathed in black leather and with the dust of a cross-country ride in his hair, parked his Harley hawg in the alley and ambled in the back door, looking for a space to sing the blues. He was the road warrior I had only read about. Totally Route 66.

    On the walls of the adjoining art gallery, oil paintings of doe-eyed children by Margaret Keane (who signed her husband's name to her own works) dominated the space. They sold like hotcakes, each are probably worth thousands by now. Back then, they drew in art collectors, delivering a quarter million in revenues to The Insomniac that year. Keane ended up doing portrait commissions for luminaries such as Joan Crawford. Today, Tim Burton is developing Keane's bio-pic. All this, confirming that the past isn't even past.

    As folk musicians, Carson and I studied the Beat era in its death throes, through genre-hopping music, art, poetry, and dance that coursed through the bloodlines of California's coastal coffee house circuitry. "Beatnik" was a term coined by political conservatives of the fifties and sixties, to describe that pointedly unconventional counter-culture. With that suffix "nik" (read “Nikita”) thrown in, they neatly painted the Beat Generation pink, insinuating that such anti-materialism was a sign of political disloyalty — a dismissive riposte to tar anyone out to question the precepts of McCarthyism, with its trademark anti-intellectualism. What a howl.

    The summer of 1963 would become known as "The Endless Summer." Its soundtrack included debut albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones’ 12 x 5. These guys felt hungry and uncertain, as I did. In marked contrast, The Beach Boys made waves that same July with "Surfer Girl." Their music underscored a sated, dated contentment, somehow energizing, yet très passé: bottling the beached bourgeoisie. Ahh, that good life Horace Greeley promised lay Out West! Decidedly retro-Republican and confirming: they'd arrived, without question.

    In 1963, a surfer cult arose just as the Beat era exhaled its final inhalations. That cult was made possible by the invention of epoxy surfboards that year. They were lighter than their heavy wooden predecessors (long hard-wood boards that took the shoulders of Hawaiian kings just to plow out past the roiling surf). Back-alley garages buzzed with saws and sanders as the toxic residue flew off the polyester board blanks. That surfboard biz was truly a "cottage industry" (not unlike most music production today), but it brought a subcultural sea change in language, clothing, and attitude.

    Two surfboard builders I knew were Mike and Jack Haley, of Seal Beach. Both West Coast surfing champions. I met their sister Tonya, who made milkshakes at the lunch counter of the Seal Beach drug store. (I surrendered my virginity to that beautiful blonde, without a fight.) It was a short walk from where Carson and I rented a small house within sound of the surf.

    That town, a sleepwalking freeze-frame of a sort of Eisenhower-era narcosis, had 6,200 souls in it when we arrived in 1962. It lay adjacent to a magnificent estuary, and a Navy base that seemed to have passed its purpose. My oldest brother and I found gainful employment as a folk duo at The Rouge et Noire, owned and operated by recent Greek immigrants George and Teddy Nikas. We earned $15 a night, for two sets. Still, with the nut of a $75 monthly rental, the margin for error was razor thin, so we took on new territory, playing "The Prison of Socrates" on the Balboa Peninsula, when the Nikas brothers opened that space.

    There, post-adolescent girls in fishnet stockings and berets would dangle cigarettes from their painted lips and discuss Marx or the Industrial Revolution. Gravitas mixed with Blues and Blue Grass. Within a faint earshot, we heard everything from amplified guitars in an audio olio of pubescent shrieks to strains of the hodad Beach Boys from Hawthorne polishing their image.

    We got to mix with the Newport brahmins, at bar-b-ques at the Wrigley's home on that peninsular Pacific rim. Playing music was a perfect social emollient, yet I well suspected it also held an unbeatably potent political potential, blowin' in the wind. We burned the candle at both ends — "couché tard et levé matin!" We'd hit the hay late, after gleaning all we could from the college students we'd befriended from Long Beach State College, many of them with a concentration in Anthropology or the Arts. Yet we were often up at dawn's first glimmer, to scavenge past-point vegetables and fruit tossed into crates in the alley behind the market.

    It was hardscrabble stuff. Tales of patrician pleasures and Palace Cars to Chautauqua, but a distant memory of our grandparents' families, and our own evaporated childhoods. I could relate to Woody Guthrie (although Steinbeck framed the same events, in fewer words). I'd read Steinbeck. Now I sang Guthrie. We lived the irony of this dalliance with poverty. Yet, in singing "This Land is Your Land," we knew damn well that it was not. It was "their" land, and we were suddenly outside, looking in.

    The Insomniac ’50-’64 - Drawing by Frank Holmes 2012

    Up the coast from Seal Beach, past the sailors' tattoo parlors on the Long Beach pike, and directly across the street from The Insomniac in Hermosa Beach, sat Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse jazz cafe. Carson and I would go over there between our sets to catch the likes of Laurindo Almeida, Anita O'Day, Etta James, Stan Getz, Ahmad Jamal, Cannonball Adderley, and an unforgettable Astrid Gilberto. I caught her first set, just after her arrival in the U.S., astonished by the first insouciant notes of the bossa nova's hypnotics in "The Girl from Ipanema.” That indelible night in the tropics! Hidden in the hushed bossa, that nova physicality led me to many conjoined pan-American musical forms.

    After her maiden set, the lithe Astrid darted back to the kitchen, which doubled as a dressing room, with a white sheet slung across the back corner. Naturally, I followed her, past the crowded bar (I was under legal drinking age), and found her sobbing behind the curtain, shaken by the showbiz. I suddenly realized that I was in way over my head with this implacable Venus, who lay across a linguistic divide, not to mention being an older woman (three big years separated us). She obviously needed a more soigné sophisticate to talk her down. I withdrew, after a feint.

    Everybody who was anybody in the jazz world played The Lighthouse Cafe. In reflecting such glory, I was getting a lesson that my alma mater Carnegie Tech, in its conservatorial splendor, just couldn't have provided me. Going West, leaving the leaden academics of musical angst, and now truly un-Caged, I'd found my laughin' place.


    Carson and I found a mentor, too. The singer-songwriter Terry (Hamilton H. III) Gilkyson, who had arrived in Pasadena with his wife Jane in 1947, was three years younger than my own mother. Carson had served a stint in Terry's group "The Easy Riders." (Their 1960 LP Rollin' is a winning exemplar in the how-to of putting the folk/roots idiom in a seamlessly arranged framework. Durable as denim, with a nod to the Sons of the Pioneers.) Terry's aw-shucks signature was hung on many great hits; his first commercial triumph "Cry of the Wild Goose,” would be Frainkie Laine's last number one. The first time I put a nickel in a jukebox, it was in a diner in NYC. It was 1953. I was ten. I chose "Memories Are Made of This." Terry wrote that song. "Good choice," the waiter nodded in approval. That pizzicato bass walk-down intro had a sensational, pivotal, and indelible musical impact on me. True.

    Yet, this rusticated H.H. Gilkyson III was more'n just an average ol' saddle buddy.  He'd rambled on out west from a pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia elite. This cowpoke was blue-blood, but didn't post. He rode western.

    Terry met Carson, who shared the stage at Pasadena's Ice House (opened by a friend named Bernie Armstrong.) They called themselves "The Steel Town Two." Their duo monopolized that coffee house stage with guitars and repartee for months. There was great intricacy in their repertoire and cosmopolitan menu. Bernie played requinto masterfully. Piccado como un Flamencista. ¡Torero! Their music went south of many borders and open seas. Eclecticism wasn't viewed as an illness in those days. It was applauded, and audiences were taken places in the "real" sixties.

    Drawing by Frank Holmes

    To be absorbed into such social fiber as the Gilkyson family was to know one had "arrived." Carson and I house-sat one summer month while they went off, headed East to some clams by the shore. Lots of tales of boat-set weekend sails to Catalina and stuff. Withal, as good as it could get, in loco parentis.

    Carson and I decided on Pasadena as a fine place to rent an unfurnished apartment (left unfurnished) with a communal swimming pool below.  It's usually bathed in sunlight: more Winslow Homer than David Hockney, more fifties than sixties.

    Terry cut us in on some film sessions. He would take us to Nicodell's, a restaurant that thrived on a diet of customers from the Paramount Studios lot next door. We were able sight readers, and sufficed the modest demands of Oaters' folk-music gambits amid the real music under-score work surround. This was our best bet network to work. And work we did.

    I had a Hollywood past already, as a child actor. On my first trip west, my mother and I had a cabin on El Capitan, one of two fabulous Luxury trains running from Chicago to L.A. Dore Schary's office had booked our tickets. We weren't yet to L.A., and as the train idled at the Pasadena station, I learned the trip was over. "Have we run out of money?" I asked my mother. Turns out that Mr. Schary (head of MGM Studios) wouldn't let any of his actors be seen disembarking in L.A.'s déclassé Union Station. Pasadena fit Quality folk, and that we were. A chauffeur named Limey loaded our bags into a limousine and off we set for Hollywood. Our suite at the Chateau Marmont, 3D, directly across the hall from Eartha Kitt.

    Now it’s 1963, and I’m back, auditioning for the American Federation of Musicians with Chopin's Ballade in G minor in front of some old lady to prove I could play. She's way outta her league, I believe, and lets me get past her, to our mutual astonishment and relief. Afterwards, I have only to get that union right-to-work card. Just beyond my worst fears is the office of A.F. of M. Union President John Tranchitella. Old John is straight outta Damon Runyon. No time for sympathy, he is one tough cookie with buckets of big-band street credentials when Carson and I step in to make my plea in collective bargaining.

    No way, sez the prez. "Your driver's license reads 'Seal Beach'. That's another chapter's jurisdiction, in another county."

    I get in anyway, after my twistier melodramatics play out.

    The union session is for Disney's The Jungle Book. The song, "The Bear Necessities." Terry hobbles in a job title for me, as I'd cobbled a chart of sorts for a glorified rhythm track. Carson gets "leader" scale. I get an emeritus "arranger" payment, with pension and benefits.

    I just love Disney union session checks. Their faces are emblazoned with Mickey Mouse waving a three-finger salute. That always cheers up the tellers.


    Almost a month after Kennedy’s speech in West Berlin, in the early a.m. on July 20th, 1963, Terry came rushing up to Carson and me after hanging up the receiving end of the day's first phone call. "Ben died yesterday," he said. Our parents had tried to call us. We had no phone. I know not why not. Terry’s latent stutter surfaced as he tries to find the proper syntax for the morbid context.

    Ben was the second oldest of the four Parks boys. This news arrived two days after his 24th birthday.

    I knew right off I would never get to laugh with Ben about JFK's “Berliner” gaffe (calling himself a German donut). Ben would have loved that, as he, fluent in Russian, French and German, was equipped to enjoy a good bilingual pun. JFK had called him "Baby Ben." Yet, he was full bodied and well-rounded of mind. The lion of the litter. Tell all the cats. As captain of Washington's lacrosse team, he played a game in which some Russian toughs threw their stick across his knee, breaking through cartilage and requiring a cast. "Accident-prone," my mother called him. At Penn he was captain of the football team. They won the Ivy championship. As a senior, he edited the yearbook. Offered a kickback by a printer, he went to the next lowest bidder, rather than do business with such a man. Ben was second All-Ivy Lacrosse. He played it like a Cherokee. And yes, he was accident-prone.

    To float us the money for two black suits and the airfare to and from the burial site, Terry had me pushed on a fast-pass through membership in the American Federation of Musicians. He would advance us, so we could fly back up to Pennsylvania, to slide Ben's purported remains into a slot at Plum Creek Cemetery, so near Parks Township and Parnassus, where there lived no Gods.

    Back home, we bivouac with the extended family in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, still belching out pig-iron, and U.S. Steel, with an asphyxiating grunt and the thud of a our collective carbon footprint. The Donora effect, déjà vu all over again. We all meet up at Dr. Bill and Helen Hunt's house by the country club and golf course. Stiff drinks in liberal rotation steady the nerves of those adults who'd always led us so gamely, but are now helplessly muted.

    Where's the body? What have they done with the body? is the big poser. My mother's oldest brother Sam is starting to get pissed and pro-active. He's had just about enough to drink. "Get Dean Rusk," he barks. "No, not Alexis Johnson. Dean Rusk. Look, we're all sitting here long enough.” Our other uncles nod approvingly. Good choice of words, it would seem.

    By now, the family resembles a trembling gelatinous mass of tapioca pudding. They are Christians after all, for all that promises. For Christ's sake.

    My brother Dick calls the State Department, and asks to speak to Alexis Johnson (Deputy Under Secretary of State). Johnson gets Ben's body air-lifted from Frankfurt within a day. A light payload, at public expense.

    Many of Ben's peers at State, like Dean Pitt, show up for the funeral. Pitt had been Dean of Men while Ben was at Penn, and they'd continued to correspond after Ben's graduation in 1960. Dean Pitt says he'll hound the forensic trail to substantiate the cause of death, and wonders why Ben, a French scholar, was reassigned to Germany so abruptly. We all do.

    I marvel at Ben's impact on Penn's Dean of Men. Could Pitt be a direct descendent of Wm. Pitt the Elder, who granted our forbearers Parks Township? That ten-square-mile Pennsylvanian land grant in Armstrong County actually belonged to the Delaware. Yet, a land grant from the time of King George II was testament to some familial English social provenance. The Parks brand had flourished west of the Allegheny Mountains. There they had the first iron smelt. They could make their own nails and horseshoes. They gilded their own china with the proceeds of great dairy production, incorporating as "Farmer's Delight,” a major supplier to Sealtest until the Teamsters broke its back in the sixties. Still, two hundred years ain't that bad, in corporate life span. As doctors with small town secrets, there they would stay, prescribing cocaine, morphine, and laudanum from their pharmacist brothers' drugstore — remedies for depression or just "the vapors", inviting great, unregulated pleasures and exoticism.

    I wondered if it was Pitt's line that put the Pitts in Pittsburgh, and if so, how much they had brought to Ben's sense of place. I wondered a lot.

    Funerals and weddings: great conventions of memories. When I was a kid, townsfolk called Cousin Harry "Squire". Harry kept a mistress. Got her a pink Cadillac. Rose. Withal, an Anglo-Sax continuum. Not a Papist dog in sight.

    Then there were my distaff maiden aunts, who had studied music at Cincinnati Conservatory: vocal tutorial from Caruso, piano from Paderewski and Anton Rubinstein. Beyond and before the New England Conservatory of Music, Cincy was the only place in the U.S.A. to study back to Bach. My aunts spent their lives as virtuosos, forswearing all love but a service to education and the Presbyterian church, the organ and the choir loft.

    Carson looks at the body that finally arrives with an American flag. We can use that flag at the funeral. It'll look good on the closed casket. Carson, Dick, and I practice folding it properly. Ben had been a U. S. Marine, surviving Camp Pendleton. Decorating his box with the Stars & Stripes seems meet and right. It is a beautiful flag, isn't it though. We use a 48 star flag (replaced by the 50 star flag in 1960), for guarded personal reasons. I'm not about to get too personal.

    Melvin Jacobs owns the funeral home. He's never seen without a pinned tie, and his French cuffs are stayed by gold Tiffany. Melvin brings a panache to all he undertakes.

    Unavoidably, determining "Cause of Death" becomes the family's cause célèbre. As if it might somehow snap us out of this cauchemare. Finally, someone puts it as "blunt mandible trauma." That seems to hold things on track. So, our family gets crammed into the black limousine and follows that body to the grave.

    My dad says, to no one in particular, "I just hope he's not alive … somewhere in a vegetative state…” — and trails off.

    We're all of one accord on that point. It's evident that there can be no greater insult on the psyche than the one being leveled at my parents now. Being predeceased by one's own child is anything but natural. It flies in the face of DNA and evolution itself (our parents, though devout, firmly believed in Darwin's "theory").

    So we dump that body properly, by Plum Creek, in the company of the family’s generations that preceded.

    My mother's heels sink in the wet ground as she trudges back to the limo.  We try to keep it country.


    On my second night at the Kronprinz Hotel, that "Berliner" still sits shrink-wrapped on the desk. My thoughts of '63 are, like the pastry, tightly packaged. I unwrap thoughts of "foreign service" cautiously, as I lament Ben, who will be forever — young.

    I spend the next five days at Haus der Kulturen der Welt,, attending its annual advisory board meetings. I advise them only of my oblivion. They view that as immaterial, it would seem.

    Within those walls, they try to reconcile problems of multiculturalism, mindful of Germany's xenophobic past. When JFK stood at that very site in 1963, und dabei spoke on behalf of reunification and democracy. He, the clarion through the dimmer din of totalitarianism:

    Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was “Civis Romanus sum” (“I am a Roman citizen”). Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is  “Ich bin ein Berliner!” All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!"

    Kennedy meant to say, "Ich bin Berliner!" [I am a citizen of Berlin]. Zu schade! He really didn't mean to say he was a doughnut. That wasn't lost on his German audience, undeflected by his malapropism, so focused on his exhortation.

    Ich bin ein Berliner.

    A hero is more than a sandwich.

    I am beyond words.


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    LARB Contributor

    Van Dyke Parks is an American composer, arranger, record producer, instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, author, and actor. Parks worked with Brian Wilson (including as lyricist to the Beach Boys' Smile project), Phil Ochs,  The Byrds, Tim Buckley, Little Feat, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Ringo Starr, and Skrillax, among many others. He also produced a dozen albums of his own, most recently Songs Cycled and Super Chief: Music for the Silver Screen. He lives in Los Angeles and has generously provided incidental music for the Los Angeles Review of Books.




    "Well, to me, the tensile strength and the very definition of an artist is something that I would place at the top of a vertical hierarchy. To be an artist is to suffer and to lead a life without shelter. It takes a great amount of daring-do, self reinvention, imagination, familial loyalty, sacrifice, economic uncertainty, and the right to be wrong, the right to fail in order to achieve something of noticeable value. "

    – Van Dyke Parks



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