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Conversation with Tim Mohr

Politics, Punk Rock And The Crumbling Of The Berlin Wall

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East Berlin punks on Alexanderplatz ca. 1981

Credit: SUBstitut Archiv (Berlin)/Tim Mohr
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Conversation with Tim Mohr

WGBH radio's Henry Santoro sat down with writer and author Tim Mohr to discuss his new book, "Bringing Down The Haus." The interview below has been slightly edited for clarity.

Henry Santoro: For anyone who lived through the emergence of the punk rock movement in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, you don't need me to tell you that a key component of this movement was centered in East Germany. And the reasons for that are many. Enter author Tim Mohr, whose new book, “Burning Down the Haus,” that’s H-A-U-S, “Punk Rock. Revolution And The Fall Of The Berlin Wall” which tells the story. And what a story it is. Tim Mohr, thank you so much for coming into WGBH.

Tim Mohr: Thanks for having me.

Santoro: You're predominantly known as a book translator and someone who collaborates on memoirs by musicians such as Gil Scott-Heron, Duff McKagan and Paul Stanley. Before you found the computer keyboard you found turntables and C.D. players. Tell us about your career as a deejay in Berlin.

Mohr: Yeah, I mean this story goes all the way back to that time. I ended up in Berlin in the eastern part of Berlin in 1992. Basically, I was politically naïve, but it seemed like if there was going be one these mythical political third wave's discovered, it’s going to be in East Europe at that time. So, I decided on a lark I would go live over there. The other upside in my eyes was that I didn't understand that Germany and October Fest were not the same thing, so I expected to be greeted by people in lederhosen and handing me giant beers. Instead, I landed in one of these typical East Bloc high rise complex.

Santoro: And you’re Baltimore kid.

Mohr: That's right. Yeah grew up outside of Baltimore. So, it fit the stereotypes that I'd grown up with. I have to say it was very gray. It looked like something out of a James Bond movie or something. But, I discovered the scene that was happening there in the central parts of East Berlin and the basically the old derelict buildings or nearly derelict, empty parts of town. And people were taking over the spaces and creating a whole new world setting up bars and clubs and galleries and erecting this kind of idealized world in this empty space. And that's where I ended up landing and starting to deejay. And just by coincidence, a lot of people involved in that scene were former East German punks. And so, I met them in the context of being a club deejay. Eventually someone took me into their confidence and showed me things they'd kept hidden during the dictatorship, including some lyric sheets and photos. And it clicked for me and I knew I wanted to tell the story one day somehow, although I didn't know at that time I'd become a writer.

(Required)
Algonquin Books/Tim Mohr

Santoro: Punk was a lifestyle. It was a look. It was a sound and it was an attitude. Were the powers that be in East Germany back then, were they aware that punk also carried political clout?

Mohr: One of the biggest surprises for me when I started researching the Stasi archives, was the level of paranoia directed at punk. Very early on. So, the first punk in East Berlin lags a little bit behind the West. The first punk is in 1977 in East Berlin. A 15-year-old girl who went by the name "Major." And she discovered it like a lot of the East Germans because you could pick up Western radio. She heard the Pistols, The Sex Pistols, and it just felt like it was speaking to her in a way that she'd never addressed before. It eventually provided a kind of an outlet, a means of expression, that they'd never considered before. And the interesting thing is it became a very eastern thing quite quickly it evolved from something that was mimicking Western culture into something that was addressing the conditions in their own lives right. So, whereas the British punks we're talking about no future, because they didn't see a place for themselves given the economic situation. The problem East was the exact opposite, because your whole life was planned out for you had your communist youth organizations, schooling and apprenticeship and mandatory army service.

Santoro: And that’s where the dictatorship comes in.

Mohr: Yeah. And so, they railed against something they called too much future.

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