Our newest series Ode to the Night captures the rave as a rite of passage. Each personal essay reveals how the party scene is as much about hedonism and celebration as it is about coming of age.
In the inaugural piece, writer Geoffrey Mak searches for himself within a helix of self-destruction and enlightenment during his first year in a new city. This is part two of his essay. Read part one here.
The following article contains explicit content. Reader discretion is advised.
There were times I thought I loved Berghain more than anyone possibly could. Actually, I still think that. To risk the sentimental: Berghain is where I came of age. Fantasy is instructive, and it was at Berghain that I understood what I wanted, like an awakening inward, a light coming on. It was the closest my lived experience had ever come to the way people describe the Silver Factory: sex, glamour, and the avant-garde mixed effortlessly, and liberally in its elitist, narcissistic splendor.
I felt privileged to be included, at an age when feeling included meant everything. The city’s underground queer nightlife was a group of five hundred club kids who all vaguely knew each other, congregating at the same six monthly parties each weekend, and ending up at Berghain on Sunday, more or less. It was something of a gay fraternity or a secret society. While visitors sometimes describe Berghain as “a rave in hell,” its most dedicated regulars call it, curiously, a “university,” which I get. For a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs, what the club had for me were rules I still live by. Freedom is in discretion, and discretion is in good taste. In general, stay in your lane, keep to your tribe. You can only communicate with someone who wants to communicate with you. When you see something, don’t assume you understand what’s going on. Everyone is on their own journey, unless they’re in trouble, then you intervene. And if you can: solve every problem yourself before calling for help. These served as a fairly useful guideline, I would learn, in navigating Berlin at large, especially the last and most important rule: know when it’s time to leave the party.
But it would be a while before I started slipping. During the first year, everything was still cute. Whenever Friday came around, my friend Ben and I would coordinate our looks, head to some party in a converted mill or warehouse, dance until morning, teeth grinding, feet twitching, and go to the gay baths at Mehringdamm or lay by the banks along the canal with music playing from our phones. In the summers, clubs opened up their gardens during the daytime, where people danced on the decks by the bar. Some of those afternoons, when the music was going, I’d feel my body under the cool of the overhead sprinklers, dripping with desire. Never did I want anything so badly as I did then. But for what I wanted exactly, I never knew.
After a while, I got used to arriving at any given party and running into somebody I knew. I’d fall into a group, split the cab fare to the next destination, lose my friends, but find somebody else: some fetishwear designer, dancer for Tino Seghal, or drug dealer here to pay off student debts from med school in Greece. Everyone, it seemed, was in fashion, knew fashion, sold collections out of a boutique in Kreuzberg, or showed twice a year in Paris. I knew two friends who walked Balenciaga, two for Rick Owens, one for Ottolinger and four for Vetements. Nothing was more exemplary, more extra, than when I was at a loft party hosted by a Vetements model, snorting lines off the makeshift DJ booth with a bunch of gay boys in balaclavas singing along to Britney Spears’ “Everytime” from the karaoke machine.
As it happened, I would not become the aspiring DJ who worked at a record store and fell in with the scene but would almost overnight come to know pretty much everyone, simply by hanging around long enough. After the first year, I told myself that I would live here. Limerence isn’t that far off from psychosis, as both have recurring catalysts, but nothing close to an actual reason. So powerful was the feeling I felt for the city—a sense of proprietary love—that I committed myself simply by wanting it as hard as I physically could.
On certain weeknights, I started entertaining an alternate life where I went to Lab.Oratory’s fisting or piss nights, mostly as a voyeur. Fisting fascinated me, though I never participated in it. Water sports I got into when I discovered that it was more about play than power. I liked fooling around in the heated pool at gay baths, or going to nights at Ficken3000, the dirtiest and seediest sex bar outside of Schöneberg—“like gas station sex,” I used to say.
I was somewhat private about all this. I seldom talked about it except with my friend, the writer Saskia Vogel, who at the time was working on her novel Permission about the fetish scene in LA. I’d met her when I published a short story of hers in the magazine I worked for, an autofictional account of her time working for a porn magazine in LA during what she called “the studio days” before Xtube came in and gutted the industry.
Saskia was the one who told me about Pornceptual: a queer porn collective that occasionally threw sex parties at Prince Charles, where Saskia happened to know the owners. Since she knew I was a club kid, she suggested that the next time Pornceptual had a party there, we should go down, where the owners, a couple, would host us.
So the night of the party, I took Ben with me, and met Saskia and her husband David for dinner at the restaurant in the same building as the club. Prince Charles wasn’t large, because it was actually converted from an old swimming pool for workers at Bechstein, the German piano company. That night, we arrived before the party began. The club was empty. The owners brought us champagne from the bar. Saskia had on a harness over her shirt, which she said she’d never worn “as fashion” before. Steadily, people started trickling in in extravagant outfits (the party had a reputation for the looks), and the DJ began with slower house tracks. There were flat, padded beds dispersed throughout the garden. Next to where Saskia and I were standing by the bar, a gay couple reclined across a daybed, undressed, and slowly, without foreplay, one partner started fisting the other.
Per Berlin etiquette, it was tactful not to gawk, though Saskia and I obviously noticed. “I love fisting, everything about it,” she said, as a joke, but serious. How so? She told me how, in sex, she was “interested in generosity,” which she found no more exemplified than by inserting her hand into a lover’s rectum. She’d gotten into it from her fetish days back in LA. Fisting is a practice, she described, of exquisite patience, attention, training, and sensitivity. Never in any moment, than when her hand is in her lover’s body, is she more alert to his needs, to what he might be feeling, to the slightest twitches of his facial expressions, or a movement in one direction that would make his muscles tense signaling to her to stop, to stop moving, to be still until he could relax again and she could press in deeper. Attention to his pain and pleasure would command her entirely, force out any thoughts that didn’t completely service him. Her mind could not drift. For however long it took, she evacuated herself fully to make room for his physical needs, his fears and desires, anticipations of his thoughts and the tiny convulsions of his body. Here, she could make contact with all that happened inside of him, touch him fully as if occupying him from within. It was, she said, the most generous gift she could offer her lover.
Today, nothing seems more earnest to me than looking up the lineup of a certain party one night, finding which DJs I absolutely had to see, then coordinating with friends, setting my alarms, and going to bed at ten so I could wake up at five, grab a Club Mate and banana like I was headed for the airport, stash drugs in my socks, and head straight to the club. I remember the visceral glee I felt each time a friend, one after another, got booked at Berghain, whom we never thought paid attention to the sounds coming out of our scene. On my best nights, while watching friends at the DJ booth, I felt like I was witnessing the emergence of a new aesthetic. I really thought we were in a golden age of dance music. I wasn’t wrong. Once, at a party at six or seven in the morning, a friend turned to me and said, “Look around, these are your contemporaries.” Of any reason to stay in a city, that was what mattered most.
It was the third summer that things really started to go bad, like how rust starts eating at cheap jewelry. It started like a ringing in my ears that I could no longer ignore. The micropolitics of the social scene started dragging on me: the drag queens were bitchier than normal, and I could no longer fake caring about who slept with who. I seemed only to alternate between boredom and paranoia. When I had been living in Prenzlauer Berg, babies were always screaming, as if something horrific was about to happen around the corner. The slightest triggers could set me into a tantrum: a flicker of irritation from a waiter’s face if my German was clumsy, or the Neues Museum refusing my press pass because it didn’t have an expiration date.
I started catching strangers, passing me on the street, whisper under their breath, “Ching chong.” “Ching chong,” right as their mouths brushed by my ear. Another time, a Vietnamese friend and I passed a späti in Prenzlauer Berg, with chairs set up outside around a flatscreen playing the World Cup. I made eye contact with someone in a group of skinheads who started blurting gibberish-Chinese to my friend and I walking by. Maybe this had been happening the entire time, but I was only just now noticing, so preoccupied had I been with my expat playground.
Once, when I was stranded at the Ostkreuz train terminals, I heard a siren go by so loudly, and so suddenly, that I sank into a crouch and cried hysterically. I cried on the U-Bahn. I cried at the club. To call these anxiety attacks is to simplify the profoundly apocalyptic omen that I believed was coming over me. I visibly could not keep it together. Once, I arrived late to a writing workshop at SAVVY Contemporary. I sat at the end of the table. Twenty other participants, having already written work, were reading from their material. I was, as I whispered to one of the gallery assistants I knew, “high as fuck,” and halfway through peoples’ readings, I was so strung out that I broke out into tears.
“Everyone’s writing is just so beautiful,” I said.
The days that Ben and I coordinated looks for the club were gone. I stopped caring about set times before going out. Staying home had become intolerable. I had to go out, had to find the first person I knew and keep them talking and talking so that all I had to do was nod along and think about other things. Once on the S-Bahn, coming home from Cockail d’Amore in a Burberry trench coat, and having fallen asleep, I woke to find the train at the end of the line in Neukölln, totally empty, except for two men asking for change. I reached for my wallet, but one of them jumped on me, and I immediately curled into a ball until I could shout for help from the people waiting to board the train at the next stop. When I escaped the train, one of the muggers actually followed me out through the underground terminal and onto the street. Because it was Sunday morning, all the shops were closed, and there was nowhere I could run into, so I jumped into the middle of the street, where I knew he wouldn’t follow me, and flagged down a cab.
I kept my wallet that time. I lost it three other times, simply because I was careless. Once at the club. The second time, in the darkroom. The third: because I was talking shit while buying Pringles at the späti and just got distracted. All of these things started happening towards the end, when I knew better, but was getting sloppy. I was taking drugs pretty much everywhere: the bus, the opera, the KW institute, the Bode; on the way to the club, on the way back from the club, at home, at people’s apartment at seven in the morning, always taking one more line “for the road.” Eventually I hit the point when Berghain became the last thing I ever wanted to talk about, tired of its authoritarian hospitality. I couldn’t sit through another jewelry designer showing me their work on Instagram, or a new visitor to the city wondering, out loud, if this was love they were feeling. If people I knew from New York were in town, I avoided the usual parties so I wouldn’t have to see them.
Basically, I was having a really bad time. I began fantasizing about island retreats, or going to Athens or Tbilisi, where I’d wait until things looked better and blew over. Things did not get better. What used to be endearing became grating, and all the warnings signs along the way lit up to say that I was violating my single most important rule: know when it’s time to leave the party.
Once, I called a friend over in the middle of the night because I was having a panic attack, and she read to me from Notes of a Native Son until I fell asleep. The next day, with two weeks left on the sublease, I bought a ticket to LA, thinking that all I needed was a break and some sunshine to detox my life.
I thought I’d stay a month or two. I stayed nine.
These are the notes I’ve compiled, because even now, I still do not know how to talk about Berlin. After LA, I did come back. The city was different. I was different. I am now on agreeable terms with the person I used to be, at twenty-five or even twenty-nine, equally embarrassed by and nostalgic for the kind of naiveté necessary for someone that young to believe in discovery, repeatedly, despite comedowns and disappointments.
Someone said to me recently that if he could relive discovering punk for the first time again, he’d give anything. And I’m telling you now, if I could rediscover Berlin all over again—do it the same exact way, the crashes, the burns—I would. It’s not what I’m supposed to say, but it’s the truth. After all my mental impairments, soured friendships, and microwaved brain cells, I now fail to see a distinction between my youth and what the city used to be—both now existing only in a region in my mind, like any country no longer present. This is how I know I moved on.
Geoffrey Mak is a writer in Berlin. He has written for Artforum, Art in America, Spike, and Kaleidoscope. He is an editor at Highsnobiety and New Models. Follow him on Twitter.
Additional graphic design by Ekaterina Kachavina.