MAY 20, 2015
I land in Dusseldorf, Germany at dawn and take a cab downtown. I have a few hours to kill so I find my way to a large park where I lay down on the damp morning grass beneath a Grimm fairy tale oak tree. Thirty minutes later I wake up surrounded by half tame, fat German rabbits. They live in the park. They have nothing to fear.
I’m here in Germany to dig holes and play music thanks to Paul Wallfisch, piano player, singer-songwriter and impresario extraordinaire. He has brought me over for a quick three-city tour of my Birdthrower music and some HOLE EARTH engagements. One hole will be hosted by a gallery in their garden, one in a public park next to a theatre where we will be playing music, and tonight on the banks of the Rhine River. After this evening’s hole dig I am playing a big party in a loft. I am excited and nervous.
I am the least traveled person of anyone I know. I have never been to Germany before. It is true--- I need to get out more. This Hole Earth trip is an effort to get out more. To go to a new land and to penetrate its surface and get inside of it---this must be a new kind of travel. I think of people who have spent their lives traveling and have never once really gotten into a place.
The Rhine hole is first. I am with new friends wearing my suit as dusk approaches. The river is swollen, wide, and green. The air is warm and fresh. Massive new barges glide by, barely making a sound. The sand is soft and there is a tall, skinny, medieval looking man down by the water doing yoga in his jeans. A family has a picnic nearby. Downy seed feathers float through the air.
Easy digging with a green metal spade, a wooden old European style handle that reminds me of a prop from a play. Works fine for this terrain. It doesn’t take long at all, maybe twenty minutes and I am inside the hole listening to the voices of my friends quietly conversing nearby. I hear the river water lapping on the shore, the wake from a passing vessel. A German mallard duck waddles over and investigates my hole area. And the medieval Bruegel faced yoga man comes to the lip of the hole and looks down at me. After my hole time is over I stand and walk to the banks of the Rhine, squat down and rinse off my head and hands.
I go back to the loft to perform at a party. I am sweaty and dirty and keyed up. The hole proves to be an excellent form of preparation for singing Birdthrower songs. Paul plays a swinging set and then I go on and do my thing. My Zeppelin cover, Whole Lotta Love goes over especially well. I feel very free and loose and playfully confrontational. The spectacular Stephen Rapapport and his band of super Swedes get everyone dancing. We are up all night, singing and celebrating.
Incredible show the next night in Dortmund at a modern theatre where Paul runs his Small Beast music series. Great sound, and a sold out crowd. One woman laughs very loud at the strangest times when I am playing or when I talk between songs. But I can tell she is having fun and I am fine with this sort of thing. I call out to her wherever she is in the darkness and I throw her one of the little plastic birds I keep displayed on a small, spot lit table next to me when I sing. Blue Jays and Goldfinches and Pileated Woodpeckers, Cardinals and Chickadees. I give mini semi fictional lectures about the birds between songs and then I either toss them to people or drop them into my glass of whisky and drink. The Germans seem to enjoy this.
The next day I walk to the gallery in Dortmund in my suit and crawl boots ready for hole action. Hopefully there is a pick and shovel waiting for me at the gallery. Interesting to have to find the tools all over again every time. You would never show up to sing songs and just hope someone has a guitar to lend. But I like using what is on hand because chances are it is made for that land and will do the job.
I am sleep deprived, hung over and jet lagged, but it feels like a good drug and I am in an elevated state. I feel weightless and all senses are firing smoothly. Hundreds of Germans pass me going the opposite way in black and gold football team colors, bound for a big game on the other side of town. A long line of honking cars goes by. A Turkish wedding. I am told there is a large Turkish community here in Dortmund. And also active gangs of Nazi skin-heads, just down the road from the gallery. Will they come to disrupt my hole? I feel persuasive, like maybe I could change their minds.
Gallery 143 is bright, and decked out in striking paintings by a scruffy blue eyed artist who goes by the name Dirk Pleyer. Dirk. This gives me pause. Where is my naysaying inner Dirk? It seems he missed the plane. Or maybe he made it and he really likes traveling and doesn’t feel like messing with me. Whatever the case I feel more or less completely Dirk free. Stephen and Paul arrive at the gallery in time to bear witness. They were both on the banks of the Rhine. I am grateful for their support.
The lovely owner of the gallery, Simone, takes me around the corner out back to the hole site. We are on the grounds of an old coal mining plant that has been turned into offices. A space with green grass and a tiny amphitheatre is waiting for me. A ruddy faced team of gardener maintenance guys are doing real work putting stone pavers along a roadway entrance. They are finishing up for the day and Simone explains to them in German who I am and what I am doing. We shake hands and they lend me a shovel and a pick. They looks a little dubious, but vaguely amused.
Time to dig. The sky is low and Eastern Block gray. It might rain. People have gathered around, maybe twenty or thirty folks. A couple children, some press with cameras and notebooks, some young women, some middle aged couples, a stray weirdo. As I dig I keep my eyes mostly down. I hear cameras click and flash. Birds in the trees overhead sing. I whistle back at them, trying to match their calls as I dig. A back and forth takes place between me and the birds. My audience of humans laughs nervously and talks amongst themselves. They are speaking German. I wonder if anyone will heckle me. I would like to tangle lovingly with a heckler.
This place was bombed relentlessly in World War II. In fact on this very day 72 years ago, May 23rd 1943, the city was devastated by a bombing raid. Bombs destroy and make fire and piles of rubble and holes in the ground. I think a bomb fell on this very spot where I am digging.
The ground is more or less cooperative. I work up a sweat and whistle Amazing Grace for a while. These people also speak English so I could make jokes, but I stay quiet. I struggle with an urge to entertain the audience. I could start up a conversation. I could take questions, I could rant and rave. But I force myself to stay quiet. My silence gives the dig a little bit of tension. I don’t want to be a clown right now.
I find new digging positions and I grunt and mutter to myself. “Almost there,” I think I hear myself say, but that’s about it.
As I dig I wonder what, if anything, makes this hole German? I realize I have flown over a giant hole filled with salt water to be here at another spot on planet earth. People named this place Germany. People named The Bronx. And Cape Cod. Everywhere on earth, every town, every street, every object, has been given a name. A sea of names and language…. tools… like my shovel and my pick.
I stop and rest in strange positions. Am I hamming it up a little, even if I’m not saying anything? Maybe. Stretching, muttering to myself again, making attack sounds as I squat inside the hole and gouge at the walls. At one point I get carried away digging and forget to breathe and when I look up from the work I blink black spots in my eyes and there is a high pitched pounding whine in my ears and I don’t know where I am.
Once I’m done digging the audience is left with no real action and no sound. I’ve led them to a private moment. The scraping and shoveling and huffing and puffing are over. Silence falls and there is just a man in the fetal position inside an open hole. Maybe this is a sort of anticlimax for them? Maybe it feels like a kind of final peaceful landing. And it is not over. I am not done or dead. I will rise again, but when?
When I finally get down inside there is a flurry of camera clicks as people step close to the hole and look inside. Then the cameras subside and the bells begin. Church bells. Great gonging man-made melodies fill the air. Heavy metal. The Nazi skinheads down the road can hear these bells too.
I think it will be dramatic if I rise up just as the bells are done ringing. But they go on and on and I grow restless in my hole. I throw a leg out and feel the blood flow into that extremity. Feels good to unfold myself after some time curled up in a ball. I stand up before the bells are done. I tear off a bit of the lining from inside my suit and I ceremoniously drop it into the hole and take a bow. People clap. The bells stop ringing. It starts to rain very softly and I get busy filling the hole in. Some people help and take a couple more pictures.
I wonder if they feel like they’ve been duped in some way. Or maybe they are moved or feel like they just witnessed “ART”. I have no way of knowing for sure. Nobody says much of anything to me. My friends are supportive for sure.
“Beautiful hole, man,” Paul says.
Other German strangers just smile and nod vigorously when I catch their eyes. Some peoples eyes look like they are shining but I could be wrong. My eyes are shining. I’m strung out in the best way. Other people shrug positively my way, as if to say, no idea what that was, but it definitely happened.
The final German hole takes place in Muenster just next door to Pumpenhaus Theatre where we will be playing. The theater has secured a permit for me to dig on a grassy knoll next to a circular abstract sculpture overlooking an intersection.
This is yet another theatre with very nice young people working there, helping us with whatever we need. As the visiting musicians we are treated with a kind of deference or respect that I can’t imagine experiencing in America. I ask for a shovel and pick and the shovel is found, but no pick. We all sound check with the sound and light guys and it sounds and looks damn fine to me. Soon an eager obliging young German dude returns with a pick and I go out to the grassy knoll and take a little nap on the exact spot where I plan to dig.
I lie on my back and listen to more German birds singing in the trees overhead and I watch another silver splinter of International jet slice across the blue sky. How can I not be more tired? I must be beyond tired. I am about to dig again, then play a show dirty and sweaty in my tattered vintage suit. In the morning I fly to Rome. These are good facts.
A small crowd has assembled for the dig. A floppy haired, salty bohemian guy from the theatre approaches me and says I need to preserve the top layer of grass. He begins to show me how to remove the top layer and I assure him I understand. I tell him I was a gardener and I will do my best to preserve the grass.
The earth here is very dark and clean. Many pink worms writhe around in each shovel full. At one point I pluck a fat one out and hold it up for inspection. People see what I am doing and make the standard oh yuck sounds. Without thinking I pop the worm in my mouth and swallow it without chewing. The people watching let out a startled sound and share what they just saw with the others who may have missed it. I feel a cattle prod shock of shame. That was bad. I didn’t need to do that. I got excited. I thought maybe this whole thing wasn’t entertaining enough so I turned into a god damned circus geek. Oh well.
I get serious again. Some little blond boys come and ask me questions. They are around my son’s age.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Why are you wearing that?”
“Do you need help?”
I tell them it is an art project and one boy asks me what for and why again.
“To help us think about the earth and our life….” I say. Us?
I tell them the suit once belonged to my father and I like the color.
I tell them I need to dig alone—and I thank them for offering to help me.
They pick up a few tight clumps of soil and fling them at the sculpture behind me and then they wander off to climb on the sculpture.
To help US? Did I really say US? I hadn’t thought about that. Is HOLE EARTH for me? Do I really think it is for “US”? Am I digging so you don’t have to?
I suppose the “US” is anyone who can take something from it. That would include me. Maybe one of these boys will remember the man who came to town one golden May afternoon and dug a hole in the park down the road. And then he got inside…
Maybe one day the memory of this hole will flip a switch in the boy’s head and send him off on an adventure.
I keep digging and I try not to think about the worm. The hole is deep and dark and a little too wide. I need to go deeper, not wider. I need to really pack myself in there with no extra space. Like a stowaway.
A friend told me,
“You look better in the tight ones.”
When I am about to get down inside the police show up, suddenly, at the curb, in their clean white cruiser. Turns out someone has reported an unauthorized “ceremonial burial”, and the police came right over to investigate. Two cops, male and female. They look sort of friendly. Someone from the theatre rushes off to get the official paperwork permit. The police look over at me. I wave to the them and then drop down and disappear from view inside my hole.
I am down in the hole now, curled up with my eyes closed but I can tell they are coming over to me. I can hear people looking down into the hole, explaining to the police in German that I am some kind of artist from America. I hear some laughter and a couple questions and then the cops go back to their car and drive off.
I stay in the hole for a while, basically until everything in me and around me is quiet. It is hard to listen, hard not to think about what’s going on later or what might happen tomorrow or next year or what it all means. Hard to truly quiet my mind. Ten or fifteen minutes and then I fling out a leg, then another leg. Then an arm. Then I stand up and tear off some fabric from the lining of the suit and drop it in the hole. I bow, people clap and I get about filling in the hole. I rake the dirt back and place the chunks of sod in place. Everyone has wandered over to the theatre to get a seat.
An hour later I am playing Birdthrower music next door at the theatre in front of an eager crowd. After the first song I ask how many people saw me dig the hole. Maybe twenty raise their hand.
“Okay, the rest of you, get the hell out,” I say quite seriously but then with a tiny smile.
This gets some laughs and some nervous confusion, which is my intention. Then I tell the story about eating the worm. People make grossed out sounds and laugh a little.
I nod and let things get quieter.
“I don’t know why I did that. Don’t feel right. I feel a little sick. It feels like the worm is growing inside me now. And it wants to come out….”
Then I open my mouth wide and launch in to another song. The audience is with me, tickled, ready for whatever happens next. The worm stays down. For now it is good to be so tired and so dirty and so far away from home.
When Stephen and his band do their final song, People On the Other Side, I am sitting off to the side of the stage on the floor against a wall. The song builds slow and describes how we try to connect and love and all the things that come between us. I put my face in my hands and weep and laugh and fall apart and when the song ends I jump to my feet and cheer.