Heading north from Spain for my first summer in Europe, one of my first stops was Liechtenstein, where I had an invitation to spend a few days with the family of a young woman named Ruth who I’d known in language school in Málaga. It’s the only time I was ever in Liechtenstein, and my main memory of the (tiny) country is of standing on a mountainside looking down on the clouds that covered the valleys.
My other memory is of my introduction to the alternate universe of European blues guitar. I had my guitar with me and played for Ruth’s family, and I think it was her brother who immediately asked if I knew Werner Lämmerhirt. Of course I didn’t, so we went up to his room and he played me Lämmerhirt’s first album. I could see why he was playing it for me — it obviously came out of the same tradition, complete with versions of “Hesitation Blues” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “See See Rider” — but I was not thrilled. For one thing, Lämmerhirt’s accent was lousy and his singing completely unconvincing, and for another thing, he was a spectacularly clean, fast, and intricate guitarist, and I was envious… though the way I phrased that, even to myself, was that he had lots of chops but no soul.
At that point, I had no sense of the world of European fingerstyle. I had one John Renbourn album and a couple by Pentangle, had heard a bit of Bert Jansch, but had never even heard of Davey Graham or Wizz Jones, or Marcel Dadi… so I didn’t understand the history of what I was hearing on that Lämmerhirt LP.
I was more taken with another German (actually Austrian, but, heaven help me, I didn’t make the distinction at that point) blues guitarist, Oscar Klein — I would have said because he was more soulful, and I still think that’s true, but also because he was playing like Lightnin’ Hopkins, not exploring or expanding a new, European take on blues, so I was more familiar with what I was hearing. He was a jazz trumpet player and had a great feel on guitar, and he didn’t try to sing, which also helped.
And then there was Hannes Wader, or at least “Kokain” — I don’t recall hearing Wader himself sing that or anything else, and I wonder whether it was Ruth’s brother or one of his friends who played the song for me. Whoever did it, he also wrote out the lyrics and explained what they meant, and I learned the first few verses, mostly because I figured I should have at least one song in German, but also because I felt like it was exactly what I wanted Europeans to be doing if they were going to play blues.
The thing was, my whole existence as a wandering musician in Europe was predicated on the fact that Europeans liked American music, but didn’t have a lot of Americans around to play it. They were listening to German and French and Dutch and Spanish blues singers, singing in varying simulacrums of American accents, and some could play good guitar but when they opened their mouths it was mostly funny or just lame. As an eighteen-year-old white kid from Cambridge with fair-to-middling pitch problems, I wasn’t a world-class folk-blues singer myself, but in those days I could walk into pretty much any folk or blues club in Northern Europe and book a gig simply on the strength of being American, without them asking to hear a note. I might not be great, but I could at least pronounce the words right.
So what I particularly liked about “Kokain” — and what made it a unique object, in my experience — was that Wader not only was singing in German, but had written a thoroughly German, thoroughly modern lyric to the Gary Davis/Dave Van Ronk version I knew so well. He had translated one couplet in the chorus, and kept the original tag-line, but the rest of the song was a long, funny, and completely original fantasy about an extended family caught up in the German drug scene of the 1970s:
Meine Tante dealt seit einem Jahr
Seitdem geht sie über Leichen, fährt ‘nen Jaguar
Cocaine, all around my brain
Immer wenn sie kommt, bringt sie ein Stückchen Shit
In der Radkappe für die Kinder mit
Cocaine, all around my brain
(Roughly — and I welcome corrections from German-speakers:
My aunt has been dealing for a year,
Since then she’s on top of the world [literally “walks over dead bodies”], travels in a Jaguar…
Whenever she visits she brings a chunk of shit [hashish]
In the hubcap, for the children…)
I never memorized that verse — I had enough trouble with the first four and am amazed that I still remember them forty years later… and I apologize to any German listeners for the mistakes and mispronunciations… but hey, I had to listen to a lot of Germans sing blues in butchered English, and now it’s your turn.