Last Wednesday at around 9 PM I sipped bourbon in Hoboken and waited for Michael Rother to take the stage. That is not something I thought would ever happen.
Rother is co-creator of the influential seventies German band Neu!. (Though talking about them is indeed exciting, that exclamation point is actually part of the band’s name.) Neu! hasn’t been an active band for some time now: they recorded their fourth and final album in 1986, though for various reasons it was finally released just a few weeks ago. In 2008 the other Neu! co-creator, Klaus Dinger, died. So the idea of ever seeing Neu! music live seemed unlikely.
Yet there I was last Wednesday at Maxwell’s. I was alone, because no one I’m interested in is interested in Michael Rother. This is not music you can drag your girlfriend to, or at least I can’t—mine said that the show would just be people standing there bobbing their heads forward in 4/4 time. (Which was true.) Most Neu! songs are completely instrumental, perhaps the biggest hurdle for many people. I also tried to persuade a high school friend to come (he’d never heard of Neu!) but even after we’d had a few drinks, and even after I’d offered to pay for his ticket, I found myself going it alone.
Given the resistance of both girl- and high school friends to seeing one half of a band they don’t care about, it was perhaps no surprise that the place wasn’t full. I was leaning on the bar with my bourbon, half-listening to the ethereal opening act, when I noticed Michael Rother standing next to me.
Of course, when you see an artist you admire, your first thought is, “What should I say to him?” To which the answer is: nothing. Because there’s rarely anything to say to someone you don’t know, except perhaps “They say on Monday it’ll cool off” or “Milk, no sugar.” Yet music (like books, or movies) gives us the strange impression that this person is anything other than a stranger.
I went up to Michael Rother and said, rather lamely, “You’re Michael Rother?” “Yes,” he said. “I just thought I’d shake your hand,” I said, and I did, and he laughed. Our meeting wasn’t much—these things generally aren’t—but at least I made Michael Rother laugh. Then I ordered another bourbon.
Right before the show began I walked straight to the front of the crowd. At a general admission show this is sometimes a difficult and rude thing to do, but it’s not as if the venue was at capacity. The room had filled by now, though not with girls—I counted seven in total. The crowd was almost completely white and in their thirties. I saw many pairs of glasses and one-and-a-half violations of the first rule of concert going: don’t wear a shirt featuring the performer you’re going to see. (A guy in a Kraftwerk shirt was the half-violation—Michael Rother was an early member of that group.) I stood in front of where Rother would be. The table which supported Rother’s laptop—not a Mac, surprisingly—rested for some reason on four paint cans.
They began. I won’t describe the show at length. I once heard that describing music is like doing card tricks on the radio, and that’s true. I will say that it was arguably the best concert experience I’ve ever had. Last year’s Leonard Cohen show was incredible; Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks in concert had quasi-religious power. But I couldn’t believe the intensity of being in such a small room with this music, with its booming, propelling drumming, its repetition, repetition, repetition, and then playful, slight variation. The music’s power is so primitive that in theory all humans should love it, but as we have seen this isn’t the case. To say that the music of Neu! has held up well over time is like saying the same about the ocean: it’s so obvious that even mentioning it seems silly. This is music that doesn’t sound like it was created decades ago—it sounds like it is created the second it is played, or maybe even a moment or two in the future. The name Neu! (“new” in German) couldn’t be more appropriate.
During the show the only time a microphone amplified voice was when Rother introduced the band. Then he quickly began another song, saying, with Teutonic terseness, that he didn’t want to “waste so many words.” He’d used maybe fifteen.
When it ended I hung around for a few minutes, snagged the setlist from the stage, and walked to the PATH train. I’d never witnessed such a perfect concert. If only I could’ve found someone to go with.
Towards the end of my trip home I ran into another high school friend. He’s someone who knows a thing or two about music and I expected him to have heard of Neu!. He hadn’t. I thought of telling him to go to Michael Rother’s free Lincoln Center show on Friday.
But no. I didn’t want to waste so many words.
Josh Lieberman lives in Brooklyn, New York.