He had copper-coloured, straggly hair, which fell down over his slender shoulders. There was a broad violet shadow under his moist, protruding eyeballs, which meant that he always looked rather astonished. A tiny gap between his teeth separated the two upper incisors – one of which was broken off at an angle; so when he opened his mouth, he looked like his grandma. His real name was Martin Beutler, but that was irrelevant because people simply called him T.Rex. Although he was two years older and was a member of the senior classes beyond my reach, I had clearly recognised that people enjoyed teasing him and he seemed to appreciate this. If you annoyed him in the school playground, he was happy to play the clown.
But there was a very different reason for his nickname. There had been a huge uproar because somebody had pasted a photo of Marc Bolan, the singer with the T.Rex band, on top of the photo of Lenin in a wall newspaper. Once the blasphemy had been discovered, we were marched out into the playground in classes and collectively cross-examined by the head teacher. He shouted with lips, which were turning blue, that they would kick out the assassin of the leader of the October Revolution from the school and hold his parents accountable. The class teacher and two of his colleagues were now checking our school items that were spread out on our desks. Many of us had combed our hair forward on to our foreheads and we adopted a pose that gave the impression of being as bored as possible.
The perpetrator was not found, but Martin was suddenly known as T.Rex and, according to a rumour, he had obtained a spare key for the school building in order to stick the photo over Lenin one night shortly after the latter’s birthday.
He talked to me the first time outside the music room where a school disco was taking place one late Saturday afternoon. These “dance events” were organised by the East German Youth Organisation’s secretary in the top class; at least seventy percent of the rock music that was played came from East Germany and hardly anybody dared to move out on to the dance floor until some comedian or other switched off the lights; Most pupils were not able to buy any cigarettes yet, so these occasions were an opportunity to exchange a packet of F6 for something like a sticker or poster of Jimi Hendrix or Udo Lindenberg. I did not have any cigarettes or posters, but T.Rex had heard that I had obtained a “Get It On” single from the West and would lend it out to friends. I knew this was risky and I could get into trouble with the school or the record could get broken. Anyway, T.Rex was interested and, because there was nothing happening at the disco, I went back home with him.
He lived with his grandmother in a kind of witch’s house where it was even possible to bump your head on the stairs as a fifteen-year-old. Behind the house, there was a limestone rock, which projected over the roof in a threatening manner, and it looked rather as if the rock would bury the place at any moment.
T.Rex lived in two dark and damp rooms on the upper floor; his grandma – who came to the door in a distrustful manner whenever anybody came to visit and sometimes reprimanded T.Rex with a rattling voice, telling him not to let any strangers into the house – occupied the ground floor. I had never seen anything like this kind of home. The place only seemed to be cleaned once a year. The floor was littered with clothes, food leftovers, cigarette ends, empty beer bottles and scraps of paper –the waste was several centimetres high in places – and there was probably more rubbish that had been squashed flat beneath it all. Apart from a bed with a pillow and blankets without any covers, a cupboard without a door, a table leaning on the wall because there was a leg missing and a heavily built armchair with a fabric colour that could not be described, the furniture consisted of piles of books that were one or two metres high, scruffy curtains in front of opaque windows and a light bulb giving off grimy light. The only shiny items were a tape recorder and a radio, which were surrounded by hundreds of cassettes. The walls were covered with posters and, without exaggerating, there were at least twenty photos of Bolan and the band.
The general high regard for T.Rex as a band had long since waned, even in East Germany. People now preferred to listen to Yes, Pink Floyd or Jethro Tull. But the excitement of the teenage dream was not yet over for my new friend and me. T.Rex probably saw in me another outsider who seemed not to be afraid of being seen as ridiculous; the others thought that Bolan’s stage appearances (at beat clubs, later in discos), which could be followed on western TV, were embarrassing.
His grandmother allowed us to watch the rare shows on the television. Otherwise, we laid on the floor with all the rubbish and allowed the loud music of the Children of The Revolution to pound away in our ears. In the evening we listened to HR3 radio and waited excitedly for the moment when the distorted guitar melodies and a sleazy strings sounded with a keyed bugle and saxophone; Bolan’s obscene, booming voice contrasted with them like a pool of peppermint spirits on the paper of a botched biology test. We listened to “Children of Rarnin” in a seventeen-minute version to be played at maximum volume: we knew that, even without David Bowie’s advice.
T.Rex briefly explained that he had inherited a large number of books from his father, who had “disappeared” a few years earlier. They were mainly Insel publications of classics, including works by Hölderlin and Novalis, and during the next few months when I visited T.Rex more and more often, we sometimes stopped listening to music for a while and read passages from Hyperion or Henry von Ofterdingen out loud to each other. He always put on headphones and imitated the background choir at various intervals (Whatever happens to the teenage dream…), while I recited “So kam ich unter den Deutschen” with a phony sad voice.
T.Rex was generally accepted in the school as a joker. When the rumour did the rounds in September 1977 that Bolan had died in a car accident, he disappeared for a week and finally reappeared in his class with dyed black hair. Not even I had seen him during this time. His attire clearly triggered a measure of unrest. Fellow-pupils threw paper aeroplanes and rubbers at him and could not stop laughing; teachers said they could not teach and the head teacher said he had to be sent home. When I visited him there, he had taken down the photos from the wall and painted the walls black. He told me that he had died with Marc Bolan and I was not talking to the old T.Rex any more, but Martin Beutler. He said he could only listen to music on his own now.
But we continued to meet, because I enjoyed reading his father’s books with him. Martin Beutler had discovered a few illicit items among them, such as you might find in many narrow-minded homes at that time where people had not really been interested in literature since the end of the war: including “Storm of Steel”, “Das Jahr der Seele” and a Nietzsche reading book.
The rest of the former band died off later too – not just Bolan: Steve Took, for example, died from consuming a cocktail cherry in 1980. Neither of us were following these events anymore, although the raving madness of the Sex Pistols or the Valkyrie Squadron from the Nibelungenlied by Rammstein somehow reminded me of the concerts in T.Rex’s witch’s house: You won’t fool the children of the revolution…
Martin Beutler began his training to become a bookseller, while I studied quantum chemistry in the land of Lenin. He siphoned off first editions of Schopenhauer or paperbacks with Freud and Jung in a second-hand bookshop where he worked for a while; these books were then sold in the West. He was one of the first who was allowed to leave East Germany to go to the West with an official exit visa in 1983. The books that he had obtained for me were an advance payment for consignments of cigarettes (the Karo brand) that I sent to his new home in Munich.
The Berlin Wall fell a few years later and either there were no Karo cigarettes any more or Martin Beutler had switched to Western tobacco. You could also get hold of Schopenhauer and Freud at any kiosk and the age of reading seemed to be over too.
We hardly saw each other since I had left Germany again. I knew that he was doing casual work in homosexual bars and had set up a small publishing house where he printed works of poets who modelled themselves on Karl Wolfskehl or Rudolf Borchardt and dreamt of a new German empire. Martin himself was one of them.
I visited him shortly before his fiftieth birthday. He was still living in Munich in the cellar of a warehouse where thousands of volumes of his editions were still waiting to be picked up by readers who had not yet materialised. He was living with a Croat, who was at least ten years younger than him; but I only saw photos of him on the cellar walls. The man’s name was Jovan and he had the rebellious eyes and the long dark wavy hair of Marc Bolan. Martin was on the point of changing his name and his sex. He had become Martina Beutler by his fiftieth birthday. Jovan and he had both wanted that. And quite sizeable breasts were visible under his t-shirt too. When he opened his mouth, you could still see the old gap in his teeth with the break. He looked like his grandmother. He was in good spirits. Whatever happens to the teenage dream…?
Translated by David Strauss.