Postcard from Leipzig

An abbreviated version of this article saw print with The Age.  The photoset specifically associated with it can be found here: Leipzig Day 1.

For most of the year Leipzig gets by quietly as a town of learning and industry, but is perhaps most well-known for its connection to Johann Sebastian Bach. Appropriate, in a way, as the reason for our visit was music; not Bach’s, but music with a poetry, bombast and heart that I like to think JSB would have felt wryly avuncular toward.

For the last nineteen years, for three days a year, a gate somewhere opens and overnight the streets of Leipzig fill with reed-thin goths, rough-and-ready punks, granite-faced metalheads, dayglo gravers, porcelain-skinned vampires, undead glamourdolls, aviator-goggled steampunks, stompy-booted cyberkids, the occasional ‘elegant Gothic lolita’ from Japan in the company of her father/chaperone, and promenading members of the Victoriana. Hotels, hostels and campsites are booked solid and gets a workout as for three days the city plays host to Wave Gotik Treffen: the world’s largest ‘dark culture’ festival.

The interior of the Hauptbahnhof is a two-tier shopping mall with the trains on the top level. It really is quite beautiful, but what got my attention was the fact that the place was filled with people in black: some with neon extensions, others in fuzzed-out leg-warmers, PVC pants, facepaint, leather and studs, special-effect contact lenses, fangs or facial piercings. It was a mall populated half-and-half by locals and children of the night. I must confess: my heart swelled to see these stylish revenants, pre-festival, doing banal things like buying pizza, recharging mobile phones, or asking about maps. I smiled seeing a shaven-headed Nosferatu , all zips and chains, reading a paper alongside an old man and his little dog, or watching a mother of three stop a girl in giant platform boots to compliment her on her white-and-blue dreadlocks. Many clothing stores move their black stock to the windows, and the bäckerien have chocolate biscuits shaped like bats or with candy tombstones jutting from them. I got the feeling the locals don’t really understand these annual visitors, but were finally feeling their way around what they supposed they liked. I bought a slice of landkuchen and a black coffee, just to take it all in, and noticed the two old ladies sharing the bench with me were people-watching, too. They chuckled at the six foot bald guy in black plastic pants, furry jacket and Cleopatra makeup, and cooed approval at the two parasol-toting French aristocrats swanning past in shades of salmon and cream.

But WGT is as much about the music as it is about the people, and I quickly learned to get to the front of any crowd by spotting the biggest guys moving to where I wanted to go and hitching a ride in their wake. The headline act of the festival this year was Alien Sex Fiend, an outfit that’s been around pretty much since goth spun off from punk in the early Eighties. If Bergman's Death had an irritating younger brother who was half as healthy but twice as popular, he'd probably look like Nik Fiend. The man dances like an old guy who thinks he just invented it and has the likeable demeanour of someone who has never had to suffer any consequences. The stage presence of he and Mrs. Fiend was that of two people who have known each other (and been married) forever, and have each other’s backs. Unspoken love. Two words that go a long way to summing up the best musical experiences at the festival, for me. It’s not often that a person from Australia with an interest in a small subset of culture and music will find himself in a hangar packed with the likeminded and the beautiful, watching the musicians who shaped him.

The sun rose as we walked north on Neumarkt down valleys of cut stone blocks and arched windows. Steel light. Chilly. Silence. My companion’s boots. Street cleaner with trolley. Pale cobbles. Click click. No one else around. The whirr of a Pommes stand's heating unit. An old lady pushed a trash cart past the white cafe tables to our right. Sun crept higher, nosing above architecture. Cathedral in pink light. A lone cab hushed past. Pigeons from the park swooped past us from behind, through the wide plaza space. Ravens bickered on cafe tables. We got to the tram stop we needed. A wandering goth checked the timetable, waited, left. Across the street a man placed a thin vase on the gutter lip and photographed the flower leaning in it.

Unspoken love.

Deep hum. I thought about Bach. Barrel-chested music with a deep heart and wide arms. Sun glinted off metal, blinding. Cold out there. Tram arrived, we left.