My Last Berghain Ever, JK

When I arrived to Klubnacht at Berghain on August 12, shortly before a set by Aurora Halal—a superlative DJ who doesn’t have an autopilot—I did the whole tourist thing: I showed up to see the DJ from the city I live in, New York, and once she was over, I stayed a few hours, wondering why I was still there. I was doing the looking-bored-at-a-party bit. I had run out of drugs. Which is the thing about tourists: They go to other places to get a change of pace, only to behave exactly the way they are back home. I left early.

Excluding the pandemic, I have gone to Berlin every summer since 2015. Each of those eight times, I stayed at least a month. Not until I physically counted those years did it strike me that I was no longer the twenty-five-year-old who followed the 4/4 techno beat across the Atlantic, and was convinced, by the next year, to quit his job and move there, convinced that a life devoted to music was not only a pastime but a calling. I moved to Berlin because of Berghain. In no simple way do I say this—Berghain is where I came of age. It woke my desire—for sexual freedom, aesthetic bliss, belonging—which told me not only who I am but who I could be. I have been to the club over fifty times, but less than a hundred. I’m a creature of habit, which gives me a natural affinity to the club. But eight years after I first touched down at Tegel airport, which no longer exists, I arrived in the city several years older, wondering if in fact the Berghain I know, the Berghain I loved, still exists.

Thomas Pynchon writes that a place is “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts.” Is the same true about Berghain? There is no identifiable Berghain, but thousands of Berghains that exist within the hearts of thousands of ravers, locals and visitors. But when it fades in you, it fades out there, too.

“Is Berghain over?” I catastrophized melodramatically to my boyfriend. “Stop projecting your interiority onto the city,” he said. “Berghain isn’t over. You’re over Berghain.”

One of the main differences between myself now and eight years ago is that I have a boyfriend. Before, Berghain had been a place of sexual discovery, experimentation, freedom. I went there looking for sex. But arriving to the club no longer looking for sex, it was a completely different party to me. What was I looking for now?

Maybe I was over Berghain. I was also no longer a Berliner. I don’t live here anymore, as I had for four years. I was now a tourist.

There’s always a violence to tourism whenever you go to a rave in a city that’s not your home. The gaze of the tourist turns human beings and entire communities into spectacle. It erects an invisible glass wall between the tourist and the spectacle, preventing the tourist from engaging meaningfully in what they are watching. The tourist gaze is firstmost a form of entitlement: showing up to a place, arms crossed, and expecting to be entertained. And when the spectacle doesn’t perform—“We’re not a variety show, this is our life”—the tourist gets angry, hurls insults, leaves early.

Increasingly aware of my touristic bad habits, I thought, I have to call it. I didn’t want to keep going to Berghain if I was bored of it, and—somehow worse—I didn’t want Berghain to see me looking bored. I was going to go one last time, and call it quits. (I told myself I wasn’t visiting Berghain or Berlin next summer. Unless it was a special occasion, this would be my last.)

On Sept 2, I went to Berghain during a set by DJ Nobu (someone I’ve seen play many times, and whom all my friends love, yet for some reason, I can’t get into his sets). It was my last weekend in Berlin, before my plane early Monday morning. Sometimes endings give meaning to things, can infuse radiance into boredom, and this is what happened. My drug diet of the evening was Adderall and K. I did lines every hour, but for the most part, I wanted to be present.

The music was traditional techno, taken down to a very low simmer, to the point where—once your mind is trained to a kind of Zen state of concentration—your sensitivities are heightened to detect the smallest mood alterations in the music. For hours, the sound wasn’t changing, just the mood. “It’s been a peaceful Berghain,” said my friend H—-, who I bumped into in the downstairs bathroom, back from redosing on K.

So it was somewhat controversial that I was even doing K. It’s a drug that has caused major damage to my life in the past, and while I’ve said to friends and family, several times, that I was quitting it, I always found ways of sneaking it back into my life. I told myself that I had gotten a handle on it, my life wasn’t in danger. Even though I had hurt people in the past, I told myself I wasn’t really hurting people anymore. Now was different. None of my friends were happy about this, but it got to the point where nobody wanted to be the person to tell me what to do (I would just resent them). I had to come to this realization on my own.

Someone once described to me the hours from 12-4am at Berghain, when closing DJs typically just play monotonous DJ tools to clear out the overcrowded club, as the “dark night of the soul.” This isn’t always the case, but I find that it more often happens when the club’s residents play the closing set. During those hours of Answer Code Request’s set, I felt less sociable, less extraverted, even less horny, and had nowhere to look but inside myself. Occasionally, there would be a tiny change in the music, which would alert me, subtly, to snap out of the trance of my thoughts, and I’d look around at all the strangers around me, lost in their own thoughts, and wonder what it is they were thinking of. Nobody was really dancing at this point. We were all doing the shuffle, the wiggle, the two-step. I was waiting for something, an intervention in the music, to distract me from the intolerability of my searching introspection, but the music wasn’t giving it to me. So I just went deeper. The only way out is through. I told myself that I was going to quit K for good once I returned to New York in September. I felt like an old dog with a bag of tricks, but I was ready to let go of it. Would I actually change?

Suddenly, as if the DJ could read my mind, the sound quieted. The lights descended, and focused straight to the floor. The techno decreased, and suddenly a female vocal a capella came on—it sounded European—and I looked up, bewildered. Then the beat came back in slowly, gathering in energy. I looked around, and the ravers beside me didn’t know what was going on. For the next two hours, music showered down in pure bliss, track after track after track. Variation, wonder, even melody. The lights were ecstatic. People were cheering. My face collapsed. I wasn’t just being entertained, I was grateful, in an almost spiritual sense. I felt like God themself had come down from heaven and whispered into my ear, “Cheer up, kid.” I looked at my phone. It was already six, and I had to leave for my plane. If this was my last time at Berghain, it would be this moment I would remember, reminding me of the reasons why I had come to this club all these times in the past.

This is what I am and have always been looking for: to be confronted with majesty.

In bittersweet ecstasy, my mouth was open in a smile so big I looked stupid. I ran down to coat check, kicking myself that I was leaving the party just when it was starting to rev up.

I thought of the final line from the movie Before Sunset: “You’re going to miss that plane.”