Poet, rock star, and icon of the leftist counterculture, Rio Reiser was a cult figure in his own right. The Kreuzberg neighborhood in Berlin has named a square after him. Heinrichplatz, a central square in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, was renamed Rio-Reiser-Platz in honor of a man who rose to prominence as a leader in the leftist movement in the city and the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
On Sunday, thousands of people gathered to celebrate the renaming of the square, which was officiated by Minister of State for Culture and Media Claudia Roth. Ton Steine Scherben’s manager in the 1980s was a politician from the Green Party.
Roth told the German news agency dpa, “With this inauguration, we are celebrating Rio Reiser’s symbolic return home.” She described Rio’s time in Kreuzberg as “creative, turbulent, and difficult,” adding that he was “avant-garde” in every facet of his life.
She further argued that the rock star’s outspokenness about his homosexuality proved “that the private is political.”
Generating rock music to break up the postwar rut
A group featuring Rio Reiser For the student revolts of the late 1960s and the left-wing anarchist scene up until the early 1980s, the soundtrack was provided by Ton Steine Scherben, the first German rock band to openly criticize the system with German lyrics.
German postwar society had painted an idyllic picture for its young people, but by the 1960s, they had had enough. Something wasn’t right, they thought. German children and teenagers in the 1960s were perplexed by their parents’ and educators’ reluctance to talk about National Socialism because its atrocities were still fresh in their minds.
The arrival of beat and rock music in Germany provided a catharsis for anger and discontent. It wasn’t just Schlager hits gushing out of German radios; electric guitars were rattling the walls of basements and garages as well.
The original Rio Reiser was named Ralph Christian Möbius, and he had similar aspirations to create rock music. In addition to the guitar, piano, and cello, he also taught himself to play a number of other instruments. When he was only 17 years old, he decided to leave his photography school training program and move to Berlin.
Festival marred by fatal shootings
He participated in leftist music and theater projects, witnessed the student riots, and heard about the deaths of Benno Ohnesorg and Rudi Dutschke firsthand.
To express his discontent with the status quo and his hope for a more equitable world, Reiser co-founded the band Ton Steine Scherben with some friends.
In 1970, the band made its debut at the Love-And-Peace Festival on the German island of Fehmarn, which also served as the venue for Jimi Hendrix’s final festival performance.
The organizers fled with the cash registers as the crowd sank into the mud, and several bands had to cancel their performances due to the poor weather. However, Ton Steine Scherben still performed for the festival’s remaining attendees.
The organizers’ office and stage were set on fire after they sang “Mach kaputt, was euch kaputt macht” (Destroy what destroys you) and Rio declared that the organizers should be rammed into the ground. Suddenly, Ton Steine Scherben became a household name.
Political activist and spokesperson for the left
The “Scherben” were a band that played rock and roll songs like “Keine Macht für Niemand!” in the streets of Berlin at the time. That’s right, (Zero Power for All). They believed that music could bring about social change, and so they became a spokesperson for the left.
Squatting in the former nurses’ residence of Bethanien Hospital in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood and renaming it the Georg von Rauch Building was a political statement.
Following his death in a shootout with police, student protester and anarchist Rauch became a martyr of the left-wing scene, and his home, the Rauch House, became a hub for the movement.
Under surveillance\sWord spread in Germany, with house-squatters sprouting up in big cities across the country and their anthem becoming the Scherben’s “Rauch-Haus-Song,” with the line “Ihr kriegt uns hier nicht raus, das ist unser Haus!” (You can’t get rid of us; this is our house).
The band was beloved by counterculture youth across Germany, despised by conservatives and the older generation, and ignored by radio stations. Meanwhile, the state closely monitored the “Scherben Family,” paying frequent visits from police.
The Scherben produced their first record entirely on their own, not wanting to be dependent on “the industry.” They also gave away tickets to their sold-out shows because they thought it would hurt their credibility if they made money off of their leftist music. But working to earn money was also not part of their motto. Bottom line: no funds.
Moving to the country
Over time, though, the collective grew tired of the constant visits by the police and the lack of money, and no longer wanted to serve as the “jukebox” of the left-wing. A commune formed after the group relocated to a farm close to the Danish border. The band also began making a different kind of music — less political and more melodic, with Rio Reiser exploring his imagination and feelings, writing songs such as “Halt dich a deiner Liebe fest” (Hold on to Your Love), one of his most famous.
In 1985, Rio Reiser’s band the Scherben disbanded due to mounting debts, but he kept making music anyway, signing with a record label.
The radio began playing his songs, including the hits “Alles Lüge,” “Junimond,” and “König von Deutschland,” after the release of his first solo album, “Rio I,” in 1986. (King of Germany).
Even though Scherben’s most devoted followers were initially critical of his solo success because they didn’t want to share their messiah with the masses, they were too late; Rio had already topped the charts.
Reiser performed in East Berlin in 1988, singing “Der Traum ist aus” (The Dream is Over), pondering in the song: “Gibt es ein Land auf der Erde, wo der Traum Wirklichkeit ist?” (Does Earth have a place where dreams come true?) The audience in the theater yelled back, “It’s not this land!”
East Germany collapsed into history a year later.
Untouchable in the annals of history
Rio Reiser’s songs are still frequently sung by other musicians; they range from wild and rough to gentle and tender, sometimes melodramatic, and always marked by an almost uncontrollable passion. German pop musicians frequently cite Rio Reiser as an inspiration.
In addition to his musical ability, Rio Reiser became a myth and legend after his untimely death at the age of 46 on August 8, 1996, due to a circulatory collapse.
This profile, originally published in German on the 25th anniversary of Rio Reiser’s death, has been translated from that language and revised to reflect the latest information.
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