He’s a haunting figure on Oranienstraße: pale, tall and lanky, lost in his own thoughts, dressed head to toe in black. Don’t let the ghostly pallor and chilly demeanour fool you, though: hang around him for long enough, and Steve Morell will eventually talk your ear off about the history of Kreuzberg, borrow your phone charger and smoke your cigarettes until the sun comes up.
The musician, model and founder of record label Pale Music International came to West Berlin from Fulda in 1984. “My father said, ‘Oh, you’re going to Berlin with all those freaks and faggots?’ and he took my inheritance away. I was on my own.” Back then, he says, Kotti was “a little prison. The Wall was just 10 metres away from my window, and at night there were the spotlights from the Death Strip. Down there on Ritterstraße, the Americans would practise shooting their machine guns.” An ideal environment for a budding punk. After moving into the famed squat at Georg-von-Rauch-Haus on Mariannenplatz in 1987, Morell worked as a DJ and bartender at bygone Kreuzberg institutions like Trash Club and the punk hangout Pink Panther, while rubbing elbows with Nick Cave and Einstürzende Neubauten at subculture hotspots O Bar and Risiko on his off time.
But Kreuzberg in the 1980s wasn’t only about the libertine lifestyle – Morell was there to witness the historic May 1 riots in 1987, when rioters looted over 30 businesses along Skalitzer Straße and burned down a Bolle supermarket. A far cry from the dance party that May Day has become. “These days, people don’t have a reason to fight any more,” Morell says. “The people of this generation aren’t poor enough. These students coming from Munich or Cologne, their parents buy them a cool flat and give them a little bit of money. We were interested in politics because we knew – well, we thought – that we could change something. But for these kids, things are just fine. Every one of them has at least €50 in their pocket when they go out drinking.” After years of going back and forth between Berlin and London, Morell founded the German-British label Pale Music in 1999, which he still operates out of Kreuzberg today. That is, when he’s not working on film scores or his own music – or frequenting neighbourhood institutions like Roses,the ancient gay bar with the fuzzy walls, and the newer, decidedly un-punk Luzia. Here the bartenders all know him by name and serve him a coffee just the way he likes it, with a tiny pour of milk on the side, before he even sits down.
Give Kotti five years and it’ll look rotten again.
In spite of the changes, Morell is hopeful for the future of Kreuzberg. “Give it five years and it’ll look rotten again,” he laughs.