Gentleman Jim Norton - The Man To Whom The Guitars Are Passed and all around great kisser, has had more adventures than Hercules and the Rescue Rangers put together. He's been kind enough to immortalize them for us to enjoy...
- In the spring of 1994, I was in Germany with Canadian punk legends SNFU. It was particularly cold, and I had neglected to bring a coat. We were staying at a hotel in Berlin, and there was a store down the street that sold industrial clothing, canvas overalls, yellow and orange reflective vests, and the like. I thought I would go buy a coat there, but once inside the shop I was seduced by the most amazingly stylish trousers I had ever laid my naked eyes upon. I immediately dubbed them Die Uber Hosen.(the super trousers) They were German carpenter’s pants, somewhat military looking, but also a bit dressier than that. The fabric seemed to be a thick cotton twill, very sturdy. They had diagonal slit front pockets with little triangles at the corners, a little lower than where the pockets would be on jeans, so they didn’t start at the pelvis, they started on the leg. In addition, there was a long, narrow pocket on the side of the right leg, and a single hip pocket with a botton. They had large patches over the knees and down to the cuff, spanning from seam to seam. But the most striking feature was the zippers. Two of them, six inches apart and parallel, with two flaps underneath that buttoned together, allowing one to unzip the flap while the pants were still being held up, creating almost a chaps-like effect. Very practical.A little kinky. I was told that the reason for this feature was to facilitate German carpenters’ penchant for peeing off the tops of buildings. I could think of two other purposes in a New York minute, neither of them acceptable to mention in this PG-13 setting. Of course Die Uber Hosen were available in a few different colors, but anybody who thinks that clothes should be any color other than black is beyond help anyway. I bought a pair, size 54, in black, for 110 marks, (about $78 at the time), and foolishly decided to forgo the warmth of a new coat for the next week.
Unfortunately, German carpenters’ sense of style is well, German, and therefore, these wonder trousers were also flares. (UNACCEPTABLE! UNACCEPTABLE!) I had to spend another 50 marks ($32) to have them tapered and hemmed overnight. The tailor I went to was about 70 years old, (do the math) spoke no English, didn’t like me OR my buddy Mr. Chi Pig, and really didn’t like our inability to speak German. Nonetheless, when I tried to take the trousers back and leave, he wouldn’t let go of them. I think in Germany this is their version of an agreement to provide services. So, as I stood on the footstool and the tailor marked the pants, we joked around and laughed our asses off at his expense. For his part, he bitched at us in German and I think he catalogued the numerous lives he had snuffed out in WWII, hoping that at least one of them was a relative of ours.
The next morning, I went and picked up the trousers. They were magnificent, badass, regal even. Wearing them I was, simply put, the most styling man in rock.
And warm? Let me tell you, brothers and sisters, The Gorton’s Fisherman would be much happier and more productive if he had a pair of these babies on the high seas. There would be a fishstick glut heretofore unimaginable.
I brought my Uber Hosen back to these fair shores, they were an instant hit. Unfortunately, it was May, far too hot to wear them. I couldn’t wait for autumn to come, so that I would have an excuse to show them off. And show them off I did, constantly. But I noticed something: every time I washed them, they got a little tighter than the time before. I lied to myself, I tried to blame myself for gaining weight, but it was in vain.
Finally, after 7 or 8 washings, they were just too tight. I was disappointed in the German craftsmanship, the shoddy quality. It was then that I saw a label I had never noticed before, hiding behind the tag bearing the cryptic care instruction symbols I has so smugly chosen to ignore; a simple tag, mocking me in it’s boldness: 100% Baumwool.
Damn, damn, DAMN! I was an idiot! They were made of wool! No wonder they were too hot to wear in May! No wonder they shrunk to GI Joe size! There would be no further wearing of Die Uber Hosen for me, I should just admit defeat, and cut my losses. I was a beaten man, a hollow shell of my former proud self. I walked out into my apartment and quietly gave them to my roommate Julie, who worked outdoors next to Puget Sound in the Pike Place Market. Die Uber Hosen would have to bring warmth and happiness to someone half my size.
Fear not, for this story does have a happy ending, dear reader. In the spring of 1997, while on tour in Gemany with Soul Coughing, we had a show in Berlin. From the beginning of the tour, I knew I had a date with destiny. I would have to go and acquire a replacement pair on the morning of the show, it was that simple. Nary a day went by that I didn’t ask tour manager Gus Brandt if there were any plans which would prohibit me from realizing my quest. Gus assured me that no rail strike, act of God, of force majeure could stand between me and stylish utilitarian haberdashery.
At last the day arrived. I had scoped out my source via the Berlin Yellow Pages late the night before. The foxy front desk fraulein at our hotel had given me the German word for “work clothing”, then aided me in finding the nearest shop from the list of 25 or so. After choosing the shop, I asked her the best Metro and bus route to the shop. I was leaving nothing to chance. She was starting to suspect that I was really more interested in hitting on her than in buting pants. Apparently, German men have a sense of romance outdone only by their senses of style and humor.
To be safe, I awoke at the inhumanly early hour of 8 a.m., showered, ate fruhstuck (breakfast) downstairs in the hotel, and was at the bank on the corner before they opened at 8:30. I changed $220, (about 355 marks at the time), and made off on my voyage at 8:35.
I took the Metro 3 stops to a different line and transferred. I took that subway another 5 or 6 stops, then went above ground and took a bus for a few miles. I got off the bus at the edge of a small residential area, walked 4 blocks, and found the store. What it was doing in what was essentially a residential area, I have no idea; I wasn’t asking questions at that point. It was approximately 9:45 a.m.
I went inside, the shopkeeper, looking like he was straight out of Central Casting for thin, blonde haired Nazi Stormtroopers, was eating his own fruhstuck, consisting of what looked like raw beef and jelly donuts. Surely he was my man, as far as I was concerned.
I looked around the shop and instantly found copious piles of Die Uber Hosen. They were green, grey, white, brown, blue, and even red. But no black. Had some other roadie, equally stylish, but living a parallel life, snatched up all the black carpenter’s pants?! I was crushed. I didn’t have enough time to find another store, I had to be back at the hotel at noon, we were leaving at 12:30 for the venue.
The Stormtrooper, licking the powdered sugar and cow’s blood off his fingers, walked over to me, and asked me if I needed help, I think. I used the only German phrase I have truly mastered, “Ich spreche nich Deutsche”, meaning “I speak no German”. I have such extensive practice with this phrase that I have been told that I say it with such a good accent that it seems disingenuous. He seemed more amused than the statement warranted, I felt.
Basically, he was laughing in my face. Laughing hard.
When the Stormtrooper recovered, he and I communicated to each other via sweeping hand gestures, not completely unlike two cro magnons. It was brought to his attention that I wanted the pants in black, and it was brought to my attention that he didn’t have them in black. He motioned me over toward his phone, then dialed and spoke to someone for a minute. He gave me the phone, and a man who identified himself as Carsten told me that he had the trousers in black, but he was an hour away. I told him that I couldn’t travel an hour and back, I didn’t have time. So, he asked me how many pairs I wanted, and for some reason, I said two. I had just wanted one, but when my mouth opened, the number two popped out.
Carsten told me to wait, he would close his shop and drive over to the other shop with the two pairs of carpenter’s pants, but they would be more expensive than usual. I asked him how much they would be, and he paused.
“Ninety marks, I must have more money because I am closing my shop.”
I nearly laughed. This was 20 marks less than the original pair had cost, and the dollar had improved against the mark, to boot. I asked for three pairs, size 54. Carsten was a happy man, I was a happy man, even the Stormtrooper seemed pretty happy.
I spent the hour before Carsten arrived reading advertising posters on the walls of the shop for German industrial and construction apparel, printed, of course, in German. Which I don’t read. Also, the Stormtrooper and I communicated small talk to each other via hand signals. It was a long hour, longer than some hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles, even.
Carsten arrived at last, and there was some minor hubub around the fact that the Stormtrooper didn’t think that the reciept should come from his shop, in case I wanted to return the trousers. I informed them that I was leaving Berlin that night, and they had nothing to worry about, there was no way for me to return the pants even if I wanted to. This calmed the Stormtrooper down not one whit. Finally, Carsten agreed to give the Stormtrooper
the excess profit from the sale of the three pairs, I could pay the Stormtrooper, and leave them to sort it out. I paid, I got the reciept, and as I was leaving, I could hear the tension rising in both their voices, yet they both stopped together long enough to tank me for coming and wish me well, at which time they resumed arguing.
I retraced my steps, took the bus back to the Metro stop, took the two Metro trains back to the hotel, and made it back from my adventure with 15 minutes to spare. We went to the venue, and finished the tour.
In September of 1997 I got the three pairs of Die Uber Hosen altered in Seattle, thus making them wearable. It was at that time I regained my title as the most styling man in rock.
So, if you see me on the street, wearing a particularly intriguing pair of trousers, the ones with two zippers, be aware that I have known defeat, but I fought back, scrappy and tenacious, and that the right to wear Die Uber Hosen has been earned. By me alone.