Vietnam, guitars, love, cancer—it’s an unusual and poignant life story from America that made its way to Germany. Yes, the story has to do with a
Somewhere between the continents, a green fleck is floating on the vast, cold ocean. The green fleck is an old car from the 1970s, secured in an angular container on the deck of a cargo ship. The car, a classic and somewhat scratched
That is what will happen, but in that moment when the green fleck is still out on the ocean, I do not even know it exists, or that it will be headed my way. An old
And when the car is in my garage, I watch a YouTube video of a dying man in my living room. He is in his late sixties, singing his last songs, strumming his guitar, and what song could be more fitting as the end nears than what he is playing, Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”? The man is so delicate and fragile, already frail, but full of music, full of melodies and a shimmering wistfulness. He is a guitarist from Berkeley, California, and when I see these last images of him on YouTube he has already passed away, but that is not yet clear to me at the moment. Ultimately, this man’s life and his green car will act as a time machine, bringing a few decades of American history to life for me.
Dale Miller is the name that I find in the old papers of the
Especially when they are so green. “Olive green” is what
But how could I have known that when I saw the green
Later, after Dale Miller had passed away, his wife Terry would tell the story of how they had driven the
That evening as I watched Dale Miller sing his last songs on the YouTube video, his fingers gently strumming the strings, it was suddenly clear to me why such a good music system with Blaupunkt loudspeakers had been installed in the
I wanted to put Dale’s music into the glove compartment of the
He wanted to live, but the disease moved fast. Five months after the diagnosis of cancer, the blog stops. Then there is only an obituary on the Internet, clever and warm-hearted, written by a fellow guitarist, Teja Gerken, and in the last sentences of the obituary he writes about the green
On an early fall evening I place a CD into the sound system of the
“In the last few weeks he was still driving the
A small lemon tree is at her back, and the timeless strains of Neil Young waft from the house: “Keep on rockin’ in the free world!” The music is from Dale’s old iPod. Terry lets the shuffle function run; it has a lot of Bob Dylan, The Band, also the Dire Straits. At one end of the garden, toward the rear, there is a garage with a slanted wooden roof and in it a new
The message that I wrote from Munich to Terry Helbush in Berkeley on the evening of the memorial concert following my brief drive in the green fleck was a little sentimental. Terry shed a few tears. Despite that she wrote back to say that I should come to Berkeley, soon, and that she would tell Dale’s story, and her own.
Nine months after Dale’s death I landed in San Francisco on a nonstop Lufthansa flight and rented a car at the airport. On the highway I was overtaken by two Tesla sedans, fully electric, fully American, gadgets for the road. Playfulness is always part of the picture on the Pacific coast, which is why
“He hated Washington,” she said. His parents, from a long line of Texans, had come to the capital to work for Democratic Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. There are photos of Dale as a little boy with Johnson in Washington. The politician looks kindly, while Dale is wearing a cowboy hat and has a toy pistol in his hand. His parents were lobbyists in Washington, later also lobbyists for the Vietnam War in the White House. They sent Dale to a military school, and he knew what was coming his way. But chance came to his rescue, an incident that made a beatnik with long hair out of him instead of a Vietnam veteran with nightmares from the highlands. Dale and a few friends had ordered pizza from a delivery service to the barracks. That was a violation of the rules, so they were demoted and not allowed to fight for their country.
Nobody helped John Maloney. About 15 miles east of Terry’s garden in Berkeley, he is still working at his garage in Lafayette. The garage is called “Valhalla,” because he has been repairing
Dale Miller never knew that John Maloney, the Vietnam vereran, had worked on his
“Everything was different back then,” says Terry. She didn’t have a garden, or a house in Berkeley, or a green
The 1960s and 1970s were only a vivid memory by 1998, when Dale bought the green
Dale had also understood the new times. He had the
In this university town, Dale and Terry went out to eat at Chez Panisse every Friday evening. They left the car at home and walked when they set off for Alice Waters’s restaurant, credited with launching California cuisine, famous for being healthy, high-quality, and cool. They were always given a table at this small, fixed-menu, very popular restaurant on Shattuck Avenue. To this day, Terry just has to call and a place will be set for her that evening.
She sits erect at a small table and recalls the past years and what they were like when she was still working in downtown San Francisco. Sometimes she drove the
And that is the man who led hikers through the hills behind Berkeley, who showed them the most beautiful paths, the views, the forests, and who listened to Dylan every day. He wanted a lot; one of his last CDs was entitled Both of Me. He played a duet with himself on it, with two tracks, plucking a wooden guitar on one and a steel guitar on the other. Terry was earning a lot of money at the time and supporting Barack Obama.
In Marin County, where there are many people of considerable fortunes, in addition to a good number of aging hippies, Teja Gerken sits under a tree in the back courtyard of a small café. This evening he will play his guitar around the corner at a benefit concert. Gerken is a good man: he wrote the obituary for Dale Miller, organized the memorial concert for him, and spoke at the funeral service in Berkeley. Born in 1970 in the German city of Essen, Gerken was predestined to land in California, even if he never imagined becoming friends with a
Gerken’s father is a psychoanalyst who always wanted to leave Germany; he had lived in communes in the United States with his son back in the 1970s. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in the mid-1980s, he took his son and moved from Germany to the town of Mendocino in California, 155 miles north of San Francisco. At some point Teja went to San Francisco and met Dale. “I thought, Wow, most blues guitarists don’t drive a
As a child, Teja had toured Mexico with his father, so when Dale wanted to set off for the Mexican desert in the 911, Teja helped him find a luggage rack for the car in Germany. Easier for Teja, because he speaks German. Then Dale drove off with Terry, guitars, and luggage, sporting a light-colored hat. Teja had already recorded a new version of one of Dale’s beautiful old songs on his own CD: “Noe Valley Sunday.” That’s how California worked for them.
On my last day in Berkeley, Terry asks me whether I would like to help her clean up the basement. It could be interesting. Underneath the big house, between low brick walls, is Dale’s story, including many records still in their original packaging. There are piles of CDs, repair manuals for the
And then there’s a little primer in which Dale instructs other guitarists on the right way to handle the strings, how to get the sound out of them that his fans later describe as “warm and coaxing.” Fingers Don’t Fail Me Now is the name of one of his first records. This, too, is down in the basement, next to the Christmas decorations. Terry is keeping all of that.
When I return to Munich I go down to the garage at night and stand in front of the
When I saw Dale Miller’s old
Someone is now driving another old
Translation of an article published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, 2014
By Jochen Arntz
Photos Fritz Beck