February 18, 2021 | Arts and Culture
how a song from 1972 restored my faith in the future
When I returned home after uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 forced the university to shut down in-person operations, I was lost. In all honesty, this feeling wasn’t entirely on account of the sudden onset of a global pandemic, or the combined strain and anxiety of packing up my college life and moving back home in the span of a few days; I had been feeling lost long before that, though the pandemic made things worse. Approaching the midway point of my college experience with little idea of who or what I wanted to be, disillusioned with the path the country was taking, and trying to cope with my lifelong battle with depression, the weariness and fatigue of life’s constant churning had consumed my existence. Facing the reality of a prolonged period of forced isolation, I knew I needed to rediscover who it was I wanted to be, based on—and perhaps in spite of—who I’d been before. It was around this time that I came across an obscure song from 1972 called “Hallogallo” by Neu! that helped me begin to face my past, look ahead with hope, and redeem my tired soul.
Ambitious optimists from the beginning, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger formed the German musical outfit Neu! in 1971 with the intention of leaving the past behind. Inspired by the wide-reaching radical student movements and counterculture of the late 1960s, Neu!, which means “new” in German, created a new sound and a new vision of the future beyond the cataclysmic destruction of Europe in the 20th century. Over ten minutes in length, “Hallogallo,” the first track and de facto manifesto of their debut album, is one continuous, repetitive groove of guitar and drums: no lyrics, no chord changes, and no semblance of any traditional Western musical structure. Emerging gradually from silence, Rother’s meandering guitar patterns float above Dinger’s propulsive and mechanical drumming like the placid surface of a wandering rustic stream over a bed of jagged stones. Lulling the consciousness into a trance-like groove, the beat is of the machine and beyond it, modern in its calculated regularity and as timeless as humanity itself. “Hallogallo” is time, constantly in motion, flowing, knowing only forward.
Neu! and the other experimental German bands of the so-called “krautrock” genre, including groups such as Can, Faust, and Kraftwerk, perhaps best represent the generation of Germans who began to openly question, remember, and challenge the nation’s hideous Nazi past. Though each group had its own unique sound, they all applied novel and avant-garde techniques—unconventional recording methods, instrumentation, and musical structures—to their music, signaling a stylistic and ideological break from tradition. Almost out of necessity, these young bands took it upon themselves to leave everything behind and chart a more optimistic course. Far more than niche musical ventures, these innovative experiments had such emotive power that they influenced an entire generation of popular musicians from Joy Division to David Bowie. Even The Killers have used a sample of the percussive guitar licks of “Hallogallo” on the song “Dying Breed” from their 2020 album Imploding the Mirage.
At this very moment, our own nation sits precariously on the precipice of a self-inflicted destruction not too dissimilar from the one that dawned on interwar Germany. On January 6th, 2021, a hoard of Donald Trump supporters mounted an insurrection on the federal government, breaching the halls of the United States Capitol in a siege meant to disrupt and halt the joint session of Congress tallying the electoral votes of the 2020 presidential election. The events of January 6th—the first time insurrectionists have overrun the Capitol since the British scorched much of Washington D.C. in 1814—draw eerie parallels to the German Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. In November of that year, Hitler and a mob of Nazi party members attempted to overthrow the German government by violent force. The attack of January 6th, like the Nazi coup d’etat attempt of 1923, failed. Progress and hope seemed to triumph over sedition and insurrection. Congress eventually carried out the people’s business of confirming Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the rightful winners of the November election. But to think that the lies and violence propagated by Trump and his followers would disappear on January 20th would be to ignore the lessons of history and balk at the power of time. When confronted with reverence and respect, the progression of time can become the greatest salve for our trauma. Ignored or erased, the actions of the past can echo into our present and wreak havoc on our ability to change. Hitler’s attempt to seize control of Germany failed that day in 1923, but it saw that Germany’s democracy sat in ruins a few years later, alongside the rest of Europe. Many Americans, and many around the world, bristled at the brazen challenge to American democracy on January 6th. As an American Jew, I will carry the pure horror of watching live as Neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists stormed the sacred halls of our democracy for the rest of my life. But we must carry on. We must hold fast to the knowledge that change is bound up in the story of humanity as much as trauma is, that we need not wait for time to absolve or redeem ourselves; we have the agency within ourselves to affect change at any time.
“Hallogallo” recreates the sensation of subjective human experience in the face of painful historical memories, turbulent present circumstances, and nebulous future uncertainties. Endlessly repetitive in rhythm, sound, and structure, the song mirrors the cyclical nature of life in the universe: the earth orbits the sun, we’re born only to die, we wake up only to sleep, on and on and on for eternity. But the story of humanity, and of “Hallogallo,” is not one of futility in the face of indomitable universal forces. The continuous and unidirectional unfolding of time presents the possibility of change, a possibility that splinters the burdensome march of fate and injects the most human of emotions into our experience: hope. Impartial and redemptive, time promises that the failures and tragedies of today will fade into yesterday and give way to new opportunities. Echoing out from an immutable past like the immortal hum of “Hallogallo,” we fly forward along the unrelenting arc of time towards a future of our own design. Though there is much to be done to advance the causes of equality, justice, and righteousness in this country, we can start by lifting our heads towards that infinite horizon, that hope that is so fundamental to the human character, that faith in the flow of time to renew even that which has endured immense hardship.
This is why “Hallogallo” gave me hope. Though a deadly virus isolated me from the world and put important aspects of my life on hold, I came to know that I was always ultimately in control of my own destiny and had the strength to look ahead to a brighter, better tomorrow. During sophomore year, I realized that my depression had reared its ugly, untamable head again after years of lying dormant; almost at an imperceptible rate, I had lost all sense of purpose, joy, and self-esteem. Every afternoon I’d come back to my dorm after classes and cry alone. I stopped dreaming altogether. I was collapsing in on myself, becoming less receptive to those around me as I withered into a mindless automaton, executing the commands of a social order that was bent on extracting my productivity at the expense of my humanity. Depression traffics in lost hope. Like some sticky, malignant shadow seeping and oozing between the folds of your brain, depression can descend as swiftly as the sun on a December day in New England and remain lodged in your spirit like scar tissue. It makes even the banal tasks of daily routine, like getting out of bed and brushing your teeth, feel insurmountable. Soon enough, the global pandemic prevented me from engaging with the gleeful eccentricities of life; I had no choice but to be with myself each and every day. Fate consigned me to a closed loop existence punctuated only by the same routine tasks that depression renders impossible, but I also had Neu! and “Hallogallo” to drive me onward, to bathe my soul in the light of a sunrise and draw me out of the shadow of a long and perilous night. Like connecting with the cosmic radiation rippling throughout the universe from the Big Bang, “Hallogallo” assured me I was here: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It told me that I was a part of the unfolding of time, not imprisoned by it: that I, like anyone else before, around, or after me, had a voice worth sharing.
The time is now to recognize the power we each possess to write the narrative of our lives and alter the course of our history. “Hallogallo” holds the promise of a sunrise. Each day the sun’s silky auburn rays fill our bodies with warmth and our eyes with light; each day is a new opportunity to work on ourselves, to improve our communities, and to lay the foundations of a better tomorrow. On and on we go while the pattern repeats, on towards the infinite horizon. Though the sun will rise and fall every dozen or so hours until the end of human history, there are, within the confines of that unchangeable pattern, an infinite number of ways to be. Even in periods of abject stasis, our hearts and minds have the capacity to learn, to grow. Experiencing “Hallogallo,” confronting the almost incomprehensible void of time, I turned inward and let the light and love of life enrapture my broken spirit. Hurtling headlong into tomorrow, whether you like it or not, it is time we all ask ourselves: who do we want to be when we greet the rising sun?