From Bill Haley & His Comets to Elvis Costello, English is the mother tongue of rock. But Germany has a huge rock star at home who has been famous for 30 years. His name is Herbert Gronemeyer, and he's the best-selling German recording artist of all time, known to some as the "German Bruce Springsteen."
Gronemeyer got his start on the big screen with his role in the 1981 film Das Boot. But afterward, he quickly turned to music and has become known for his big, visceral rock ballads. Now, Gronemeyer has compiled English versions of some of his greatest German hits for I Walk, his first U.S. release.
"I think the [English] language lies more relaxed on the music," Gronemeyer says. "You can stretch it easier, you can make it more light. German language is very guttural and very percussive."
Gronemeyer says he's no stranger to English and American rock music, as he grew up listening to bands like The Beatles, The Doors and The Rolling Stones. He spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about cultural differences, the power of music to overcome tragedy and singing a duet with Bono. Click the audio link on this page to hear more of their conversation.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
English is the mother tongue of rock, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Elvis Costello. But Germany's had a huge rock star at home who has been famous for 30 years. His name is Herbert Gronemeyer. He's the best-selling German recording artist of all time and has been called the German Bruce Springsteen. He plays big, visceral rock ballads.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Herbert Gronemeyer got his start on the big screen appearing in the 1981 film "Das Boot." But after that he turned quickly to music and has become Germany's national balladeer. He even gets back-up vocals from Bono.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
HERBERT GRONEMEYER: (Singing) This is summertime, nothing on my mind. I'm (unintelligible) 'cause we've forgiven (unintelligible). We forget them, we deny, we lose them, still we try. 'Cause we love, 'cause we live. I miss you, oh...
SIMON: Now, Herbert Gronemeyer has compiled English versions of some of his greatest German hits into a new album. It's called "I Walk," and it's his first U.S. album release. Herbert Gronemeyer joins us now from the BBC Studios in Berlin. Thanks so much for being with us.
GRONEMEYER: Thank you. Hello.
SIMON: Is to be a big rock star in Germany to, no matter how successful you are, live in the shadow of David Hasselhoff?
GRONEMEYER: That's a funny thing. And that's so funny because it's really funny. This person, I don't even know him really. I think he once had a song in Germany and that was it.
SIMON: You were born when Germany was still a divided country.
SIMON: What did rock music mean to you growing up?
GRONEMEYER: When I think, we had been so nervous about music because of the past in Germany. Singing German was very, very, a place not to go because the Nazis used the language for their propaganda songs. And, anyway, we just escaped into English and American rock and pop music. So, the Beatles, the Doors, the old blues, the Stones, then started a little bit the croc rock in the '70s. But the '60s being completely influential to us in Germany there.
SIMON: How do you take a German hit and turn it into a English-lyricked(ph) song?
GRONEMEYER: Oh, that's a tricky question.
SIMON: I mean, it seems to me every book in the German language that I see is at least 25 percent longer than it is in English.
GRONEMEYER: Yeah, because that's we want to be very precise. It has a lot to do with German engineering; everything has to be perfectly done. Even talking - we talk longer.
SIMON: Is an English-language love song, for example, a little easier?
GRONEMEYER: I think the language for the music is a bit of a smoother lover. I think the language lies more relaxed on the music in the English language. You can stretch it easier. You can make it more light. German language is immediately (Foreign language spoken). And it's very guttural and very percussive. I think the English language is much, much, much more delicate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GRONEMEYER: (Singing) And I'm all so confused, worlds within worlds, standing beneath a stolid curl. (Unintelligible) dreams, the deepest trust, the universe, the universe is us, no...
SIMON: I hope you don't mind me asking, but, as I gather reading about your life, you suffered, I think it's safe to say, two devastating losses within the same week.
GRONEMEYER: Yes. The thing was that my brother passed away and my wife passed away four days later, yes. My brother had a very complicated illness and cancer as well. And then my wife was already for a long, long time. And, yeah. Sometimes life goes in this moment of complete catastrophe than it was - yeah, they both passed away in the same week, yes.
SIMON: Did you just want to crawl under a rock and hide from life?
GRONEMEYER: I think the weird thing is it's so massive that you actually - I think the good thing in a human being is that the brain is limited. So, the brain is completely numb and you don't know, it doesn't function properly. But I think it's, as you say, even hiding doesn't help. You just stand there and you're completely gone.
SIMON: Does music help?
GRONEMEYER: Yes. It took me quite a while to come back on my feet. And then it was quite interesting - well, not interesting - but I had to tell it to my kids that what happened 'cause they haven't been around. And my son started crying straightaway, but my daughter was very tough in a way. And then she said you don't stop singing and there's no other women coming into our house. It was funny, very odd, that singing or me making music represented for her something very special and important in her life.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GRONEMEYER: (Singing) Just wanted to be right on the screen, you robbed me of my senses and set the sunrise in my head. Just a beautiful dream, makes me surrender, and sweet surrender is all that I need...
SIMON: I gathered that you're an artist that gets involved, tries to make a mark, say something to people about social and political issues. And I understand part of that has been working with disaffected, far-right, radical youths. These are widely considered very unlivable people - immigrant bashers, hateful racists.
GRONEMEYER: The thing is that what people underestimate, it had to do with the situation in Germany that the reunification what everybody underestimated was the situation of the youth in that time. Because their parents being thrown into a complete new system. The parents had - everything was pre-done for them. You know, they went to school, their studies, work, everything was done. And suddenly they come in a world where they actually have to find their own way. And suddenly the parents had no clue how to explain this new situation to their kids. And the kids realized for the first time in their lives, they realize their parents been completely without any answer and that radicalized them.
And so I tried to make an example to show the politicians, look, if you don't look after the youth here you might get really into trouble. And what I started was a home in Leipzig for right-wing kids. And everybody called me an idiot. But in the end, they figured out that the youth get more and more radical until people start caring for them. And that was something nobody was thinking about.
SIMON: Do you think German audiences have a little bit more of a taste for some of the darker material than we do in this country or they do in the U.K.?
GRONEMEYER: No. I wouldn't say so, no. I think there's definitely culture differences everywhere in the world, where what is the way if you sit together for dinner that's different in Brazil to Japan. It's already a difference between an English and a German person at dinner. I think the English have to make a joke about themselves every 10 minutes.
SIMON: That's what I love about them. The jokes, yeah.
GRONEMEYER: Yeah, exactly. That's what I love about it. And then when they sit together with the German, who doesn't make any jokes about himself, they think, oh God, how can they survive? This is impossible. And we Germans, like my partner, Alex - I'm working with him for 14 years now - he's my producer - and he fell in love with a German girl. And I ask him how it is to live in Germany? He said, yeah, the funny thing about the Germans is they go for dinner and they discuss all politics and solve all the problems in the world actually and then they go home all depressed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SIMON: Herbert Gronemeyer. His new album - out in English in the U.S. - is "I Walk." He joined us from the BBC studios in Berlin. Mr. Gronemeyer, good luck to you. Thanks very much.
GRONEMEYER: Thank you very much. Thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GRONEMEYER: (Singing) I walk...
SIMON: And you can hear a few tracks from "I Walk" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.