You could easily miss the gate that leads to Herbert Grönemeyer’s London residence. The house, on a tree-lined crescent, hides behind a long strip of garden. It’s a nice place, nothing flash, discreet, a family home. There’s little to signal that the man who has lived here for the past 14 years is one of the planet’s biggest rock stars, and the biggest in the German-speaking world by a number of measures. When Michael Jackson’s Thriller stormed the charts in every other major region, Grönemeyer’s 4630 Bochum fought off the challenge to keep the top slot in Germany. Mensch, Grönemeyer’s extraordinary testament to love, loss and redemption, released in 2002, is Germany’s best-selling album of all time. His domestic fanbase is substantial and diverse, encompassing both sexes and a broad sweep of ages. The German newspaper Die Zeit declared that any new album from Grönemeyer must be considered as significant as “the Christmas message from the German president” (and that wasn’t a German joke).
Yet, like the best of German wines, Grönemeyer is a vintage his compatriots have been glad to keep for themselves. If his distinctive—and distinctively teutonic—face is recognised on the streets of London, New York or Los Angeles, it’s most often from his role as “the war reporter” in Wolfgang Petersen’s Oscar-nominated 1981 film about life and death aboard a U-boat Das Boot or, in recent years, from his cameo appearance in Anton Corbijn’s award-winning 2007 movie Control. When Corbijn proposed that Grönemeyer write the soundtrack for his feature The American, a thriller starring George Clooney, Hollywood executives were dubious, quizzing Grönemeyer during a conference call. “What have you actually ever done?” asked one sceptic.
A detailed reply would have prolonged the call by several hours. During a career spanning almost four decades, Grönemeyer has amassed an extraordinary body of achievements as an actor, musical director, composer and rock star. His record label Grönland is thriving and he hopes to add a restaurant and a car business to his overburdened resumé. And now he is launching an English-language album titled, I WALK.
For those who don’t know much about him—indeed for those lucky enough to be discovering his music for the first time—it would be natural to assume that such a polymath must also be a dilettante, that his heart is not in his work. The opposite is true. Grönemeyer’s heart is at the heart—indeed his heart is the heart—of everything he does.
Not that he’s a sentimentalist: Grönemeyer is an acute observer who never shies from documenting human fallibility, the perversities of love and the absurdities of male vanity. His unvarnished style routinely attracts comparisons with Bruce Springsteen. There are similarities—Grönemeyer, like Springsteen, speaks to emotions and experiences familiar to his audience; 4380 Bochum is named for the industrial city in which Grönemeyer spent formative years—but the musical differences are significant. Grönemeyer’s music has grooves, layers—he fills stadia but not with stadium rock. His songs, though packed with hooks that snare you on the very first hearing, are sophisticated, highly crafted, if often with the simplicity that only a master craftsman could pull off.
Germans consider him something of a firebrand. Years of advocacy for the developing world, his blunt appraisals of his native country’s political classes and a handful of overtly political tracks have gained him that reputation, but the politics that animate the majority of his songs are the politics of passion. By instinct and Calvinist upbringing a private man, Grönemeyer is impelled in his song-writing to expose close-held feelings. Each of his 13 studio albums, he says, has been “a snapshot of my state of mind”.
This latest project is different. A collection of songs in English, four reworked from his 2011 German release Schiffsverkehr (shipping traffic), six from older albums and three specially written for the record, they create not so much an image of Grönemeyer’s present but a chunk of autobiography. These are songs of innocence and experience, selected from his vast catalogue he says because, in musical terms, “the colours match”. The narrative fits seamlessly together too. Past decades, and especially the events of 1998 and beyond, infuse earlier tracks with a new maturity. He first recorded “Airplanes in My Head”, a portrait of a relationship gone cold, as “Flugzeuge im Bauch” for his breakthrough album 4380 Bochum. Now the ballad takes on a deeper, darker resonance, the reflections of a man who has known real love and cannot accept its counterfeit.
Grönemeyer’s London home witnessed that real love—and its apparent destruction. He and his family—wife, the luminous actress Anna Henkel, and their children Felix and Marie—moved to the U.K. in 1998. He was finishing the album Bleibt Alles Anders (everything stays different, his first project with Alex Silva, the Welsh programmer-mixer-producer who went on to work with Grönemeyer on subsequent records including I WALK). Grönemeyer had been drawn to London for creative reasons; he enjoys the richness and diversity of the city’s music scene, its relaxed approach to making music. But he and Anna also came in search of sanctuary for themselves and a semblance of normality for Felix and Marie. It wasn’t just to escape the distortions and intrusions of fame. Anna had been diagnosed with breast cancer eight years earlier. Britain, and its anonymity, appealed, especially to Anna.
But nothing could give her sanctuary from her illness or shield her husband from her death. Psychologists say it’s easier for survivors to cope if their relationships have been strong; they’re not tormented by guilt; they can give themselves over to grief and so process it more quickly. Grönemeyer should have been that guilt-free survivor. In the first flush of his success he had given Anna provocation enough, an abiding regret he nods at in “Same Old Boys”, one of the tracks specially written for I WALK; “Played with every heart I knew / Good excuses overdue”. But he and Anna had weathered the turbulence, grown closer, so close that for all they noticed or cared the London house could have been an ark drifting on the open seas. They were content to be with each other and their children.
He would have mourned her with the purity with which he loved her. But she died three days after the death, from leukaemia, of his brother Wilhelm. Grönemeyer, stricken and confused, came close to collapse, going through the motions for Felix and Marie, but unable for years to imagine the possibility of doing more than that. Mensch, raw and beautiful, marked that turning point, the first stirrings of new life amid the ashes. At the time of its release, four years after the trauma of that November week, Grönemeyer gave interviews about his recovery. He tried to convince his interlocutors—and himself—that his grief had eased, and that idea carried through into many of the songs, which depicted their composer as a man learning to let go. “And it’s all OK /Take it day by day / This is summertime”, he sang in German on the title track of Mensch, and you knew he didn’t believe it. It would be another decade until he could deliver those words with conviction and with the lightness of spirit that lifts I WALK. The loss is still profound but he is able to celebrate the past instead of flinching from it: “We forgive and understand / We forget and we deny / We lose and still we try / Cause we are / Cause we live / I miss you.”
The same spirit animates another track from Mensch, “To the Sea”, and is perfectly encapsulated in “Live Again”, first recorded for James Last’s 2004 album of duets They Call Me Hansi, and like many of Grönemeyer’s works shot through with imagery of the ocean. “You will always be my truth / You will always be my dream / The saltwater rivers run through my veins / High above the sky grows heaven / And below the sea is grey”,Grönemeyer sings. And then in the refrain, there’s the realisation that has enabled him to move on with his life: “We will always be lovers and we will always be, always live again.”
You don’t need to know anything about this history, about Grönemeyer, to appreciate his music. “Will I Ever Learn”, a collaboration with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, is wrenchingly lovely. “I Walk” is jaunty and catchy. “All That I Need” is an upbeat love song. Each track stands on its own merits. But for anyone who has observed Grönemeyer, at a distance or closer to, there’s an added pleasure to I WALK, like a hidden bonus track. You listen and you are consoled: Herbert no longer despairs, he has come through “The Tunnel” the album’s finishing track eloquently describes (“I’m tied to the past / held by my truth”). “Bring an end to these days / And help me to leave them without guilt, without shame,” he sings. He seems finally to have done just that.
I Walk is a love story—but Anna and his children and new lovers are not the only objects of Grönemeyer’s affection. During the terrible November of 1998, Grönemeyer considered returning to Germany, to his friends, to his roots. He decided, instead, to stay in London. It wasn’t a city he knew or a city that knew him or afforded him the welcome rock stars come to expect. It treated him like any other resident, and sometimes worse (any German who has spent time in England will know that historical antipathies have not vanished but are instead sublimated in a culture of anti-German jokes and football rivalry). Grönemeyer used to complain about London, about its rudeness and its chaos and the difficulties of ever getting anything fixed or delivered, but his complaints masked his growing devotion to the place. He was grateful that he could go about his business without being observed and assessed; Felix and Marie flourished. He came to appreciate and share British humour, even when it was directed against him—and he quickly learned to give as good as he got—and he enjoyed the spontaneity and freedoms of London life.
With both children grown and back in Germany, Grönemeyer has begun spending part of the year in Berlin. These days he can deal with the attention he invariably attracts; with the honour and burden of being viewed as a national treasure. London still affords him the opportunity to slip back into a different reality, as an uncelebrated celebrity. I WALK, in giving Britons a taste of the music they’ve been missing, may erode that status, but it’s Grönemeyer’s tribute to them.
Catherine Mayer (Europe Editor, TIME Magazine)