I went to church last Sunday…
Now before you fall off your chair, call me a liar, or attempt to wash my mouth out with soap, please allow me to explain.
I didn’t just go to any church. I flew 3 ½ hours to attend THE church.
But more on that in a moment…
My weekend’s adventures took me to Cologne, Germany’s second-largest city. A place bisected by the Rhine, where the kölsch beer flows freely, and the waiters won’t stop bringing it until you set your coaster over the mouth of your glass in an elegant gesture of defeat.
The city welcomed me with a kinked neck and dropped jaw the moment I stepped out of the train station.
I knew there was a cathedral nearby, but I never expected to come face to face with this…
Cologne Cathedral began its journey from buried stone to soaring spires in 1248. Work stopped in 1473, and the building was left unfinished for nearly 400 years. But all things classical came back into fashion, and someone picked up the original plan again in the 19th century and got back to hammering and chiseling.
The building that looms over us now, and casts long shadows of The Infinite over the plaza, was finally completed in 1880.
The statistically inclined will be eager to note that is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe, and has the second-tallest spires and largest facade of any church in the world.
The bones of the three wise men are said to be entombed there too. And large numbers of the faithful file in to pray before an elaborately carved golden reliquary.
I was more interested in the incredible sense of space inside the vast soaring nave, in the way the incense took me back to Christmases and Easters and childhood Sunday daydreams, and in the stained glass window by artist Gerhard Richter with its many fractured colours that seem to celebrate life and human aspirations.
But that is Cologne’s other church. And it isn’t the one I came to see.
But as I said, we’ll get to that…
I was lucky enough to spend the day ahead of my minor religious festivities exploring the Ludwig Museum, which holds one of Europe’s best collections of modern art.
Luck was with me on that day, and the very first room I turned into on a whim held the collection of German Expressionism.
I’d become interested in the painters of Die Brücke when I first visited Berlin back in 2013. The group — whose name means “The Bridge” — formed in Dresden in 1905, and they had a major impact on the evolution of modern art in the 20th century, and on the creation of expressionism.
I love the weird colours that fill their canvases, their bold lines and green skies, and the feeling of yearning for an unworldly paradise, or for some sort of ideal communal artistic life in run down studios or on beaches by the sea. They painted melancholy streets and squares, big leaden skies, inner strength and the transcendental experienced in the earthly sphere.
I didn’t realize that the Ludwig Museum had so many of the most important works by Die Brücke painters like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Mueller, and being able to look at them in person rather than in the pages of the book was one of the best parts of the weekend.
But I’ve digressed, and I know that some of you are waiting to hear about my religious conversion.
Well, the truth is, I’ve been a zealot all along.
And of course, we’re talking about THE Church.
I flew up to Cologne to catch a show on The Church’s current European tour, and to catch up with one of my most important writing influences, singer and bassist Steve Kilbey.
We arrived at the club early, and I talked our way past the mean German bouncers to catch the second half of the soundcheck. We had time for a giant plastic beer cup of champagne backstage before the show, and a minor clothing dispute with Steve, before the chanting crowd called the band to the altar.
I don’t know how to describe the show, except to say, “Fucking incredible.”
Waves of sound vibrated through the crowd like a tuning fork struck by a magus, driving us higher and higher.
Just when I thought they couldn’t build it any more, we were nudged stratospheric, taken out of ourselves on waves of sound that permeated my chest and vibrated through every cell and memory, touching past and present versions of my old and future selves.
It all went by in a flash of emotion, and it took several days to come back down to earth.
Check out the remaining shows on this tour, or the upcoming Australian or North American tour. I promise you’ll be amazed. It’ll be the second US tour for The Church this year. These guys are finally getting some of the recognition they so richly deserve, and the new album Further/Deeper is getting a lot of play. These are masters at the height of their craft.
The evening wound down with an hour and a half of backstage conversations about art, history, Greek myth and travel with some of the most well read friends I could possibly raise a glass with. Steve, Tim, Peter and Ian — thanks so much for your kind hospitality, for your inspiration over the years, and for all those beers you kept offering me. Your work continues to inspire me, and to form the soundtrack of my travels and my memories.
This is the only kind of church I’ll ever follow.
And on that note, I leave you with a song off their new album Further/Deeper.
Laurel Canyon captures the sad nostalgia of all those paths we could have taken, if only we had another life. All those loves that could have been, if only we had more time and more youth.
I hope you enjoy it.