Rio Reiser: The Quiet Gay King of Germany

Rio Reiser has never led a CSD. The self-willed musician had always found it difficult to be portrayed as the poster boy of a certain genre (which can somewhat be applauded). He did associate with the gay movement however, considering the many circles he was in. But he never wanted to be seen as part of it. He refused everything that even remotely resembled a club. Though him being gay and grappling with it, did have an undoubtable influence on his life.

Ralph Möbius was born in Berlin in the Brückenallee 17 but had to leave that place early on. The father had jumped the social ladder. He had gone from a tool constructor to an engineer at Siemens, which led to frequent changes in his job and evidently his family's homebase. Which is why the youngest of the three Möbius brothers grew up in both Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. In a family where the oldest brother Peter left, when Ralph was just 8 years old to start his career as a stage designer. The middle one Gert drew a lot. The promotion of the father eventually brought the family to Nuremberg, in the early 60’s.

Rio Reiser already knew as a young man that he preferred other men.

The first admiration

In Nuremberg he attended a humanitarian gymnasium and the things that would never let go of his life started catching up to him at the age of twelve and thirteen. First, he’d found interest in Karl May and started reading the bible, both of which would have immense influence on his future life’s actions and desires. The first sexual yearnings started popping up and we’re predominantly about boys. Looking back, he described it nonchalantly as “slightly irritating”. The truth of that can be questioned, however. At thirteen he was reading an article in the paper Stern, which was always lying around in his grandparent’s bathroom, an article about The Beatles to be exact. In his autobiography he’ll write: “Great, I thought. That’s it! […] And in that moment, the beginning of December 1963 I knew what my next goal had to be: Learning how to play the guitar and finding people with whom I could make music with.”

He would ultimately form an environment with his older brothers, prowlers, art students, young philosophers, and an old self-proclaimed communist where exactly that was possible: teaching each other stuff, trying new things, making art, and always finding people who were also down to do so.

That environment would become the body of water in which Ralph swam. The textbooks consisted of comic-books, novels of horror and science fiction zines, the soundtrack was beat music, or at least the kind that could be found in the Franconian area and one would be raised as a in the 60s, so-called “dirty and no good soldier”. The political program was bare, which meant basically non-existent, however everyone could agree to a shared aversion of the Vietnam war, unity to societal outcasts and a revolution.

Rio Reiser moved to Berlin as a young man. Today there’s a street named after him in Kreuzberg.

Ralph: Not a suitable name for a rock musician

The first project was the Hoffmanns Comic Teater (without the letter h, because they refused to be associated with the educated middle-class theater fiend). Meanwhile Ralph Möbius started referring to himself as Rio Reiser – named after “Anton Reiser”, a common sought-after character of Karl Phillip Moritz- a kind for defeated teenagers. He founded his first band with Ralph Steitz, who would soon refer to himself as RPS Lanrue (as we’ve established Ralph really wasn’t a suitable name for a musician – that was consensus in the 60s). They would primarily disturb small town bars and cover the greats of the beat-movement in their interpretation of English. His first love came at the age of sixteen and was called Harald; they would laze around in his room, drink port wine and smoke cigarettes and make music. But nothing ever led to anything.

His exemption from military service and the first beat opera in the world, would lead him to Berlin in 1967. Robinson 2000 was a foolish idea, born primarily from the minds of his brothers and Rio had to write the music for it. The opera was immediately slammed after the premiere, but the Möbius-siblings and the Hoffmann Comic Teater became the talk of the time. The first shared flat was formed with a few from the band in the Gutzkowstraße 6. Lanrue was too part of it, the Lanrue whom Rio was in love with and unable to admit it. “Somehow, I was in a constant state of awareness and forcefully eager to not have anyone out of the family or friend-group and ironically those whom I longed for the most notice, that ‘something was wrong with me’”, he said in his autobiography.

Almost the entire environment he was in settled in West-Berlin. “We didn’t quite belong anywhere. Not with the political- nor the straight-up artsy-corner. At most I felt fit with the druggies like Hannibal or Happy-Dieter.” Rio eventually formed with a few others the “Roten Steine” a theater, showcasing day-to-day situations about shit bosses, shit rich people and everything else that sucks when you’re young and apprenticed. A bunch of trainees joined in, one of which was the Berlin paver Raymond with whom Rio fell in love with. The dream of having a rock band however, stayed.

One of his most famous songs: König von Deutschland (King of Germany)

Kreuzberg, Joints and sad love affairs: “Wenn die Nacht am tiefsten…”

On a for Rio unusually early spring-morning, he took off from the Oranienstraße 44, where he stayed to the Goebenstraße, with him a small bag of mescaline and the mao-bible, both harmonized perfectly in 1970’s West-Berlin. He recited, over tea and a joint, his idea to make his own record, disregarding record companies. No sooner said than done and “Ton Steine Scherben '' was born. The band might have not made any money (seemingly difficult with titles like “We’re on strike” and “Break what breaks you”) but it would lead to a lot of uproar in every german small town and mostly after every concert to a house squatting of some sort. Those were seen as new means to provide a home for the broken-out foster kids and other runaways. One could say they created those spaces themselves, to prevent the planned improvement of Kreuzberg as well.

Being gay was not seen as super popular in the autonomous left of that time and Rio Reiser suffered because of it. But the gay scene wasn’t a space where he felt home either, too little tenderness was his issue. The affairs often ended miserably. Opinionated students and the development of Ton Steine Scherben becoming a “jukebox for leftists” got on his nerves and the band was in major debt. To rebuild themselves they hid out in the farm Fresenhagen. That’s where in 1975 the slogan “Wenn die Nacht am tiefsten…” (when the night is deepest) originated. During that phase Rio hung out with the theater-group “Brühwarm”, a group that had originated from the gay movement in Berlin (“Instead of writing pamphlets were making theater” said so by Corny Littmann, co-founder, the idea) whom Ton Steine Scherben provided two CDs for. That time has been captured in an exhibition of the Schwulen Museum “Allein unter Heteros” (solo among heteros).

Rio Reiser Tombstone in Kreuzberg.

„The fear, that is my disease.”

Rio Reiser eventually changed the genre and became a pop star. On the one hand somewhat freeing, because he was able to do more from a musical point of view, on the other hand he remained mostly unknown in the world of record labels. When after 1990 everything that seemed left became suspect, he joined the PDS (party of the democratic socialism) out of spite. He passed away in 1996 at 46 years old, after a life that had never been made to last, but to eventually burn.

His gayness complemented the myth of the crass rebel Rio, whose world-weariness, urge for freedom, and desire was immense. The complement is the fear and the not-belonging: Not for nothing does the bashful expression “on the other side of the tracks” exist. In his diary he writes in his early 20’s: “It’s not my disease, that I love men. The fear, that is my disease, and it is deadly.” And just like that a revolutionary motto, which is quieter than much from Ton Steine Scherben, imposes itself: “The purpose of a revolution is the abolition of fear”. (Theodor W. Adorno)

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Words: Mowa Techen
Translation: Amethyste Benoit

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