Lou Reed – Berlin -1973
It was with trembling hands that I first tried to find the words – any words at all really – to describe the shock as the news of Lou Reed’s death hit me like a grand piano dropped from a fifteen storey building. Even though it was known that he had been ill and undergone surgery recently it will take a while to fully digest the news of his death.
Ever since I began writing about my musical journey here I had been meaning to write about his cathartic 1973 psychodrama Berlin for a while because last year was its 40th anniversary but for some reason I kept putting it off. Perhaps because of the very grandeur of the album and the emotional disarray it leaves me in every time I listen to it, even to this day almost a quarter of a century after first hearing it. Perhaps it was because of some subconscious feeling that a reason that would make further procrastination not only impossible bur verging on blasphemy was just on the horizon.
The reason it has taken me this long after the news of Lou Reed’s death on October 27, 2013 to finally get around to write this has nothing to do with procrastination but more to do with the process of grief. Now, I am finally ready to put these feelings into words.
In all honesty it has to be said that my relationship to the man, the myth, the legend, the godfather of electrocuting noisy rock’n’roll over the years have been ambivalent, to say the least. I hold him in the highest respect as both poet, musician and song writer and yet I own surprisingly few of his albums – considering he had been making music for 47 years and produced 27 officially released albums, not counting live releases or bootlegs. Out of those 27 albums only 10 have found a place in my record collection – still not counting live albums or bootlegs. To break it down even further, four of those albums are by The Velvet Underground and one is his collaboration with John Cale in memoriam of Andy Warhol, Songs for Drella. That leaves only five solo albums out 23 which is certainly not a lot for an artist you consider to be an absolutely indispensible cornerstone in the soundtrack to your life.
What this means in reality is that for the most part of his career Lou Reed’s artistic output has been of highly questionable quality, to put it gently. But, on those occasions when everything has fallen perfectly into place – like a jigsaw puzzle that seem to lay itself into a naturalistic, kaleidoscopic panorama of stories rarely told, about sexual deviancy, drug abuse, social alienation – he has given us songs of such glimmering purity and beauty that it is blinding.
I would for instance be hard pressed to name a more brutally honest song about drug-addiction than his Heroin, which was originally released on The Velvet Underground’s debut album – all the way back in 1967 just a few months short of the Summer of Love – where it becomes the natural axis around which all the other classic songs from that album revolve. Heroin is the link between Venus in Furs and Run Run Run. It also justifies the more odd songs like Black Angel’s Death Song.
Heroin is also to a very large extent the link between The Velvet Underground’s debut and their monumental masterpiece of pure rock’n’roll noise: White Light White Heat, which may not contain as many infamous cult classics as the debut but all six songs on it are among the 25 best songs Lou Reed ever wrote, half of which were recorded during an insane year of explosive creativity, like a pitch black sheep right in the face of the hippie era. It would take the world a full decade to even begin to grasp the crackling electrococulsive therapy – not to call it electrocution – that is White Light White Heat. And had it not been for Berlin six years later it would have been his crowning moment. His undeniable claim to greatness. As it now stands it’s a Mexican stand off between the two albums. And I might return with a more detailed review of White Light White Heat eventually.
First some background on Lou Reed’s early solo years.
After leaving The Velvet Underground – or maybe even firing The Velvet Underground – due to severe differences in artistic vision, Lou Reed went on to record an album that comprised mainly of songs Lou had written and in some cases even recorded demo versions of with The Velvet Underground before the split, Ocean, Ride into the Sun, I Love You, Walk and Talk It. For me this has always suggested that Lou Reed’s eponymous debut was basically the fifth Velvet Underground album, the way it would have been if Lou had stayed rather than what the band did put out as their fifth and last studio album, the Doug Yule dominated Squeeze which essentially is a Doug Yule solo album since the only other musicians on here are a saxophone player who only goes by the name of “Malcolm” and actually Ian Paice from Deep Purple on drums.
Lou Reed’s debut also contains the song Berlin in a much longer, more elaborate and much less poignant arrangement. On the Berlin album only the first half of this song remains and the chorus has been shucked out the window. This makes for a much more focused song.
It is also quite interesting how much of Berlin actually dates all the way back to those last sessions Lou did with The Velvet Underground, There is the demo of a song called Oh Gin which when rewritten for Berlin became the basis for the second part of Oh Jim. Sad song too dates back those demo sessions, as does the epic Caroline Says II which is a rewrite of The Velvet Underground’s Stephanie Says. Even Men of Good Fortune is said to date as far back as to the early days of The Velvet Underground but it is when they all come together – orchestrated and arranged by Bob Ezrin – as parts of the tragic tale of Jim and Caroline – who met at a small café in Berlin on new years eve – that they reach their full potential.
Berlin is Jim’s narrative of their love affair as he walks in on the tragic results of it. I won’t say more on that particular topic now but will return to it once it becomes relevant.
The first half of the album sets the background starting at a New Years Eve party where with find the couple in Berlin by the wall with candlelight and Dubonnet on ice and it was very nice. It was paradise.
The way I have always pictured them, Jim was a disillusioned ex-hippie drug addict who had somehow found himself in Berlin. Perhaps he was there for political reasons since the song Men of Good Fortune show him to be quite the convinced revolutionary socialist. He meets Caroline, a young innocent German girl. They fall in love and she goes back with him to the U.S. And from there on things start to turn sour.
In Lady Day we catch a glimpse of Caroline around the time she had met Jim. She does seem quite happy and innocent, still a child of the summer of love with flowers in her hair but the underlying currents lurking between the lines are much more sinister as they hint at her need for validation and that she takes it wherever she can get it, however she can get it. This soon becomes much more apparent as Caroline gets her first chance to speak – by proxy – through Jim.
I’ve heard people theorize that Lady Day was written about Nico after she left The Velvet Underground because Lou missed having her in the band. Now there’s a giggle and a half. Lou always despised the idea of having Nico in The Velvet Underground – that was all Andy Warhol’s idea anyhow. Lou was more than happy to be rid of her as soon as they broke away from Andy Warhol to make White Light White Heat. What makes a lot more sense though is that the song – before becoming part of the Berlin album – might have been about Billie Holiday who is often referred to by the nickname Lady Day.
All that aside. Men of Good Fortune is perhaps one of the most obviously political songs Lou Reed ever penned. It is also quite cynical in its analysis of the politics of the hippie era and the often resigned and jealous bitterness of those men of poor beginnings against those of good fortune. He plays on the mutual jealousy in the first two verses making a point that money alone does not happiness make and that it too comes with a price to pay.
Men of good fortune, often cause empires to fall / While men of poor beginnings, often can’t do anything at all / The rich son waits for his father to die / The poor just drink and cry … But also: Men of good fortune, very often can’t do a thing / While men of poor beginnings, often can do anything …
In Men of Good Fortune Lou also defends the American dream of making something of yourself through ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit and hard work. He points out that “the Fords” didn’t start that way.
Its role on the album is probably to show Jim as once having been quite the idealist, believing in the power of socialism as a liberating force – that would bring peace on earth and freedom to all people – but now he just don’t care at all. The summer of love is over and the Age of Aquarius never came and all he is left with are drugs and the grim reality of unemployment and despondency.
In Caroline Says I Jim goes on to tell us about how Caroline – often cruelly – humiliated him with her constant string of lovers saying that he’s just a toy. She wants a man not just a boy. The tone of the song is quite bitter as he rants about how she keeps cheating on him, seeking validation and attention from other people, getting it catch as catch can and how despite it all she is still his Germanic queen and he loves and hates her almost equally.
But what it is really about is his fear that he is losing control over her and he becomes increasingly violent towards her, desperately trying to regain control over her through brute force, a reality that sadly is still all too common.
How Do You Think It Feels is written like the sort of backwards apology men who regularly beat and bully their partners for no other reason than to try to maintain the feeling of being in control often use to keep their partner from leaving them. It’s not his fault. She has to understand that it’s because he’s speeding and lonely (and she’s off with some lover who can give her what he can no longer give her). It’s jealousy, because he loves her. She also has to understand the frustration of him not being able to give her anything but a bleak if only … Caroline responds: And when do you think it stops.
Their relationship has now reached a point of no return. Oh Jim shows Jim losing it and the hatred he feels for her and the friends that feed her addiction overpowers the love he used to feel for her, the love he felt for her at the beginning of the album. You almost get a feeling from the chorus that he is actually bragging about how he ends it. And when you’re filled up to here with hate / Don’t you know you gotta get it straight / Filled up to here with hate / Beat her black and blue and get it straight.
The latter half of the song is about Jim picturing Caroline breaking to pieces after he leaves her and deluding himself that despite all the abuse he’d put her through she did love him unconditionally and needed his love to lean on, to keep her not from falling but from sinking. And maybe on some level she did. In a way I can’t really help but to think about Nancy Spungen and her relationship to Sid Vicious and how it ended.
There two quite interesting lines in the last verse that are worth mentioning and that is when Caroline says: Now you said that you love us / But you only make love to one of us. The plural here has always puzzled me. Who is this Us she speaks of … a suggestion of dissociative identity disorder? To be honest I don’t really have an answer to this.
The way I always picture it the A-side of the album ends with Caroline slumped over by the door in tears with a bleeding nose and smeared mascara and Jim walking away into the shadows.
The B-Side begins with the second part of Caroline Says and I’ve always felt that Oh Jim and Caroline Says are in the wrong order, that the latter should preceded the former. Mainly because I don’t really see Jim returning before it’s too late. However. The chronological discrepancy can perhaps be explained as a narrative necessity to bind the four songs on the B-side together more naturally. Either way. This time it sort of feels like she is speaking directly to the listener rather than through Jim. Caroline Says II shows a battered, insecure and damaged woman who resorts to self-harm towards the end of the song, as She put her fist through the window pane / It was such a funny feeling.
The chorus gives a hint at how her “friends” treat her without any form of respect or affection, like she was some sort of novelty for their amusement, how they all call her Alaska and laugh at her as she gets high. Not the greatest safety net for a battered woman – who might suffer from some form of mental disorder – on a slippery slope into a downward spiral. They are portrayed as a rather despicable bunch and Lou paints the picture – as he always did when in top form – in just a few seemingly casual strokes. For me this is where the emotional turmoil really begins.
The Kids is a rather detailed account of the debauchery Caroline emerged herself ever deeper in as a means to find validation through whomever, however briefly, which lead social services to take charge of her children: Sisters and brothers / And everyone else, all of the others. // The black Air Force sergeant was not the first one / And all of the drugs she took, every one, every one.
In the song Jim also describes the feeling of being humiliated by Caroline and her friends and casual lovers to the point where you could call him a cuckold as cheap officers who would stand there and flirt in front of me. He describes this feeling in the first lines of the chorus by referring to himself as The Waterboy, suggesting that she’s been using him as little more than a servant on the sidelines. He also states that the real game’s not over here. He also revels in the fact that she lost her daughter and how he feels much better for it.
He ends this catalogue of debauchery in bitter resentment: That miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn anyone away.
The climax of the song is the section with the children screaming for their mommy. Rumour has it that Bob Ezrin obtained this recording by telling his own children that their mother had died, locked them in a closet and pressed record … Rumour also has it that his wife (who was of course not the least bit dead) was quite infuriated with him for this. It’s a rather twisted story and to be honest it sounds a bit like fan fiction to me.
It is when Jim returns to find Caroline dead – I somehow like to think that it is Jim who finds her – that he begins this song cycle about their relationship. The Bed is where he appears the most sympathetic as he laments her death. But in the end it turns out to be little more than an act.
He takes inventory of the apartment where they used to live, the bed where she slept, the boxes she kept her poetry and stuff in and also the room where she took the razor / And cut her wrists that strange and fateful night.
In the last verse he says that – in hindsight – had he known it would end in suicide he never would have started treating Caroline the way he did. This of course is an afterthought and when he goes on to say that he’s not sad at all that it ended the way it did his sincerity is indeed questionable.
This becomes even more apparent in the finishing Sad Song where Jim actually tries to pin all the blame for their failed relationship on Caroline. In the chorus he suggests that he won’t waste any time on mourning for her, after all: Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.
He’s fishing for sympathy, trying to portray himself as the real victim, which really just shows what a callous bastard he really is, and calling him that is an insult to bastards everywhere.
Over the years I have been made aware that Berlin is a rather underappreciated album in Lou Reed’s catalogue and one of the main reasons I’ve heard for this is that it is not so much Lou Reed’s album as it is producer Bob Ezrin’s. BS … if you pardon the French.
That would be like saying that Dark Side of the Moon is not a Pink Floyd album since so much of it was created in association with producer Alan Parsons – something I know that Alan Parsons did make a big deal about at some point in the eighties or nineties.
Anyway. Not to diminish Bob Ezrin’s input on the finished result that is Berlin, he did not write the songs or perform them. He arranged them because Lou Reed wanted something different from his previous albums, something more elaborate with horns and strings and sound effects. Yes Berlin would have been a very different album without Bob Ezrin but that’s kinda the point of producers, isn’t it? To bring in someone from outside the core to bring it all together.
Bob Ezrin and Lou Reed became life-long friends after making Berlin together and when Lou Reed finally took Berlin to the stage after in 2006 it was only natural that he brought Bob Ezrin along as musical director, and while Lou’s voice may have grown even less melodic over the years the show from St Ann’s Warehouse released in 2008 shows that the album is still a valid work of art today.
Live at St Ann’s Warehouse 2006: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9A813739404F9A93
 Who also has for instance Pink Floyd’s The wall, Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare an Kiss’ Destroyer on his resume
Av: Niklas Ekström, Landskrona