Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Berlin by Lou Reed (1973/2008)

Not many musicals end with a sing-a-long “I’m going to stop wasting my time/somebody else would have broken both of her arms”, but then again no one can accuse Lou Reed of being like Andrew Lloyd Webber. Berlin is one of those albums that is criminally underappreciated upon release, and only slowly gains its status after many decades of critical revisionism. Berlin was a slap in the face, coming after Reed’s defining Transformer (1972), with its toe-tapping classic ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, and the singalongs ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Satellite of Love’ all wrapped up in a Bowie-produced poppy production. Conceived as a “Sgt Pepper for the 1970s”, Berlin was the antithesis to the single-packed Transformer, forming a cohesive story with each song adding to the narrative.

And what a narrative it is: unlistenably depressing was the critical consensus at the time of release, even grimmer than the Velvet Underground at their most debauched. Following a small exposition in the form of ‘Berlin’, a remake of a track from Reed’s solo debut the year before, the narrative kicks in with ‘Lady Day’. Here, the character of the insecure Caroline is introduced (though not by name), and her habit of singing at bars and being the centre of attention is explained. The setting is mentioned, a grim Berlin “hotel that she called home”, with a “bathroom in the hall”. The bombastic arrangement, particularly the organs, is immediately reminiscent of producer Bob Ezrin’s later work on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. ‘Men of Good Fortune’ paints a picture of working class misery and impotence, presumably a background piece for the other protagonist, Jim. The men of poor beginnings “just drink and cry”. Lou Reed’s narrator dryly comments “and me, I just don’t care at all”, although this could just as easily pertain to Jim’s inner dialogue.

Caroline Says I’ is the first up-tempo song, though “upbeat” isn’t a quality that it possesses. It shows Jim and Caroline’s dysfunctional relationship. Caroline’s sayings whittle away at Jim’s self-respect, questioning his manhood, being cruel and vile (“just like poison in a vial”), but Jim thinks he can cope. She’s “still [his] Germanic queen”. This might be a recollection of their first conversation in which she lures him into a masochistic relationship. Jim puts up with Caroline’s comments, for now at least. Near the end of the song, manic drumming accompanies glammy guitar playing as the orchestral arrangement comes to a crescendo and the chorus of the play hovers in the background. ‘How Do You Think It Feels?’ latches perfectly onto the last note of ‘Caroline Says I’, with a bass hook that refers to ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ (so much so that on the 2008 live album, the crowd cheers disproportionately loudly upon hearing the opening notes). The lyrics describe the growing paranoia within the relationship; one of the two seems to be asking the other to quit running over town for days on end (“speeding and lonely”, on some kind of binge), “making love by proxy” and being “afraid of sleeping”. Presumably this is Jim’s inner dialogue, addressing Caroline and her promiscuous barfly behaviour as established in ‘Lady Day’. Caroline’s fear of sleeping hints at her inner demons confronting her when she can’t take her mind off of them. By ‘Oh Jim’, his inner dialogue takes a more active pose. All of Caroline’s friends are “shooting her up with pills”, throwing her on the stage “for a laugh”. Jim is filled “up to here with hate”, and has resigned himself to beating her “black and blue” to get her straight. The song has an appendix from Caroline’s perspective, asking Jim how he could “treat me this way”, while “looking through the eyes of hate”.

2008: the 66 year-old Lou Reed plays a harrowing 'Caroline Says II' on national television, including unambiguous references to spousal abuse.

Side 2 opens with the haunting ‘Caroline Says II’. The song is a rewrite of the Velvet Underground’s then unreleased ‘Stephanie Says’, with all the levity squeezed out of it. Presumably by this point, Jim and Caroline have met up again. “Caroline says/as she gets up off the floor/why is it that you beat me/it isn’t any fun”. She tells Jim that he ought to learn more about himself, and that he can beat her all he wants but she doesn’t love him anymore. Following their confrontation, Caroline puts her fist through a window pane, “she’s not afraid to die”. ‘The Kids’ further details Caroline’s escapades. Her infidelity and promiscuity increases openly, further enraging Jim. The couple’s children (or more precisely, “her children”) are being taken away from her, due to her being unfit for motherhood. The song mentions her drug abuse and unspeakable acts in alleys and bars (“that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn/anyone away”). Jim is “happier this way”, but he is a “tired man”. The song has a truly disturbing appendix of distraught children screaming for their “mummy”. Different stories exist of how producer Bob Ezrin’s children were “coaxed” into their performance, the most widely cited being that he told them their mother had died. Another version has him locking his children out. In reality, his children’s instructed calling for their mother got a bit carried away, while the crying heard simultaneously was a recorded domestic incident without any specific provocation. [Source: Lou Reed’s collected lyrics]

Bob Ezrin, pictured with Lou Reed, taking a break from making his children cry.

The Bed’ acts as the story’s denouement, mentioning the pivotal moment of the story in retrospect and without too much attention. Its dry, tender and repetitive nature represents Jim’s conflicting feelings as he comes to terms with Caroline’s inevitable suicide. Jim tells himself he wouldn’t have started the relationship, had he known how it would end, but that he is nevertheless not at all sad at its conclusion. ‘Sad Song’ is a perfect closer. Its epic qualities and rather literal title make a conceptually strong and lyrically sound conclusion to the story. Continuing on from Jim’s inner monologue in ‘The Bed’, he wonders how things went wrong. “Staring at [his] picture book”, once again comparisons to royalty are made (“she looks like Mary, Queen of Scots/she seemed very regal to me”), just as they were at the beginning of the story (‘Lady Day’, “my Germanic queen”). The song shows his determination to continue, convincing himself he did the best he could, adding twistedly that “somebody else would have broken both of her arms”. Reed strains his voice for the high notes in this song, sounding as vulnerable as the saddened but resolute Jim’s thoughts. A full-blown orchestra accompanies this final hurrah. Melodically, the song owes a lot to ‘Satellite of Love’, as many of Reed’s ballads would for years to come (‘Heavenly Arms’ from 1982’s The Blue Mask, for one).

In production terms, Berlin combines a lush score with the bone-dry vocal “talents” of Reed. He talk-sings in a detached manner, using it to great effect on the more disturbing songs (the latter half of the album). The album could almost be classified as “progressive rock”, considering its elaborate instrumentation, sequencing and literal storyline. Going from poppy glam that flirts with the debauched (Transformer) to truly disturbing, depressing grand statements on Berlin would be Reed’s commercial undoing. Reviewers would hate it, and Reed would have journalists for the rest of his career. Even his own record label used the album against him in court to prove what filth Reed would come up with, left to his own devices. Later in 1973, Reed would tour, reverting to the persona he had established for himself with Transformer. Some Berlin songs made it into the glam-rock set in a stripped down, funked up version with howled vocals. The live albums Rock n Roll Animal (1974) and Lou Reed Live (1975) chronicle this highly commercial period that seemed designed to please crowds and overshadow the Berlin debacle.

Touring in 1973: Lou Reed camps it up as the glam rocker the people wanted to see. The Berlin material would lose its subtlety and grace, and soon be forgotten.

More than thirty years since the release of Berlin, Lou Reed scored a personal victory by excavating the album and performing it as intended. Involving a crack touring band, a full choir and orchestra conducted by original producer Bob Ezrin and backing vocals of Antony “and the Johnsons” Hegarty, the production faithfully recreated the LP, fleshed out with a few extended musical passages. The 2006 performances were released to festivals in 2007 though Julian Schnabel’s eponymous film. In 2008, the soundtrack was released as Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

A remarkably "ripped" Lou Reed adorns the cover of his most recent album.

The 2006 production, as well as the quality of the musicians breathes new life into Berlin, giving it an urgency and immediacy that was somewhat lost in the original mix. Guitars are much more dominant in this version, with even Reed taking part in exchanging some lead solos despite only playing some acoustic on the album. Reed sings with as much passion as his 64 year-old voice can manage, although sadly he indulges his career-long tendency to sabotage the songs by “soulfully” singing either two seconds ahead or behind of the rest of the music, destroying the melody and pacing in the process. The concert was rounded off with the inclusion of ‘Candy Says’ from 1969’s The Velvet Underground, a recent song ‘Rock Minuet’ which matches the tone from Berlin remarkably well, and rounding off the concert with crowd favourite ‘Sweet Jane’ (Loaded, 1969).

'Sad Song', the album's last track in its 2006 guise. From the 2007 film Berlin.