Lou Reed – Berlin (5/5)
Lou Reed’s third album, Berlin, embodies the most beloved narrative in rock and roll history: the lost classic. Nearly universally despised upon its released, in the last forty years Berlin has gone from pariah to a canonical rock and roll album. And while this is in many ways a triumph—after all, the more accolades an album receives, the more people listen to it—there’s something about Berlin that makes its banishment from polite society seem appropriate, not because the album is a disaster as some critics claimed on its initial release, but because the album spends the majority of its running time mired in the grime and muck of drug addiction, poverty, and domestic violence. As an album, Berlin is arguably Lou Reed’s greatest evocation of place in an entire career concerned with the territory of the city.
Ostensibly, Berlin is a concept album. But unlike most concept albums of the 70s, Berlin isn’t concerned with baroque plotting or sci-fi fantasy. Instead, the album is an evocative exploration of the cityscape and city dwellers. Lou Reed acts as flaneur and guide who leads the listener through a kaleidoscopic series of personalities and images. The title track opens the album with the shuffling sounds of the city: conversations, laughter, a birthday song, and glasses clinking all competing with one another for clarity. This bundle of white noise soon gives way to Reed’s speak/sing voice and piano, reminiscing about attending a concert in a café with his paramour. Reed’s lyrics cleverly collapse beginnings and endings. The date at the café appears to occur early on in the couple’s relationship, a time of open possibilities, but these potential futures are quickly closed as Reed sings, “Oh, babe, I’m gonna miss you now that you’re gone.” Already Reed is foreshadowing the dark places his tale will take us.
Berlin’s narrative can be simply outlined as a street rat couple fall in love in the city, play power games with each other, have several children together, and separate. Caroline, the female protagonist, eventually becomes disreputable, loses her children, and commits suicide. There’s an almost stifling sense of dread throughout the album. The details of this relationship are not always clear, but it doesn’t matter, because Reed is more concerned with crafting atmosphere and a sense of location than he is throwing together a clumsy plot. Rather than referring to the actual Berlin, the German city seems to be more of a state of mind, a stand in for large international metropolises, owing as much debt to New York City or William S. Burrough’s fictional Interzone as it does to Germany’s capital.
Just as the skyscrapers of the city can make residents feel cut off from the outside world, Reed’s characters are also trapped by place and class. In the song, “Men of Good Fortune,” Reed swings back and forth between those born into wealth and those born into poverty. Reed sings, “Men of good fortune / Often cause empires to fall / While men of poor beginnings / often can’t do anything at all,” drawing a line between the have and the have nots as well as their attendant agency or lack thereof. The manner in which Reed’s verses place “men of good fortune” and “men of poor beginnings” next to one another is indicative of how great poverty and great wealth often share the same space in the city. Several times Reed’s protagonist sings, “it makes no difference to me,” claiming that the trappings of poverty aren’t something that will define his life, but the tragic end to the album suggests otherwise. In other words, you may not believe in class warfare, but class warfare believes in you.
It’s important for Reed to construct a world around his characters, because they do unsavory things and at times seem completely unconcerned with one another. The relationship between the two protagonists appears to vacillate between love and hate. In “Caroline Says I,” Caroline expresses her desire to treat her male paramour as a toy, and he responds by calling her his queen. And yet two songs later on “Oh Jim,” the titular character is described as “Filled up to here with hate” and beating his lover “black and blue.” In the song’s coda, sung from Caroline’s perspective, she quietly laments “Oh Jim, how could you treat me this way?” This is a highly dysfunctional couple, and without an understanding of the world of poverty and drugs in which they live, a listener wouldn’t be able to extend any empathy. Reed doesn’t ask us to condone the troubled psychosexual and physical power these two inflict on one another, but he does ask us to understand their world.
The album’s longest song at nearly eight minutes, “The Kids” might be the album’s most sympathetic song. The track details all the reasons why the state wants to take Caroline’s children away, including drug use and perceived promiscuity. Towards the end of the song, we hear two children screaming for their mother, evocatively representing the toll this separation will have on “the children.” By questioning the decision to separate mother and child, Reed asks us to question how class affects perception of motherhood. “The Kids” has also resulted in one of the album’s most intriguing behind the scenes stories. The two children calling out for their mother are supposedly producer Bob Ezrin’s. Ezrin knew he wanted the sound of two screaming children, so when his children came home from school one day, he told them their mother had died in a horrible car accident and then recorded the results. This story may or may not be apocryphal, but it only ads to the mythology of Berlin.
Berlin manages to be both a representative and exceptional album in Reed’s discography. It is representative in that it recalls Reed’s transformative ability to sketch characters and places. But it is an exception because Reed relies on orchestration more on Berlin than just about any other album out there. Amidst the album’s layered strings and overpowering horn sections, Reed’s off kilter, nearly monotone delivery grounds his story of druggies and lovers. The closing track, “Sad Song,” swirls with arpeggio violins. The track becomes a mockery of the sort of triumphant ending one usually finds at the conclusion of a Broadway musical. The album’s male protagonist, Jim is supposedly thinking about moving on after Caroline’s suicide, but he only seems to be going through the motions, proudly exclaiming “I’m going to stop wasting my time / Somebody else would have broke both her arms.” But it’s to Reed’s credit that buried within this irony is a true sense of despair. As I write this review, Reed passed away a week ago. I’ve been listening to “Sad Song” quite a lot, and I can confidently report back that it can in fact double as an authentic expression of loss.