Lou Reed's Berlin (1998)
By Beppe Colli
June 15, 2007

How does one start a dialogue with the - supposedly - very young readers of a brand-new music magazine? Just by chance, Fate handed me (what to me, at the time, looked just like) the perfect solution, 1998 being the year when the 25th anniversary edition of Lou Reed's Berlin was released. It has to be noticed that while the CD edition of said album had already been on sale in Europe for at least a decade, this was actually the first time that a digital edition of Berlin was released in the United States!

The piece that follows - appearing here in English for the first time - originally appeared in the Italian magazine Blow Up, issue #7 - September/October 1998.

I know it may sound strange, but I still meet ebullient rock fans who are also big fans of Lou Reed who have never heard of an album called Berlin ("What's that, a best-of?"). And this is quite strange and paradoxical, given the fact that - besides it being the first instance of (unintentional?) commercial suicide, coming just one year after the success of Transformer (1972) and of his one and only hit single, Walk On The Wild Side, and two years before the release of the "noisy" and even more controversial album Metal Machine Music - Berlin appears as a perfect specimen of all the features that make Lou Reed an individual artist.

An album that's beautiful and perfectly realized, in terms of music, vocal performance, relationship between music and lyrics, arrangements, performances by those musicians who contributed a great share to the whole, originality of concept and clarity of realization. "It was an adult album meant for adults - by adults for adults": thus spoke the author, and one could easily agree.

In Berlin, the main character/narrator, the ashes being by now cold, investigates the memory of the troubled ménage he shared with his wife Caroline, who committed suicide after her children had been taken away from her due to her lack of "moral rectitude"; their relationship having seen strong ambivalent feelings, a sexual mixture made of very different varieties, a stratospheric consumption of drugs, physical violence. An easy explanation (Berlin...) argues that the female main character is the portrait of German-language Nico, who sang on Velvet Underground's first album (the one with the banana cover). As stated by Michael Hill in his liner notes appearing on the 25th anniversary re-release, Caroline can be said to be a mix of various people - keeping in mind, I'd add, that in all the arts the matter gets to be transformed quite drastically. Hill also mentions the woman that at the time was Lou Reed's wife, without mentioning her name.

They married in February '73 - the year the album was released. An aspiring actress of the same height as Caroline's, whose nickname was Krista (Nico's real name), Bettye Kronstadt appears to have been quite different from Berlin's female protagonist; while various witnesses, as reported by biographies on the artist, picture the Lou Reed of the times as being a violent husband - and let's not forget that the relationship between a character that had been very quickly defined as being gay and his various wives and companions remains to be investigated.

An American critic, Ellen Willis, perceptively wrote of a "war between the sexes" and of a "metaphor of a divided city". It goes without saying that "the wall" implicit in the narration is metaphorical - besides the Brecht-like quality of having the story happen in "a faraway place", though it really could happen anywhere (just like for a German saying: "Tampa, Florida").

Berlin's time is one when the (Freudian) mourning is already in the past; so we don't have - just to mention a couple of songs of about the same vintage - Jay Ferguson's howling with the group Spirit in the track When I Touch You (on The Twelve Dreams Of Doctor Sardonicus, 1970) or the maze-like exploration of grief by Peter Hammill in Lost (on H To He - Who Am The Only One by Van Der Graaf Generator, released the same year). Maybe the final result is nearer to Side Two of Grace And Danger (1980), John Martyn's divorce album; but here, before the calm, grief has the taste of an oceanic quantity of alcohol, while in Berlin, though the medicine cabinet appears to be very well-stocked, the tone is always surprisingly clear.

Those who have never listened to Berlin are invited not to get from what has been said up to know the impression of an album where long lyrics and loud vocals are backed by just a few instruments who play just a little with no trace of real invention. Though it sounds all of a piece, thanks to an excellent production work, Berlin is a work that's rich with colours, that greatly benefits from the work of the featured musicians; though opinions about the orchestral arrangements are quite varied - but the one for, say, Lady Day, written in a Kurt Weill-style, is appropriate - lotsa moments are of the not-to-be-missed kind: the monkish, bluesy piano of the title-track; the Hammond plus Leslie of Traffic's Steve Winwood on Lady Day; the dynamic and inventive work of the rhythm section of Jack Bruce (one of the giants of the electric bass) and Aynsley Dunbar (a drummer with the proverbial "one brain for each limb") all over the album; producer Bob Ezrin's piano and mellotron on Caroline Says II; the acoustic guitars played bottleneck on The Kids; also, all appearing on The Bed, the final choir, which resembles György Ligeti's Lux Aeterna (featured on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey); the harmonium (Winwood again); and the harmonics played on the acoustic guitar by Gene Martynec: one of those "special effects" which are - literally - "within one's reach". We also have a stellar performance by the sadly underappreciated, late B.J. Wilson from Procol Harum, whose subtle, perceptive work is featured on two tracks.

Opinions will always fatally vary when it comes to Lou Reed's vocals; though it's not true, as some critics have stated, that his voice resembles that of Kermit the Frog, it's painfully true that - just to mention two artists with whom he collaborated, Lou Reeds doesn't possess John Cale's rich baritone - which, by the way, is better served by a more complex musical mind - nor the versatility of David Bowie (in his two versions: the nose-and-throat type in Ziggy Stardust, and the one which came after he changed his breathing technique towards the diaphragm, starting with Young Americans). It goes without saying that amphetamines are not good for one's vocal chords. Reed is at his best when, not too tired from too much touring, he succeeds in bringing into songs those inflections and rhythms whose musicality is close to those of speech. (Those who are interested can refer to an "Interview Picture Disc" released by Baktabak which features an interview from '72.)

Not taking into consideration, for obvious reasons, those albums released after he started his "gym and martial arts" period  - New York, Songs For Drella and Magic & Loss - Reed succeeded when he worked with a strong producer who worked "around" him: the Bowie/Ronson team on Transformer, underlining his most ironic and corrosive characteristics; the dry Godfrey Diamond on Coney Island Baby (1976); while Steve Katz cannot be considered the sole guilty part when it comes to Sally Can't Dance (1974), a successful album whose very success greatly bothered Lou Reed.

But it's Bob Ezrin's production work on Berlin which is the best example of the perfect way to serve Lou Reed's vocals, thanks to a very careful and extremely precise work with echo and reverb, and the use of spatial placement - the emotions originated by the word "Paradise" are obviously not the fruit of chance! Let's not forget that in a rock album sound is of primary importance, and sound is always the end result of a collective work.

It's the (former) Side Two - the last four tracks of the album - which is the high point of Berlin. The echo on the sibilants on The Bed and the placement of sound in space give us quite precisely the size of the empty, cold space where the main character is now. (Choice or necessity? Who knows. Check the very elegant solution used for the sibilants by producer Tony Visconti on the title-track of Bowie's Scary Monsters - and we all know that Bowie's teeth are far from perfect!).

Lou Reed is rightly mentioned for introducing in the field of rock music - first with the Velvet Underground, then in his solo work - topics which had at their core ways of life and interpersonal relationships which were quite unusual for the times; a dimension that has been defined as "urban poetry". It would be more appropriate to say that Lou Reed explored a particular side of urban reality. Don't forget we are already in the post-Dylan period, and that at the same time - just to mention three names Reed didn't consider with any amount of favour - we also had Frank Zappa, the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. The oversimplification of the aforementioned definition becomes apparent when we consider what was written by 19 year old Laura Nyro on her first album (1966): "Cocaine and quiet beers..." If by "urban" we mean just the opposite of "rural", then it's obvious that all the music of those years is urban music - and so we'll have to call both Paul Simon and the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian (Summer In The City!) "urban poets", though it's very different things they were talking about.

If this is true, the worst mistake is the misunderstanding originated from not taking into  consideration the fact that the places Lou Reed visited in his old, wild years were seen though the eyes of a narrator - even if the narrator (precariously) shared the same body with a junkie (a concept whose obvious value of truth was apparent to William Burroughs). Not understanding this fact is what produces the faulty syllogism which goes "Lou Reed is an 18k street punk - so any street punk has a pinch of Lou Reed inside himself", which is absurd! In this sense, the "Rock 'n' Roll Animal" is just an easy caricature that doesn't represent what's valid and durable in Lou Reed's work.

Let's now go back to Berlin, "a depressing album without Bowie": to record it - not many people knew about this - Reed had to promise his record company he would later record a live album and an album "in the style of Transformer" (this could be seen as a useless piece of news, but don't forget that we usually consider an artist's recorded career as "self-motivated"). In Berlin, the dry tone of the narrative shows without mercy - and with no explicit moral point of view - a world where drugs are the standard by which we measure human relationships and where solidarity is rare - who could forget the cruelty of Caroline's friends when they ask her what's in her mind?

There is a great distance between an adult artist and the things s/he wrote in his/her youth, especially when - besides the normal amount of growth as a human being and as a musician - the fact of leaving behind some habits which were a natural part of everyday life during one's youth makes for so big a change in one's perspective that the artist finds it difficult to recognize those "things" as his/her own. This has happened to a lot of people, Cale and Bowie, Laura Nyro and Rickie Lee Jones. Lou Reed had the option of considering his work from his youth exactly for what it was - a work of fiction, just like Nelson Agren's Walk On The Wild Side. The distancing effect can produce very interesting results - just think of Lou dressed in black riding a Honda Motor Scooter while Walk On The Wild Side plays in the background. Let's just hope we'll never see a Viagra commercial which uses How Do You Think It Feels? (... "to always make love by proxy").

In recent times Lou Reed looks more interested in exploring the technical possibilities of changing sounds on albums and instruments - check the not too great interview with the careful, and never banal, Barney Hoskyns about Set The Twilight Reeling (featured on issue #28 of UK magazine Mojo, March '96), then the enthusiastic conversation with mastering engineer Bob Ludwig about the same album (see EQ, vol.7, issue #4, April '96). He appears as he's not too averse to revisit the odd hit of his youth - what a tender sight to see this "heavy ass" share the stage with Sam Moore (one half of Stax's Dynamite Duo, Sam & Dave) to perform one of the most famous hits of 60s soul music, Soul Man? Whatever his/her age: once a fan, always a fan.

© Beppe Colli 1998 - 2007

CloudsandClocks.net | June 15, 2007