Bettye Kronstad
Lou Reed's Berlin

By Bettye Kronstad
July 20, 2007

I remember the morning I woke up and found Lewis in the living room next to a mostly consumed bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.  It was 8:30 in the morning and I became upset.  His drinking didn't usually begin until, at least, the afternoon. I began questioning him – he was sitting next to a half drunken glass of Scotch at 8:30 in the morning and a Johnnie Walker bottle of Scotch three quarters consumed, after all. He told me he had written “the” album over night, that RCA would finally have the album they had been pressuring him to complete for many months.   He could hold onto his contract, as the next album after “Transformer” was part of the package to keep him on the RCA label, and, at the time, “Transformer” hadn't made that much money for RCA, so they were holding him to his contractual obligations.

Then he gave me his notebook and told me to read the lyrics, picked up his guitar and began to sing.  The story was about a couple who were tearing each other apart and the woman was sleeping with everyone and her children had been taken away from her -- her DAUGHTER, actually -- and then she killed herself and the man calmly assessed the situation and didn't really care any way  -- not at all.

The rest of the story is very sad.  Lou and I had recently heard that my mother had died, my mother who lived in NYC and from whom I was estranged because I had been taken away from her when I was a young child.  That happened to me. My mother was accused of not taking care of her daughter, among other things, and lost custody of me because she didn't have the money to hire an attorney to fight these charges.

It wasn't true, of course.  It was the 1950's.  She was an 18 year old single mother with only a high school education and a little girl she couldn't really take care of alone. She had left her husband, my father, because he was abusive, as a result of the wounds he had received in WWII, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and won two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star.

Imagine my shock to read the lyrics to “Berlin”, a story about a woman who had her children taken away from her because she was a bad mother, which Lou had “written” over night.  Well, he had been working on “Jim” and "Men of Good Fortune" for a while, that is true.  But the rest was jotted down in one night.

Being around him was tearing me up, but I stuck by him, because I had given my word to, and that meant something to me then, as it does now.  I was in my early 20’s, though, had married, divorced and gone back to Lou because he and I had decided to try and work it out again.  Then I promised his managers I would see him through the recording of “Berlin”.  They said he wouldn’t be able to finish it if I left.  So I stayed as long as I could take it.

Lou had become abusive on our last US tour, when I got him onto the stage as clean as I could, then went out into the house or lighting booth and “called” the lights I had designed for the road show.

He gave me a black eye the second time he hit me.  Then I gave him a black eye, too, and that stopped him from using his fists.  Everybody knew he was abusive -- abusive with his drinking, his drugs, his emotions -- with me.  He was also incredibly self destructive then.  But it has been the people he's been smart enough to surround himself with that have prevented him from bottoming out, people who have a vested, tangible interest in him to protect him from everyone who would harm him – including himself -- because he is ultimately responsible/the means by which they make their living.  He already had The Velvet Underground under his belt, and Andy Warhol, too.

I have read in newspaper and magazine reports that I tried to kill myself during the recording of “Berlin”.  That's a lie.  Everyone around at that time knows I would never do that and didn’t.  I was too involved in keeping Lewis straight to get through the recording sessions.  Sometimes, when the recording sessions went on for a long time and he hadn’t come home yet, I either stayed in the hotel room or took the hired car to St. James Park at dawn and walked through the beautiful gardens to keep myself sane.

Then when he did came home from the studio and/or any place afterwards, I really didn't ask him where he had been.  I didn't want to know, and the truth was, I didn't really care anymore, either. I did my job and kept my word, that I wouldn't leave him.

In fact, I stayed on the European tour until Paris, when, on the night of his big show there, just before we were to leave for the theatre, because of his behavior/treatment of me, I left the hotel after leaving a message in his manager's mail box that I wanted plane tickets for the next day to fly home to NY, which I did.

I couldn't take it any more, was getting caught up in the craziness myself.  While everyone else was at the show, I wandered around the city in the rain crying until a Parisian policeman stopped me under the Arch de Triumph and told me I should go back to my hotel and get some sleep.  I was twenty four years old.  “Berlin” hurt me so much, and to tell the truth, if I let myself feel -- even now – over thirty years later, it still could.

But even though it hurt as much as it would hurt any woman to hear a vicious story about her mother, over and over again for the world to hear, or how her marriage had fallen apart because of an abusive husband, I had promised his managers AND him that I wouldn't leave him and would see him through these recording sessions, so I stayed and took care of him.  I was his policeman and his nurse, two very unnatural roles for me, two costumes I easily shed after I left him, and for which I was so deeply relieved, no money could ever suffice, so I only took payment for my lighting work, which I had never received, when I left him for good.

That's what happened during the recording of “Berlin” and afterwards until I left Lou in Paris.  During the recording of “Berlin”, word would get back to me how the studio musicians were incredibly depressed because everyone seemed to know Lou was writing about us.  What they didn't know was that Lewis was also writing about my mother and my sad childhood as a result of WWII, because of a father who had been deeply wounded in that war.

Now Lewis is turning a handy profit from this story.  The joke is the real story is even more compelling. I've never said anything to the press, NOT A WORD, because I have two daughters, who are now grown, but when you defend yourself against Lou Reed, you're taking on a media giant, a finely oiled media machine.

I was also never a cocktail waitress.  That’s a lie, too.  I waited on tables during LUNCH for three months when I was a student and then I was fired.  I was terrible at it.  For over twenty five years, however, I’ve been teaching English.

-- Bettye Kronstad               

© Bettye Kronstad 2007 | July 20, 2007