See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Lou Reed's Berlin

In 1973, Lou Reed released his masterpiece: Berlin, a concept album about the sadness, desolation, lust and ultimate loss of a doomed couple in Berlin. The album was a commercial failure, and he never performed it live until his neighbor, director Julian Schnabel, recently convinced him to perform it as a piece, live with an incredible backup band featuring some of the best musicians who have played with Lou over the last 35 years, in, of course, New York. With the addition of interpretive films of the work's heroine, Caroline, the film is a powerful performance piece demonstrating the true and deep nature of Reed's art.

I started getting serious in music about age 12, and by 15 or so was disgusted with the direction music had gone. Looking for more, I discovered David Bowie, and I bought Lou Reed's Transformer album because Bowie produced it. Now, as I'm sure I don't have to remind you, Reed was the main singer/songwriter of the pivotal Velvet Underground. What the Grateful Dead were to Bill Graham's Filmore, Owsley's acid tests of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, the Velvets were to Andy Warhol and the darker stuff of New York in 1969. They were hard, dirty and chaotic, and classics like "Heroin," "Waiting for the Man," and "Sweet Jane," grabbed the souls of the disillusioned and strung out. Where the Dead's drugs were acid and grass, the Velvets came on like speed and heroin.

Probably no one ever affected my songwriting like Lou Reed, even down to his unique phrasing. But by 1972, the Velvets had broken up, and Lou Reed was working in the office of his accountant father back in Brooklyn. Bowie, at the height of his powers just after Ziggy Stardust, resurrected the career of his idol and forebearer with Tranformer, but that album, featuring "Walk on the Wild Side," was a unique and unrepeatable event for Reed, inured in Bowie's glam rock presence. It is of course a beautiful album.

Berlin was Reed's next album. It had a new, orchestral, dark sound, and was produced by Bob Ezrin, Alice Cooper's producer. At 15 I was totally unprepared for its darkness and for most of the specific experiences in it; the speed addiction, the debasement of Caroline, her promiscuity, her loss of her children, her beatings at the lands of her frustrated lover Jim (Reed's narrator). But I was fascinated by it, and if there was one piece of art that left me longing to explore the darker sides of human life, as I was so inexorably drawn to do in later years. This was one of those records that could change your life, and did.

After Berlin, Lou Reed went on to record a couple of live albums, the most popular of which was Rock n Roll Animal, which even drew my high school classmates away from their Led Zeppelin or whatever, but which I found disappointingly mainstream live rock. Reed never recorded another Berlin, though he went on to record a series of albums with a reliable clique following, and the highest degree of artistic integrity. This last April he married Laurie Anderson, who mainstreamed performance art rock in the 1980's with Oh, Superman (watch the video).

Unfortunately, as a concept album performed as a live show, you do get distracted. It's best if you buy the album as a 15 or 16-year-old and listen to it every day with the printed lyrics, wondering what life would be like on the dark side. Then maybe some day you go on to find out.

If you do watch the movie and haven't heard the album, the three songs after "Sad Song" are a bonus encore, including the best version of "Sweet Jane" I've ever heard (and I've heard a lot!) as the credits closer. Watch for Steve Hunter, the lead guitarist of Reed's live Band from the Animal years, as the band leader.

I'm mad at myself now for censoring myself earlier this week. Lou Reed is another artist who proves that you don't make your friends or anyone else happy by following your muse, but you can always look at your own face in the mirror, with pride and respect.

This a video clip from the movie of Reed performing "Caroline Says II", Jim's soliloquy after his frustrated beating of Caroline. It's depressing, as life can be, but still haunting and beautiful.

Caroline says, as she gets up off the floor,
"Why is it that you beat me? It isn't any fun."
Caroline says, as she makes up her eye,

"You ought to learn more about yourself;
think more than just 'I'."

But she's not afraid to die.
All her friends call her 'Alaska'.

When she takes speed, they laugh and ask her
What is in her mind? What is in her mind?

Caroline says, as she gets up from the floor,
"You can hit me all you want to, but I don't love you anymore."
Caroline says, while biting her lip,
"Life is meant to be more than this, and this is a bum trip."

But she's not afraid to die.
All her friends call her 'Alaska'.
When she takes speed, they laugh and ask her
What is in her mind? what is in her mind?
She put her fist through the window pane;
It was such a funny feeling....
It's so cold in Alaska.

It's so cold in Alaska.....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing how impressionable the teenage mind can be.