Of all the odious oddities in pop culture, Lou Reed is perhaps the oddest. A beloved prick, a revered intellectual who struggled with long paragraphs, a progenitor whose pioneering ways shifted 30,000 records and an ardent journo-basher loved by every single one of them. In amongst the milieu of characters he created and somewhere decipherable from the rubble of his work or the slew of celebration and condemnation wrote or said about him, is the real Lou Reed, whatever this is. Whether he is an antihero or just a villain with talent, we perhaps will never know, but it seems that Berlin is as close as we’re going to get.
Track 1: ‘Berlin’
Firstly, you start a rock ‘n’ roll record with a blitzkrieg of drums or the gathering storm of a few sweet breezy half notes—you do not start with a slurring German in a bar ran through a filter of hell! It is 43 seconds into the record when this ambling racket acquiesces to a surprisingly beautiful piano refrain and the soft almost effeminate croon of Lou Reed describing a girl he saw by the Wall. Suddenly the dirty clamouring outside world of drunkards slurring chants into the night air dissipates as though you have locked out the gaudy chaos of reality in a darkened cinema room. Now, you slip down comfortably into a dogeared chair, and the movie of Reed’s imagining begins to unspool.
Reed himself was born amid the gaudy chaos of North America’s very own expanded Berlin: New York City. He too would shut out the world and slink into the art around him by means of salvation from the endless panic attacks he suffered through. Albeit Reed was dyslexic, books were an appealing escape for him. As a teen in the late 1950s, this invariably meant Jack Kerouac and the beat literature craze. It is Kerouac, in fact, who illuminates a very similar pastiche to Lou Reed’s opening ‘Berlin’ stanza when he wrote: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I love who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.” On both counts, we have, of course, a self-absorbed fantasy.
Track 2: ‘Lady Day’
In a jarring change of pace, the album suffers its first mood swing and that blitzkrieg of drums that was supposed to open proceedings can suddenly be heard. Reed’s (Or rather our twisted protagonist Jim’s) fantasy of a beauty by the Wall is smashed to smithereens as she waltzes into a bar and delves into a debauched routine as Reed despairingly watches on. This exhibitionist show is foretold in brooding organ sounds that precede the catastrophe as though the protagonist knew he was indulging in a fantasy all along.
It is telling that it is fantasies that Reed has always been fond of. He had wanted to be a rock star from a very early age, as most of us have at one point or another in our buried and denied youth. The difference was that Reed struggled when his delusions slid and he suffered a terrible nervous breakdown when he was a teenager, eventually receiving the now-widely condemned practice of electroshock treatment. Throughout his life, trauma was never too far from the surface.
Track 3: ‘Men of Good Fortune’
Following the despairing ruckus in a bar, Reed now looks at the disparities of the class structure. Gone is the rage of ‘Lady Day’ and in its places is a sort of casual waltzing melody and an apathetic vocal take. A subject that might have other artists up in arms sees Reed casually acknowledge it as a mere postmodernist framework.
Reed himself was born into a perfectly normal, relatively wealthy American family. In a creative sense, however, the opening line seems to register with a bit more of an autobiographically faithful air: “Men of good fortune, often cause empires to fall / While men of poor beginnings, often can’t do anything at all.” Reed entered the music business in 1961 hosting a radio show that saw little success, he wrote tracks for Pickwick records to middling success, and then he created the Velvet Underground, the band that should’ve raised an empire of their own but ended up in the gutter. Their second-hand influences have been huge. Fame and acclaim, evidentially, eventually came but only after a decade of failure.
When it arrived, the rest of Reed’s career unfurled as though he was continually making attempts on its life. Even with Berlin, he told Anthony DeCurtis: “That was a bad move. That’s one of those career-ending moments.” What, and Lulu and Metal Machine Music weren’t? Reed embraced folly and raced ever deeper into the avant-garde like only a man scorned ever could; not in spite of success but because, as the line says: “And me, I just don’t care at all.”
Track 4: ‘Caroline Says I’
For the first time, we hear the words of Caroline herself, or so it seems… She curses Reed, but he remains defiant in his love for her. The melody on this occasion sees Reed enter Velvet Underground territory with a Maureen Tucker-esque drumbeat and John Cage-like arrangement. Reed happily disavows her nasty comments as he rides high on the chorus of old school rock ‘n’ roll.
Four years prior to the release of Berlin, Reed and Underground had recorded one of the greatest meta music anthems of all time: ‘Rock and Roll’ for the supreme Loaded album. The track sings of the salvation of rock for the working class silted youth in a society stacked against them. This heady world is one that Reed launched himself into like a demimonde cannonball. In the process, he fell out with just about everyone, but as ‘Caroline Says I’ hints it’s just because he took the pleasures and pains of rock ‘n’ roll a little bit too far sometimes.
Track 5: ‘How Do You Think It Feels’
With ‘How Do You Think It Feels’ things get a little bit messy. Energy and atmosphere are at the fore as big band music meets the underground. The narrative sees Reed lose his grip and, in turn, he loses grip of the narrative. Jim/Reed has been up for five days in a frenzy of indulgent self-pity and substance abuse.
By no means, is this a low point on the album, there aren’t any, and furthermore, it isn’t a record that works like that anyway. Nevertheless, it is still indicative of the highs and lows of Lou, and both are borne from pushing the boundaries. He is always in search of something in his art, sometimes he finds it and other times he doesn’t, but he isn’t too fussed about the whole tapestry being top notch as long as there are scenes of note along the way.
This is wrought out in his songwriting style as a whole. Reed stated: “You don’t want to actually listen to the lyrics of a rock ‘n’ roll record. I mean, for what? It’s not like when you read a book and you come across a great line, it would be great if you got that in a song I thought.” Chapter 5 in Berlin isn’t the best written one, it is far from poetry throughout like the considered work of his hero Bob Dylan, but the savouring line is undoubtedly: “How do you think it feels to always make love by proxy?”
Track 6: ‘Oh Jim’
For ‘Oh Jim’ things get darkly schizophrenic. Pills and ills are pondered and then the dark Psycho twist of “beat her black and blue,” is casually strewn out from the frantic melody and chanted vocal take. Things are harder to follow in this kaleidoscopic phase of the story and that is very much by design.
This frantic musical world is one that Lou Reed lived his life in. It could be purely coincidence that the protagonist for Berlin and this track is called Jim and flirts with residency in an institution while Reed’s own friend, Jim Osterberg aka Iggy Pop, was in an institution “popping pills to cure his ills.”
Whether it was his days at the heart of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene or the creative trio he formed with Iggy Pop and David Bowie thereafter and onwards to other artistic pockets, Reed was forever mingling with the one creative milieu or another and he saw the highs and lows of this bohemian life firsthand.
Track 7: ‘Caroline Says II’
If ‘Caroline Says I’ hinted at tales of taking rock ‘n’ roll debauchery a little bit too far sometimes, then part II represents the moment when cutting loose leaves you lost. Throughout Reed’s life, there are too many condemnable chapters to mention. Likewise, there are reams of praise for him as both an artist and a person. While one does not excuse or bring any comforting solace to other, it does express the deep duality of Reed and how the debauched demimonde of rock ‘n’ roll was both his creative sanctuary that the rest of us have been allowed to bask in, and a curse that proved to hex him and others when things went far too far.
This duality is something that runs throughout Berlin and indeed all of his work. As Nick Cave once said: “He taught me that you can put the most sonically aggressive music and put it side by side by some of the most beautiful ballads that anyone has ever written.”
Track 8: ‘The Kids’
The next page in his rock opera is written with the most distance. It is therefore befitting that we see the introduction of the Waterboy. Although as open-ended as a Netflix series ending that is clearly holding out for a sequel, it would seem to me that the Waterboy watches on from the sidelines like a member of society beyond the demimonde. Although he is sad to see the despairing mother have her children taken away, his heart is full with his own problems and he is too tired to pass his own judgement. He figures it is probably for the best anyway. This reflective proto-punk attitude was always full-on and the fact that producer Bob Ezrin’s kids scream in a harrowing fashion proves how darkly unflinching he could be in this regard.
Alas, although Reed lived in the gutter of debauched bohemia, he was not some outsider artist with no view of the outside world. Reflective narrative prose is a style that he could adopt on a whim. Having seen both sides of the music industry from an early age as he switched from writing hits for others to meeting the misfits depicted in ‘Walk on The Wild Side’, not everything he penned was autobiographical and often written from the outside looking in. The same goes for the persona he often sported—one that always remained distant and iconoclastic enough to have one foot firmly planted on the next page.
Track 9: ‘The Bed’
The final chapter is the darkest of dark inevitabilities only spared from being forgone by the usual hope that lingers in fiction. The final twist, if there is one, is not the fateful suicide but the postmodernist nature with which the protagonist deals with it; neither haunted nor despondent just a little bit dazzled.
This conclusion is indicative of both Reed’s work and his character. His first passion was literature, he studied the art form and became a disciple of Delmore Schwartz forevermore. This ending is as literary as they come in music, and, likewise, it almost helps us to understand the man. When it comes to the beat generation who inspired him, Jack Kerouac had been wayfaring a serpentine path through America for seven years when he finally sat down for a quick three weeks to rattle off On The Road, William S Burroughs was a junkie when he wrote Junkie and similarly, if Lou Reed was going to be an acerbic punk in his work, he was likely to embody that in person.
Track 10: ‘Sad Song’
The message of the epic epilogue of Berlin is simple and as such this piece follows suit: What an amazing artist and songwriter Lou Reed was!