“A Film for the Ear”: The story behind Lou Reed’s deeply personal album ‘Berlin’
Following the commercial success of Lou Reed’s staple album, Transformer, a project which saw Reed reinvent himself as a glam rocker, he and producer Bob Ezrin took to Morgan Studios in London to create the semi-autobiographical “Film for the Ear” album Berlin. “That was the bad move,” Lou Reed joked, in an interview with Anthony DeCurtis. Reed continued, “That’s one of those career-ending moments. They said, ‘You want to do what?’.” This gives the reader some insight into the deeply conflicted, paradoxical, at times misanthropic figure that Lou Reed was.
Reed was well known to have made destructive, deftly defying and, at times, ridiculous seeming career moves. Deep in drug use and a crumbling marriage, he was somehow able to write and record Berlin with a cool-distance while marred in hellish debauchery. Lou Reed once said that sometimes it’s important to distance yourself – as a performer – from your song as you’re delivering it; it makes it that much more believable as the audience will not be expecting their own stark reaction to the disconnect of a heavily emotional song and the performer’s removed disposition.
Mostly, Lou Reed never seemed to care about his career. A friend and Harvard graduate-turned-literary publicist, Andrew Wylie, said of Reed: “I think he didn’t care that others around him were becoming successful,” calling Reed verbally verbose and therefore, “Lou knew how good he was.” Andrew Wylie, in a documentary on Reed, would add in his interview, “I would go so far as to say: they don’t make them better than Reed. He was as good as they come.”
The reason for why he would call his album Berlin had nothing to do with the city itself, in fact, he never even visited the city. “I love the idea of a divided city,” Reed famously stated. It probably would have had more personal significance if the album had been called ‘Brooklyn’. “It was purely metaphorical,” he once commented, words that I can hear him say this with such deadly subversion. Reed was known to be, by many of his close acquaintances and loved ones, at times somwhat cold and heartless.
His cool demeanour helped present his songs and sense of lyric writing with an illicit charm that could tease the hell out of you. One minute, you may think to yourself, “Oh, that’s obvious, I know exactly what he’s talking about,” to the next minute, when you have a change of heart, “Oh, hang on a second, why is he using that word in this subtext?” Or the more common alert that goes off in listener’s minds, “Wait, did he really just say that? Surely, there is a price to pay?”
While many might say that Lou Reed never paid the price he should have – in regards to how abusive he was to the people around him – Berlin, is his story. The critics at the time got it wrong. My favourite one, in particular, is a Rolling Stone review which stated: “(The album) is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence, and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them.”
While those words sound extremely cutting and degrading to hear as a songwriter, Lou Reed most likely scoffed at them. Reed used fewer and simpler words to say five times more than they ever did. When those critics said those words; it was Reed who was actually living the torment of what he had just done and said in his album – not the torment that the critics put their own selves through by scrouging up the courage to lie through their teeth.
The album details the harsh reality of a relationship gone wrong between ‘fictional’ characters, Caroline and Jim. The two characters, in reality, are Lou Reed and his then-wife Bettye Kronstad, who said of the album: “Lou had become abusive on our last US tour, when I got him on to the stage as clean as I could… He gave me a black eye the second time he hit me,” Kronstad wrote. “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 incredibly self-destructive then.”
While there are obvious correlations between the album’s songs and Reed’s disintegrating marriage, Lou poured a bit of all his past relationships into different songs, turning the tunes into shards or vignettes, chronicling his self-deprecation and despair at the time.
In an interview taken from The Guardian, with Reed’s good friend, Anthony DeCurtis, the critic writes: “Caroline is portrayed as unfaithful and promiscuous; Jim swings from yearning for her to icy contempt and malevolence. He beats her and, in the song ‘The Bed’, describes her cutting her wrists and her subsequent death with a truly eerie detachment.”
Adding: “The album is tough going for even the most aesthetically objective listener. For Kronstad, listening to it was a devastating experience. Scenes from her marriage and other details of her personal life are woven into the songs. Even when treated as composites or fictionalized in other ways, they were clearly identifiable to her and hit with intense force.”
Despite the conceptual idea behind Berlin, the album still hit too close to Reed. He did not listen to the album for years to come after the release. The concept of the work was supposed to be similar to a sort of a musical, except, probably more film noir and serious. A kind of “Film for the ear”. Those literary and cinematic strategies also served to distance Reed from the visceral power of the material he was drawing on. “Berlin was real close to home,” Ezrin would say later.
Looking back, Bob Ezrin, the album’s producer, recalls a very chaotic time. He implies in a documentary on Reed that the former Velvet Underground leader introduced Ezrin to heroin. He would have a very hard time disassociating the drugged-fueled debauchery from the recording process.
‘Lady Day’ and ‘Sad Song’ are two exceptional tracks off the album. Lady Day details the other life of the Caroline character. Reed paints the picture of Caroline, as a low-life, a lady of the night (or lady day). A dancer at bars, an entertainer for lowly figures. A kind of life that Jim, her husband, objects to. The story of Jim and Caroline is ultimately tragic. ‘Sad Song’ is about Jim reflecting back at his broken marriage and his wife, Caroline, who killed herself by slitting her writs. Fictional Jim, a version of Lou Reed, hit Caroline in the story. He decides to ultimately move on:
I’m going to stop wasting time Somebody else would have broken both of her arms
It is unclear whether Lou Reed ever came to terms with his bitter feelings in regards to the album. That said, it is likely that, depending on which day you chose to speak with him, Reed would have probably changed his answer anyway.
Berlin is a brilliant album as it shakes us from our contentment. It is an uncomfortable album – a sort of cabaret from hell. As Reed announced about the work: “I don’t think anybody is anybody else’s moral compass,” he said. “Maybe listening to my music is not the best idea if you live a very constricted life. Maybe they should sticker my albums and say, ‘Stay away if you have no moral compass.”