low angle photography of building

Lou Reed: Berlin Burlesque Insanely Sad Songs

back view of man wearing cowboy hat and black coat

Lou Reed produced two of the most brutal albums of all time. Metal Machine Music is an assault on the sense of sound and emotions through pure noise war – an attack machine, jaws of death, mechanical chomping at the bit to batter the listener into withdrawing and listening to some James Taylor. However, more brutal, more challenging, more devastating, at least to me, is the 1973 album Berlin. Berlin experiments with noise and an auditory assault on the senses, however it is a more rounded album, not a simple noise and frequency punch to the side of the head. In Berlin Lou uses the cultural context of World War Two, dark and smokey Berlin-Burlesque scene-setting, and lyrical emotional carpet bombing alongside the cinematic sound effects of bar noise, children crying, screams for mother from children as they are torn away distraught, black-noise monk chanting and a choir onslaught in the high-frequency nerve-shredding song, The Bed, which details a suicide that inspires no sadness, instead just relief from Reed’s male narrator. Reed’s Berlin is relentless. Brutal. Lou, baby, you’re so vicious with a guitar pick.

1973 saw the avant (new, changing of the) garde boys, David Bowie and Lou Reed, experiment with Berlin-burlesque strip club aethetics, and the bathtub gin and cigarette soaked cabaret of the world war two era, alongside Moulin Rouge style theatrics. It was a freaky peepshow of “Dubonnet on ice” and candlelight. Bowie and Reed experimented with insanity, disturbia performance art to unsettle the squares and olds, whilst bravely pushing gender and sexual boundaries, turning themselves into characters from a play that Kurt Weil, Brecht, and Jaques Brel could only have imagined in the depths of a wicked acid and ether trip, whilst camping in some Black Forest hollow in the shadow of castles and dark evil history. Bowie would go on to keep the performance on the safer side of the line of good taste and enjoyment, allowing the watchers and listeners into the deal, but did not try and destroy their minds in the meantime, instead providing a stylish and challenging vacation from mundanity. Lou was not interested in courting tourists. Lou wanted to melt minds, take people down to their building blocks and rebuild people and society into something more caring, more empathic, more loving towards those who do not fit the mold, more FREAKY, damnit, and if to do so it meant razing his audience to the ground, being hated by critics, and roundly panned, and even called a death dwarf by Lester Bangs, Lou didn’t care. He tells us repeatedly, in a refrain that threads through Berlin, a seam of black coal James Dean what-are-you-rebelling-against-whatcha-got nonchalance: “But me…I just don’t care at all,” and make no mistake, Reed does not care in the slightest…except when Lou cares very much indeed.

Before today I had not listened the whole way through Berlin for at least 20 years. Previous to this afternoon, I had put Berlin on once only, placed it onto the turntable of a good sound system, turned it up, looking forwards to another Lou Reed masterpiece, only to find out that Lou wasn’t playing: Lou was attempting something bigger, something badder. Lou was challenging, and I found it unbearably difficult to listen to. You see Lou Reed, for all his mannish boy posturing, for all his toughness, is a self-confessed ‘waterboy’ – a crier, a weeper, and Berlin is his twisted love letter to the women around him in the drug scene, fighting their own wars, deep in their own personal Berlins, in a wider scene of world-war-two-scale battles and losses, deaths and brutal fights which take limbs, lives, souls and dignity. It is a scene that is au fait with suffering, starving, hurting; costing bodies, and souls and driving decent men and women to feats of superhuman withstanding and survival. For every Burroughs, for every Hunter S Thompson, there is a ‘Caroline’ and a ‘Jim’, whose suffering prompted Reed to turn out some of the most unlistenably alienating, devastating songs ever to be put out by a record company that surely can’t have listened to the entire album before they released it. There is no clear single, no moneymaker to be found except the Reed name. This is punishment, not entertainment.

The drug scene, especially the scene around Lou Reed in New York at that point in time, was not all fun and games: It was serious. It was desperate. It was all or nothing. Hell and leather. They were shooting for heaven and whether they made it to the pearly gates and back again or six foot under never to return – to the Kingdom, or else a cell in the tombs for a kick from Hades, cold turkey shitting and vomiting to live or die, to survive or not surrounded by other people in close proximity, with no privacy, no help, no compassion. No hope. The drug scene is always hard on its women, and the boys that populate it are not much tender for the most part….and Berlin is an album about Reed’s women, and his friend Jim, who inspires the immensely lovingly scathing song, Oh Jim. These women are not necessarily his lovers, even if Lou loves them. Lou unflinchingly honest as usual, detailing in How Do You Think? that he can ‘only make love by proxy’. Meth causes a total inability to orgasm in both men and women, getting there is next to impossible, and to actually get an erection for a guy with a serious speed issue is even more unlikely. Reed isn’t talking about romantic physical relationships, but the cost of a habit upon women, and upon himself. Sex is much of a muchness, the most romantic Lou gets is in the eponymous opener Berlin, where the Dubonet and ice, the candles, the setting of love is there, but the intimacy, the physicality is missing – however much he clearly adores his berlin-burlesque German lover. I can only hope this out of character intimacy was directed towards Rachel, his transsexual lover, who cut a tragic figure, her dark kohl rimmed eyes glowing out from a haunted face as she stood by her man.

Lou, despite the layers of ‘vitamin shot’ methamphetamine, and devil may care instance that he was only looking out for number one, Lou cared very much indeed, no matter his refrain of not giving a damn. He might have had the James Dean Jacket, he might have swung both ways and back again, but make no mistake, Lou loved like sisters the women that surrounded him, and Berlin, given a fair hearing, shows immense compassion and care and understanding. More than that, it shows outrage on behalf of these women….and to his friend, Jim, in the anger drenched Oh Jim, where he scathingly tries to straighten Jim out about a few things in the way only a person who is speeding, up for weeks at a time, and also is Lou Reed, can do it. I have often wondered if this song was written for Jim Carroll, the writer of the Basketball Diaries and also Lou’s friend. “All your two-bit friends are shooting you up with pills” hisses Jim, as he puts his hate-filled friend ‘straight’. If Lou wasn’t worried, he wouldn’t bother with trying to wake Jim up. “I don’t care just where it’s at” Lou drawls, making sure none of us thinks that he actually cares, or anything. Lou, Lou, always so cool, but I can see right through it, Lou loves Jim and detests his ‘two-bit’ friends. It is a song of love, care, affection and concern, it just sounds like an attack, but hey it’s 1973 and Lou is Lou. It’s the meth talking. He pulled much the same thing on Lester Bangs, telling him that he didn’t know when to sleep, when to eat, how much to do, and how to do it, and suggested that Lester didn’t fuck with it at all. Lester was offended. Lou was right. Lou lived, Lester died. “You broke my heart ever since you went away”, the coda, a gay love song, from Lou to Jim, is a tender piece of loving care, softening the blow, smoothing the edges off his growl. It is truly a beautiful gift from one friend, and lover, to another. Lou was actually a sweetheart. I wish my friends have loved me half as much.

..And here lies the problem with all of this, taking off my critics hat, and putting on my best CBGB’s tee shirt with it’s Bowery-cool print, is that I was Caroline. I am one of the women that “anyone else would have broken both her arms” as Lou puts it in Sad Song. Actually Lou, they only broke one of them. Put it in between the door frame and the door and slammed it shut repeatedly until it broke because they thought I had stolen their drugs. I had, but that was not the point, and Lou knows it.

I am the person who has heard her kids screaming as some worthy person tried to pull them off away from me. The cries in The Kids, of Mommy, Mommy, are overlaid by my own children’s screams of terror, the baby wailing as the mother works doing something she cannot bear to, but needs to put the food on the table, and she struggles with the needs of her addiction, is the remembered cry of my own small baby sitting in her crib as I tried to kick the benzos the doctor had got me hooked on, cold turkey, convulsing on the bare concrete floor that had no carpet or rugs, and glad I was too of it, as I burnt up with the diazepam and temazepam delirium tremens with no one to help me or console me….or her. That cry in Caroline Says II, of “all her friends call her Alaska” was mirrored by my friends looking at me and asking “are you on crack, Detroit?” All this, and I can just hear now my more normal comrades not comprehending why I love Berlin. I love Berlin, because I can peel away Lou’s harshness, I can filter out the meth and coke and drug-driven brutality in his voice, and disregard his grouchiness, and see to the heart of the matter. Lou Reed love Caroline, he had empathy for his Mary Queen of Scotts’s sad state of affairs, of too much too soon, left with no man to protect her from the vagaries of the world. I love the fact that Lou is a ‘waterboy’, crying for the tragedy of the broken mother and her lost children, and if it doesn’t seem like enough, if he seems too harsh, too much the problem is with you- not him. He is laying it on the table, spreading out his painful strong antidote to lack of caring, his electric guitar shock treatment, and it will either work or it won’t but Reed…doesn’t care…that much about you.

Lou has a small trick he turns for the Caroline’s he knows will listen to Berlin and resonate with his words, in How Do You Think, he separates the lecture for those who don’t know how it feels to be so strung out and desperate, from the women that comforted him and that he comforted in return. “Come here baby” he whispers in asides, pulling us Carolines closer to him, protecting us from the hordes of those who are not like us. “Come down here, mama”, he calls, while he tells the normal people, those who buy his records, who ask him questions in inane dull interviews about the color of his hair and if he plays ‘gutter rock’ while he sneers rightly at them. Lou loves us, Lou doesn’t want us to think he is talking to us, his peers, his girls, his guys. We are not the object to the lecture. To write like Lou Reed costs. It costs everything you have and then some. “How do you think it feels” he asks in exasperation. I half expect him to say “come on Paltry, let’s split, these schmucks won’t ever get it….wanna go get egg cream from Katz’s?” …and you know what I would go with Lou any day, alleycats together. Lou was beyond the games of Men of Good Fortune, and men of poor beginnings. “Me,” he sang, “I just don’t care at all.” I wonder if it made Lou feel tougher to try and separate himself from the world of ‘men’, because I do not hear Berlin as an album of not caring. It is an album of not caring about the world outside the milieu of the street hassle he was documenting and surviving, whilst caring very much indeed about those he considered his peers.

Lou’s terminal disinterest in the world of normal people is one of his most attractive qualities. Lou was no social climber, but he was no degenerate either. Lou was an artist. Lou was a worker, a grafter as well as a grifter, but he ain’t grifting us in Berlin. This is the real deal, this is the good stuff. Lou was THE artist. Bowie could never have made this album, Bowie was too self-conscious to ever make something as ugly as Berlin. Bowie was too much into artifice to make anything as REAL as Berlin. Bowie was too egotistical to put himself close to these women who fail at life, at motherhood, at living itself, or look at the uncool, the ugly, the blood, the suicide, the desperate, the lack of care. The most stunningly impactful parts of the album are the parts where Lou is brutally honest about the women around him, they are ‘vile’, their husbands who find their bodies after they slash their wrists in the bed where they conceived their children and rested are relieved and not sad when they are gone. Even though all of those things are true “she’s still my Queen” Lou sings with as much passion as he can muster through the cold mechanics of the meth.

Caroline Says II documenting a woman being beaten, asking her abuser why he beats her when ‘it isn’t any fun’ almost irritates me that a man wrote something so precisely sensitive and empathic about a woman being abused. The tinkling of the glass as Caroline is pushed into putting her fist through the window, prettily exploding in tinkling sound, as Lou sings “It’s so cold in Alaska”, the warmth and life draining out of the doomed Caroline. The brilliant writing in Caroloine Says II, goes uncommented on, because it is such uncomfortable listening. “She put her fist through the window….pane,” he sings…or is he singing “she put her fist through the window. ..PAIN!” Lou breaks connections, hooks up new ones and spins the listener round with the beauty of the sound, in sharp, broken glass contrast to the brutality of Caroline’s suicide attempt.

Musically Berlin is sharp, sardonic cool, the cabaret drips off the bones of the album. It as elegaic an epitaph as it is towards the women the suffer and die around him, and you know what this album sounds good, at least when Lou wants it to. When Lou doesn’t want it to sound good, when he wants to recreate the feeling of finding a suicide and lays on some harmful frequencies that caused me to throw off the headphones in horror at the end of The Bed, when something deeply frightening, claustrophobic and malignant came through the choir and chanting of the suicide death scene, it doesn’t sound good, no, it is intentionally brutal in it’s scene-setting. Good, nice, comfortable is not Lou’s intention. He succeeds in recreating the fear, the horror, the walls closing in, the terror, the creep. Lou created something too real, too brutal, too devasting to be beautiful, but it is perfectly evocative, brilliantly rendered stunning piece of art, if not a wholly beautiful one.

When Lou calls the mother in The Kids a ‘miserable rotten slut’, Lou is not voicing his opinion, far from it, he is laying on us society’s judgment call upon this woman. In doing so, immersing us amid the sadness, the unfairness and the horror of the reality of her situation, after laying bare the cruelty wrought upon her from the johns that use her, and society that has allowed her to be dismantled and then stood in judgement upon her, and then torn her babies away, he takes his best shot at awakening even the most hardened soul to see this women with compassion and sympathy. Perhaps it takes the sound of children crying for their mother to realize that the woman and her children needed help, not splitting up. In speaking the sentence upon her: that she was declared a ‘bad mother’ because she was a prostitute and an addict Lou lays bare the hypocrisy and the evil. The judgement seems all too vicious, all too wrong, and I can only hope that Lou’s words and work strong armed its way into the listener’s psyche and awakened their humanity, and for that, Berlin is one of the most important albums ever made.

The heart thudding drums, the forceful march inexorable towards the conclusion of death and suffering and stripped bare emotional burlesque, lifted out from the depts of suffering at the end of it all by the Sad Song, soaring guitars and horns and big band instruments of torture I am led to the only reckoning possible: that there is hope in sadness, because even if Lou has to signpost sadness for some of his listeners, if he can awaken emotion, humanity, compassion, understanding, if we can stand in his shoes, or in Carolines’, or even in mine then there is hope that society might become a kinder more gentle place: a place where people like Lou, and Lou’s friends can survive.

Berlin. Unlistenable. A psychic and audio pummelling. Genius. Beautiful. Transient beauty, intractable death and sadness, but through it all, something everybody should try to listen to at least once.

“Come here, baby.” – Lou Reed, Berlin

Press play…if you dare…

5 Comments

    1. The Paltry Sum

      Thank you David, if you enjoyed reading it, that means I am hitting the mark, which is great. ..In other news, Ive had a bit of sad news tonight, a junkie friend of mine reached the Kingdom…and Im sitting here stone cold sober, not daring to smoke even a bit of weed as I think I would fall apart. Thanks for saying hi.

      1. The Paltry Sum

        That is good to hear, David, Im glad you guys stayed safe. Its the fucking fent out here. People can’t survive it. You stay safe out there, my Dali-esque friend!

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