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. The album is an attack machine: an audio jaws of death, it is pure mechanical chomping at the bit battering the listener into withdrawing and listening to some James Taylor instead. Berlin isn’t overtly going to war with the user through noise, yet it is the more brutal, more challenging, more devastating work by far. Berlin experiments with an unholy alchemy of a literary and emotional assault on the psyche, combined with highly emotive sound effects, melodies which pull on the heart strings, and nothing short of an ambience of suffering, debauchery, and death. It is not so much a noisy auditory assault on the senses like Metal Machine Music, but more a fully realized work of art.
Metal Machine Music in an intelligent exercise in how harmful frequencies can deliver punch to the side of the head, whilst using the soothing elements of hidden tunefulness to keep the ear trained into the experience. In Berlin Lou uses the cultural context of World War Two bringing the dark and smokey Berlin-Burlesque scene into sharp relief. You can smell the untipped cigarettes and brandy emanating from the tracks. It is a lyrical emotional carpet bombing, attacking the listener with cinematic sound effects of broodingly ominous Teutonic bar noise, children screaming for mother as they are torn away distraught, alongside black-noise monk chanting and a choir onslaught. It reaches a headily terrifying peak in the high-frequency nerve-shredding song, The Bed, which details a suicide that inspires no sadness only relief in the loved one left behind. Reed’s Berlin is relentless and brutal. Lou, baby, you’re so vicious with a guitar pick.
1973 saw the avant-(changing of the old to the new)-garde boys, David Bowie and Lou Reed, experiment with Berlin-burlesque strip club aesthetics. The bathtub gin and cigarette soaked cabaret of the world war two era, alongside Moulin Rouge style theatrics provided a new playground for the cutting-edge of the music and art scene, which Reed and Bowie both embraced with glee. 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. They both turned themselves into characters from a play that some dark axis alliance of Kurt Weil, Brecht, and Jacques Brel could only have imagined even if they were caught 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 rock history.
Bowie would go on to keep the performance on the safer side of the line of good taste, enjoyment and commercial viability. Bowie allowed the watchers and listeners into the deal but did not try and destroy their minds in the meantime, instead he provided a stylish if challenging vacation from mundanity with a side order of style of a dubious German provenance. Lou was not interested in courting tourists. Lou wanted to melt minds. He wanted to take people down to their building blocks and rebuild both them and society into something more caring, more empathic, more loving towards those who do not fit the mold. Lou was trying to force the world around him to be more accepting, and yes 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, so be it. Reed tells us repeatedly
“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. This refrain that threads through Berlin like a seam of toxic black coal. This is Lou putting on a James Dean what-are-you-rebelling-against-whatcha-got nonchalance, except it is not a put on, it is Reed’s life and times, and the listener can only toss and turn in the spider’s web of his own personal psychological traps. Bob Ezrin who produced Berlin detailed the immense toll the album had on its creator:
Lou doesn’t want to talk about it much. He didn’t even want to the album. Every time he listens to the album it gets to him. I mean, I can see tears coming into his eyes and everything.Lou Reed: A Life, Anthony Curtis, 2017, Back Bay Books
Lou Reed himself detailed how he had ‘gone as far’ as he dared, and feared if he went any further he would ‘wind up disappearing’. The fog of Berlin is that thick: it swallows up all who dare to go near, yet the rewards are great.
To put Berlin on to play is to confront demons. This is not entertainment, this is an exorcism through artistic means. Lou was attempting something bigger, something badder than a mere rock and roll album. Lou was challenging the listener to look into his black hole hole, and it can be unbearably difficult to listen to. You see Lou Reed, for all his mannish-boy posturing, for all his toughness and ‘street hassle’ bravado is a self-confessed ‘waterboy’ as he puts it The Kids: he is a crier and a weeper. Berlin is his twisted love letter to the women around him in the drug and music underground scene. Lou records these people around him fighting their own wars, deep in their own personal ‘Berlins’.
The world around Lou is a holocaust, a world-war-two-scale battle and the losses, deaths and brutal fights take limbs, lives, souls and dignity without mercy or quarter given. To listen to Berlin is to become au fait with suffering, starving and hurting. It costs dignity, it costs bodies, and souls. It drives ordinary 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 unlistenable, alienating and devastating songs ever to be put out. It seems impossible that the record company, RCA even listened to the entire album before they released it. There is no clear single, no moneymaker to be found except the Reed name. Berlin is punishment, psycho-sexual soul examination, and not entertainment in any sense of the word, yet it is an immensely important, perversely beautiful and shockingly deep examination of the damage humans do to each other and our ability to withstand it and survive.
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 they either made it to the pearly gates and back again or ended up six foot under never to return. If they found the Kingdom of Morpheus, or else spent time in 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 it was all much the same part of the same continuum. It is a landscape of 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 Dubonnet 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 Germanic lover. I can only hope this out of character intimacy was directed towards Rachel, his beloved transsexual lover, who cut a tragic figure, her dark kohl rimmed eyes glowing out from a haunted face as she stood stoically by her man.
It is a common misnomer that drug addicts and alcoholics don’t care about anything other than the drugs and booze. For every junkie that doesn’t give a damn about anything else, there are hundreds who feel everything so deeply that the smack or the meth, the scotch or even the old devil’s lettuce makes life merely bearable, and takes away some of the strain of feeling too much. Lou might have tried to portray a hoodlum with a devil may care attitude in his interviews, but his songs tell a different story: his music and writing are the works of a man that cares all too much, so much it threatens to destroy his fragile psyche.
Lou Reed 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 who is also Lou Reed, could. I have often wondered if this song was written for Jim Carroll, the writer of the Basketball Diaries Lou’s close friend. “All your two-bit friends are shooting you up with pills” hisses Lou, 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. We all know, Lou, Lou just doesn’t care at all, as he keeps reassuring us. After all, what would we all think of him if Lou cared? We all might think him human, instead of the sardonic rock god with a headful of ideas that drove him, and his listeners half insane.
Lou, Lou, always so cool, but I can see right through it, Lou loves Jim and detests these ‘two-bit’ friends who are dragging him down. It is a song of love, care, affection and concern which merely sounds like an attack, but hey it’s 1973 and Lou is Lou. It’s the meth talking, and the smack doing the heavy hitting. Reed pulled much the same thing on Lester Bangs, telling Bangs that the rock writer 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 meth at all. Lester was offended. Lou was right. Lou lived, Lester died. “You broke my heart ever since you went away”, the coda sounds out. It is a homoerotic love song, a gift from Lou to Jim. Oh Jim is a tender piece of loving care, softening the blow, smoothing the edges off his growl with the depth of the feeling that runs through it. It is truly a beautiful gift from one friend, and lover, to another. Lou was actually a sweetheart, even if he would have bitten any writer that dared to suggest that was the case. I wish my friends would have loved me half as fiercely and a fraction as much as Lou loved his.
..And here lies the problem with all of this, (taking off my critics hat, and putting on my best CBGB’s fangrrrl tee shirt) is that I was Caroline. I cannot listen to this album without remembering that 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. They put it in between the door frame and the door and slammed it shut on me repeatedly until it broke because they thought I had stolen their drugs. I had, but that was not the point, and Lou knows it. The point is that the suffering and the broken limbs, the death, the beatings and the suffering is both the apex of intensity of human experience and also the nadir. Living in a hotel was life for me, and it is a constant theme in both Lady Day and Dirty Boulevard that Lou keeps returning to. It is the precarious art of life lived not by the year, but paying by the day. Lou: the patron anti-hero saint of junkies, street-hassled trash, and those that live in the gutter.
Reed once said he did ‘gutter rock’, but that is not quite true. It was gutter-empathic-rock. Lou Reed was an artist, a writer, a thinker and a humanitarian before he was ever a rock star. Music, rock and roll was simply his chosen medium. Men of Good Fortune is Lou peeling away the layers of privilege. He is neither the man of good fortune, nor the one of the ‘poor’, instead he is the man who ‘just does not care at all.’ This is Reed at his most empathic. Reed dares to look at things he ran away from, when after his parents tried to ‘kill their son(s)’ by putting Reed through electroshock therapy, in an effort to make him not be bisexual. This is immense bravery of an artist laying himself totally open and raw. Ezrin recounts how when they wrapped up Men of Good Fortune Reed screamed:
“Awright! Wrap this turkey up before I puke!”Lou Reed: A Life, Anthony Curtis, 2017, Back Bay Books
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?”
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 loves Caroline, he had empathy for his Mary Queen of Scots’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. 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 – the people from the street, 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, alley-cats 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. He did not care at all about those ‘men of good beginnings’, after all what is there to care about?
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 and the cooling balm of the smack.
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 Caroline 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. The beauty of the song exists 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. The album is more a musical or opera than it is a rock and roll album. It as elegiac; 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 needs to unsettle and unnerve, he does so with such aplomb and effectiveness that the result is almost unbearable. When Lou wants to recreate the feeling of finding a suicide, he 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, but it sounds RIGHT. Good, nice and comfortable is not Lou’s intention. He succeeds in recreating the fear, the horror of the walls closing in. He forms the terror and the creep in increments of brilliance. 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. Beauty is overrated. Feeling is where it is at, and Berlin has that in huge melted down simmering vats of intensity and heat.
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 and illuminating the unfairness and brutality of this judgement. Reed immerses us in the sadness. We experience the unfairness and the horror of the reality of her situation alongside her, using Reed as a medium for her pain. Lou lays bare the cruelty wrought upon her from the johns that use her, and the society that has allowed her to be dismantled and then stood in judgement upon her once she broke. Lou wants the listener to understand the pain caused to her and the children by tearing her babies away from her, and her away from them. Reed 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 thus destroying both mother and children. It is the hardest thing to listen to in modern musical history and I include Metal Machine Music in that reckoning. In Reed 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. Lou takes his best shot at awakening the humanity of his listeners who have not lived that life, and holding out a hand of understanding and solidarity with those who have lived it. Berlin is one of the most important albums ever made simply for that very reason. Lou tried to do something huge with Berlin, and at the time the critics and audience just did not get it. I can only hope that people will eventually catch up with the genius of Lou Reed.
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. Lou has to signpost sadness for some of his listeners, but if he can awaken emotion, humanity, compassion, understanding, if we can stand in his shoes, or in Caroline’s’, or even in mine then there is hope that society might become a kinder more gentle place: a place where Lou Reed, people like Lou, and Lou’s friends and compatriots can survive.
Berlin. It is a barely listenable psychic and audio pummeling. It is genius. It is beautiful and horror-filled at the same time, but there can always be beauty in suffering and death, and desolation. Transient beauty, intractable death and sadness run through Berlin like a rusty bayonet, yet through it all, despite it all, perhaps because of it all, it remains a great work, a huge accomplishment and something everybody should try to listen to all the way through at least once. Lou is calling you to feel something as strongly as he did. Will you answer his call?
“Come here, baby.” – Lou Reed, Berlin
(Piece first published here in 2021, August. Edited and reissued 2023)