Thursday, July 26, 2012

The enduring nihilistic brilliance of Lou Reed's "Berlin"

"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."

"My girlfriend threatens to stab me if I ever play it again in her presence."

"And what a narrative it is: unlistenably depressing was the critical consensus at the time of release, even grimmer than the Velvet Underground at their most debauched."

"Reed's only excuse for this kind of performance (which isn't really performed as much as spoken and shouted over Bob Ezrin's limp production) can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou."

"A horribly attritional listen."

"Lazy unfocused worthless shit."

Here is what Stephen Davis, writing for Rolling Stone, thought of Lou Reed's Berlin when it first came out:

"Lou Reed's Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide.
[December 20, 1973]

I don't recall reading the Rolling Stone review of the album at the time, but if I had I would have thought something like, "hey, you say 'a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide' like that was a bad thing."

That's just where my 16 going on 17 year old head was at. Not a good place, granted. But it was the perfect psychological vantage point from which to appreciate what Lou Reed had accomplished with his followup to "Transformer". I didn't so much love Berlin as I wallowed in it.

The years have been good to Berlin. In four decades, it has gone from being verbally spat upon to something approaching hushed veneration. One recent (but annoyingly undated) review still shows the kind of visceral hatred that this album is capable of producing by callling it "a horribly attritional listen", while at the same showing that even the naysayers must acknowledge its now exalted status, for the reviewer adds, parenthetically: "(Feels himself about to be sent directly to rock critic hell for slagging off one of rock's sacred cows ...)".

The creative triumph that is Berlin is a result of three factors. First of all, Lou Reed was willing and able to go there in terms of darkness. It really doesn't get any darker than this. The anti-heroine of the story, Caroline, is a narcissistic, penniless drug addict trapped in a viciously abusive (both emotionally and physically) relationship. And it's downhill from there. Her children are taken away "because they said she was not a good mother", and then she kills herself. But it still doesn't stop there, for there are still depths of human misery left to be plumbed. At first the anti-hero Jim, Caroline's penniless, self-loathing, drug-addicted, abusive lover, is emotionally distraught, even maudlin over the suicide of the woman who had, somehow, reminded him of Mary Queen of Scots. At just this moment, and for the first and last time, Jim appears almost human, almost deserving of sympathy. But then he rallies. He comes back to himself, and the full force of his self-destructive, soul-sucking, nihilistic anti-personality rises, phoenix like, in all its glory. Who but Lou Reed could do justice, if that is the right word, to the words with which Jim defiantly renounces any lingering remnant of what once might have been his humanity: "I'm gonna stop wasting my time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms." It really, truly, doesn't get any darker than this.

This is black hole darkness. A darkness that goes far beyond the mere absence of light. A darkness that actively seeks out the light, hunts it down, clubs it over the head, and then drags it down, stunned, twitching, barely alive, back to its stinking cave, the merciless inertial singularity from which there is no escape.

But, secondly, this darkness is served up as tantalizingly irresistible poison-laced dark chocolate in the form of Rock And Roll Done Right. Thanks to a cast of legendary Rock Gods, including Ainsley Dunbar on drums, Jack Bruce on bass, Steve Hunter on lead guitar, Steve Winwood on keyboards, and Bob Ezrin as producer, arranger, pianist, and head-bottle-washer, accompanied by angel-throated singers and a blazingly virtuosic horn section, this album is musically staggering in the full-body impact it has on the senses. It's the kind of music that seduces you while grabbing you by the throat. It lures you back to listen, over and over, to this repulsive "horribly attritional" story.

And, thirdly Lou Reed was willing to take the money, influence, and freedom that his successes up that point had won him, and to bet it all on this project. One cannot properly do decadence and debauchery on the cheap. Berlin is sybaritic on a DeMilleian "parting-of-the-red-sea" scale. The result is that even its harshest detractors (in fact, especially them) reveal the awe that Berlin elicits. In spite of themselves, they cannot look away.

a jumble of links:

The Rolling Stone review from 1973:

"A horribly attritional listen":

Back to Berlin: Lou Reed's dark masterpiece gets a belated staging:


"Lou Reed's masterpiece of misery is re-released in time for its debut performances.":

"Lou Miserable takes a Sydney walk on the dark side":

Interview with Bob Ezrin (the man behind the curtain):

"Reed’s most perfect smooth glam rock album was by far Berlin ...":

"My girlfriend threatens to stab me if I ever play it again in her presence."

"Now let me be clear that I have never greatly admired Reed ..." (but he loved the 2007 berlin live show in london):

A long very informational blogpost making the "case" for Lou Reed's Berlin:

Decades later, Adrian Denning still can't make up his mind about Berlin:

Artwork from the album:

All about glam rock by Julian Cope (this is where i found the "movie" poster for Berlin at the top of this post):

A very positive review of the movie by Jason Thompson, who still insists he doesn't like the album:


Unknown said...

I've never been able to make up my mind about this album.

Bob Ezrin's production is as horrible as one would expect: Juxtaposing misanthropic lyrics with female back-up singers and a horn section at one point! Ezrin has always had the ability to screw up great things for me, whether we're talking about his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink contributions to "The Wall" or his everything-and-the-kitchen-sink contributions to Peter Gabriel's first albums or... "Berlin".

But there are moments of icy beauty mixed in here, most notably on "Caroline Says II" and "The Bed".

I think the scariest moment for me came when I realized that "Caroline Says II" is really a re-write of VU's earlier "Stephanie Says". Listening to the two songs back-to-back is really chilling.

Ellen Catalina, LCSW said...

Lou Reed's recent collaboration with metallica also got terrible reviews. He called it very important work though, wonder if it will be as enduring at Berlin. Probably not....

Apuleius Platonicus said...

@mamiel: I am one of those people who freely acknowledges that Lou Reed has produced quite a lot of work that is mediocre and also some genuine crap. I have been consistently underwhelmed by just about everything he's done since Street Hassle, although one of these days I'll get around to making a serious effort to try to appreciate "New York". Personally I don't think his work with Metallica will ever be rehabilitated, and hopefully it will just be forgotten. But I could be wrong!

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Katy! I think one of the things that really works for me is precisely the mixture of Ezrin's schmaltiness with Lou's distilled nihilism.

Peter Gabriel's first album is an interesting case too. I had such high hopes when it came out, but other than Solsbury Hill it left me completely cold. But then again, Solsbury Hill is all by itself quite spectacular.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

oops - that was supposed to be "Ezrin's schmaltziness".