Lou Reed is gone, and the last few days have found the internet afire with deserving tributes to the man and his work. There are of course many angles one can use to add further laudatory thoughts, but after pulling out numerous LPs in remembrance, all of this writer’s roads led back to his amazing and underrated 1973 album Berlin.
Thinking about it, the title of Transformer is truly apropos, for the record found Lou Reed morphing from an inhabitant of the musical fringe and into a legitimate commercial property as he scored a victory for the serious-side of glam-rock. Not a particularly astute observation, I know. But the name of Reed’s second solo LP also serves as an accurate descriptor of the man’s subsequent career trajectory. And yeah, I’m sure that’s already been said numerous times, but it bears repeating.
For in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, no major figure managed to confound expectations to the extent and for as long as Reed did. Neil Young had a nice run at it, but compared to Lou he’s Bruce Springsteen, though it is true that the in the 1980s Reed started smoothing things out a bit. And beginning with ‘89’s New York he commenced a run of five records that gave a lengthy but false impression of the man adjusting to middle age and even accepting rock elder status.
But the appearance of 2003’s The Raven, a guest-star heavy Poe-focused concept disc, saw the mask loosening, and with the release of the T’ai chi-inspired meditational music of The Hudson River Wind Meditations in ’07, the jig was up. The next year began a series of collaborations; the first, The Stone: Issue Three, is a plunge into hairy-assed improv-skronk with his wife Laurie Anderson and NYC sax titan John Zorn, and the second is The Creation of the Universe, a lengthy experimental noise whopper by a group credited as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio that was made available via Reed’s website.
Then in 2011 came the widely and wildly reviled team-up with Metallica, the aptly-named Lulu. In terms of Reed’s post-Velvet Underground discography, I’m guessing that only ‘75’s Metal Machine Music stirred up more bewilderment, anger, and lobbed insults than did Lulu. It really put the necessary exclamation point on a run of startling, well, transformation.
If not profound, the use of his second and easily most popular post-VU effort’s title as a symbol of his ensuing artistic path is indeed fitting. Show me someone who possesses every record with Lou Reed’s name on it and I’ll call them a completist. Introduce me to someone who professes to actually enjoy listening to each and every one of them and I’ll call them either a lair or the owner of two tin ears.
But better than consistency was that Reed’s work, great, good, average, subpar, or awful, always displayed some level of personal investment; in that at least, he was truly reliable. Due to Reed’s sense of commitment, the music could be counted on to stir up the receiver’s emotions, and this was especially true for those of us who consider The Velvet Underground to be one of the two or three greatest acts in the history of the whole rock shebang.
Being esteemed that highly, and with so much intensity really set up an impossible obstacle for Reed. And unlike his bandmate John Cale, whose relationship to pop was less overtly articulated (though he was surely capable of some gems), Lou possessed an explicit pop streak that spanned all the way back to the first Velvet’s LP (and before; for evidence, please see the dance-craze mayhem of “The Ostrich” by the pre-VU studio exercise The Primitives.)
The result was that the solo work was frequently at odds with Reed’s triumph as an architect of the rock underground and his membership in the inaugural cult group, and the amount of complaining his later material inspired was considerable. And without the guy’s commitment, many would’ve just lost interest. But as stated, it was always there. No Velvets fan I know, no matter how perturbed they became over Lou’s progressions, ever quit listening. And when it came to those records, it seemed that everyone had a surefire favorite.
Mine’s Berlin, the chameleon-move that came after Transformer and also the first of his solo missteps. Or so was the consensus at the time of issue. Since I was all of two years old when Berlin stalled at #98 on the US album chart (after its predecessor’s climb to #29, though it did even better in the UK, making it to #13) I wasn’t really in a position to disagree.
Back then, reviews of Berlin were mostly negative and even occasionally brutal, but retrospective evaluation has been more kind. This is a familiar rock scenario, and it’s often ascribed to a release or artist that’s somehow ahead of their time, but that’s not really the case here. Saying it was out of step with the period comes closer, though it gets nearer to the heart of the matter when modified to “out of step with the attitudes and driving forces of rock in general.”
One of the many familiar quotes attributed to Reed is that he strove “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music,” and that’s far from a grandiose statement on his part. He’s one of a small handful of rockers who can be described as legitimately literary. In most instances, rock musicians’ declarations of influence from serious texts aren’t really worth a whole lot, since they mainly detail a striving for ambitiousness that is very seldom manifest in the finished product.
But when Reed dedicated “European Son” from the first VU album to late-modernist poet Delmore Schwartz, it was more than a sincere gesture to his teacher, mentor, and friend (who had died the previous year), it was truly representative of hard-gained literary influence, and was all over the oeuvre of the Velvet Underground like lipstick on the kisser of Candy Darling. This is frankly indicative of one of the many reasons behind the VU’s lack of late-‘60s favor; I can’t easily recollect another rock LP from the hippie-era that dedicates a song to a college professor.
Furthermore, in glam-rock terms, Transformer is the only record that springs to mind with a direct connection to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” And if Berlin is often called a rock opera, to these ears it greatly transcends the appellation directly due to this legitimacy. Rock operas, even some of the good ones, are frequently the results of an often well-intentioned stylistic overreach.
Berlin however, shows no signs of straining, with Reed being right in his comfort zone. And that’s a locale many have had a hard time dealing with over the years. Specifically, lots of folks love the idea of Lou as an extremely well-read man with a guitar, but what they really want coming out the speakers is the emissions of a straight-up rocker.
And Berlin is far from Reed in his stripped-down rocking mode. He doesn’t even plug in his electric for it. Plus, the “inside” figures (amongst them Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood) residing in its large musical cast might easily strike those that approach it from a punk angle as an odd pairing (but only if they’re ignorant to Yes-men Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe’s appearance on his ’72 self-titled solo debut.) And yet all of this is nothing in comparison to the disc’s enduring rep as one of the most depressing releases in rock’s long history.
I’m not going to protest and say that Berlin is the aural equivalent to eating cake and ice cream in the park with happy clowns and a calliope player hanging out nearby. But I will note that the assessment of the record, often by those who actually really like it, as a formidable vessel of depression does speak to our very modern desires for happiness and by extension our expectations for art to assist in its procurement.
Great literature, the very stuff that Reed was striving to bring to rock, is very much at odds with this, and that’s a huge part of why old, big books are required reading. Death, failure, despair, misunderstanding, disappointment, racism, sexism, class inequality; it’s all there in any lit textbook. It’s all there in the daily news as well, which is why so many change the channel.
In tooling around the internet the last few days, I was struck by a comment Reed made in response to the negative reaction to Lulu: “This is for people who are literate.” It might initially seem like just another example of his notorious surly pomposity, but I think it goes deep into why his final very problematic but not awful record was so ravaged by critics and fans. They wanted a platform from which to simply rock out, and to feel smart while doing it. Instead they were handed an enormously difficult thing in both form and content. Not streamlined enjoyment, but a challenge.
This also applies to Berlin, though this shouldn’t infer that there isn’t much to enjoy on the album. Any LP that finds the guitar of Steve Hunter utilized so well is assured of giving some measure of pleasurable return. His presence on “Oh Jim” and in particular his flashy interjections and wailing solo on “How Do You Think it Feels” are quite easily absorbed, for two examples. Others would be Bruce’s bass playing (he’s terrific on “Caroline Says I”), Aynsley Dunbar’s drums (especially the faded-up beginning to “Oh Jim”) Winwood’s organ (superb during “Lady Day”), and Tony Levin’s bass (just massive on “The Kids.”)
These players were assembled for Berlin by Bob Ezrin, the producer who’s often derided as a poor, or at least weird, fit for Reed’s talents here. But I happen to think that Ezrin’s skills, large-scaled and unabashedly pro in execution, are pretty essential to the music’s success. At times, he manages to sweeten the pill, helping to shape “Caroline Says I” into a sturdy rocker with an alternate life outside of Berlin’s thematic whole.
At other moments he increases the burn. His use of orchestration in deepening emotional heft on closer “Sad Song” is expert, for example. And on more than one occasion for this listener, the combination of the crying baby and the lilting flutes during “The Kids” has turned it into an unnerving experience. Plus, the atmosphere he captures on the suicide-focused “The Bed” is downright eerie as it combines with the brutality of Reed’s detachment.
This brings us to the lyrics. While accusations that Reed is eyebrows-deep in despair aren’t without a credible basis, his intelligence and even more so his restraint packs a significant wallop rather than being just a lingering exercise in the morbid or the discomfiting. It’s definitely there in “The Bed,” but in the opening stanzas of “The Kids” he really displays his aptitude in bringing literary concerns to the rock context.
On the page, that first line “They’re taking her children away/because they said she was not a good mother” lacks any bold gestures of eloquence. Linguistic grandstanding would only subvert the effect. The power comes from his delivery as he utters the plainness, the raw emotional directness, of the words and the way it mingles with the simple strumming of an acoustic guitar. But after capturing the listener with the effectiveness of that line, he quickly expands its refrain, the imagery increasing but never out of step with the aura of the music in the desire for the whole to strike a nerve.
“The Kids” is a grueling ride, but it, and Berlin as a whole, is no soundtrack for wallowing. Instead, in the manner of so much great art, it’s communicating a valuable truth. Something is Wrong Here. But also in accord with the objectives of great art, it’s not didactic. Instead, it far more subtly increases the receiver’s potential for understanding in a way that’s simultaneously visceral and complex. And lasting.
Another reason for Berlin’s depresso status stems directly from the ambitions of Reed. He’s got a novel’s worth of subject matter stuffed onto two sides of vinyl, and unlike a book, which the reader can put down at any point (well, most appropriately, in between chapters) in the attempt to navigate its thorniness, what’s here is intended to be absorbed with only one brief interruption. So naturally, the heaviness is magnified.
But rather than depressing, I like to think of Berlin as a reliable companion for steering through (and out of) the darker moods and tougher times that life inevitably presents. Over the years, I’ve valued it as one of the finest of “late-night” records, and like the reading of a book, have found that Berlin is best absorbed alone, though it’s never really intensified any sense of loneliness in me. Instead, by stimulating my senses and opening me up to the universality of life’s struggles, it’s always managed to make me feel more human.
It’s not a perfect album, but after the third VU LP, I don’t think Reed ever had a hand in one. Again, consistency was not his hobgoblin. But not only is Berlin my favorite Lou Reed solo rec, after long consideration I also feel it’s his very best. And playing it over the last few days has been a great salve to what has been an incalculable loss.
Because I think it’s pretty clear that nobody’s going to step into those shoes anytime soon. That’s partially because Lou Reed was a product of a very different cultural time, but it’s also due to his sheer uniqueness and indefatigable questing for an often unobtainable standard, and in sharing his gifts with the world he bettered it in a way that’s going to outlive us all.
GRADED ON A CURVE: