Berlin: Lou Reed’s Dark Poetry

Film Love Music Transgressive

In 1973, as a follow up to his highly successful "Transformer" album, Lou Reed released the album "Berlin". The ten-song concept album tells of the disintegration of a couple living in Germany. The couple, Caroline and Jim, follows a dark path that starts with drug addiction and descends into infidelity, spousal abuse, loss of children due to unfit parenting, and, ultimately, suicide. The album was a commercial flop upon release. Rock critic Lester Bangs, up until this point a huge Lou Reed supporter, called the record "a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made." Reaction to the album was so negative that Reed did not perform the complete song cycle in concert for over thirty years.

And yet even when the album first came out, some critics called it a masterpiece. The record developed a cult following, and decades later Reed finally decided to perform the piece live. He first performed it in New York in 2006, and then went on a tour of Europe in 2007, playing in most major cities. The concert was captured on film by artist (and Reed's friend) Julian Schnabel, who filmed performances at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. The critical reaction to the film has been good, and has generated new interest in the original recording.

The movie recently opened in Paris, and I went to see it. I was curious: was the song cycle truly a masterpiece or just a depressing tale accompanied by good music? I had never listened to the album. I had sort of lost touch with Lou Reed after he left the Velvet Underground. So this would be my first exposure to the work. I had no "a prioris" as the French say -- no preconceived notions.

The first thing that strikes you about Lou Reed is his voice. It is not a pretty voice. It sort of quavers, dangerously close to being off-key at times, but always eventually hitting the note. His delivery is in between singing and speaking. It is not a voice for light pop ditties. It is, however, the required voice for the delivery of such songs as "Heroin" and "Venus in Furs". The next thing you notice is Reed himself: wiry, with a muscular neck and a deadpan face. His guitar slung across his chest, wearing jeans and a tee shirt. No frills, no sentimentality. Then finally there is the poetry of his songs. The first song in the performance is entitled "Berlin" and it is almost hopeful:

In Berlin by the wall
You were five foot ten inches tall
It was very nice
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice


We get more of this minimalist verse in the song "Lady Day"
12 Responses to "Berlin: Lou Reed’s Dark Poetry"

by Ann on

Thanks for this. I've been a huge fan of the album since I first heard it about 20 years ago. It's truly the most depressing album I've ever heard, but it is a masterpiece. And it's truly timeless in sound and feel; one of the few albums from the 70s that doesn't sound dated. I'm glad to know that the film is as powerful as the record. I hope to see it when it opens here.

by dlt on

Music Appreciation w/ Simon, Randy and Paula

Delmore Schwartz,
Barring Baudelaire

Poem and In Dreams Begin Responsiblities,
Can be a tuff read; his

Once-protege Lou Reed, however,
Rarely is.

I was born in 1961, not
1911.

What about Cycle Annie
And You're Driving Me Insane?

by judih on

love Lou Reed. Right up there with Dylan in terms of speaking the poetry of modern urban 'civilization'. I have to thank my brother who's always been a serious fan and provided me with fuel for my adoration ("Animal", for example, which has Anthony doing Candy Says)

Thanks for this, Levi. Hope to catch the film, sometime.

by billectric on

Great review, Michael. Very even-handed. To be honest, I either didn't know, or had forgotten, what some of the songs were about. Your exposition is much appreciated.

When I was stationed in Spain, back in the 70s, there were two albums that my friends didn't want me to play.
"Anything but Plastic Ono Band or Berlin!" they whined. "Those are downers, man!"
Yeah, we said "man" a lot.

I didn't care. Somewhere between Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Pink Floyd, and Mountain, I threw in John Lennon's primal screams and Lou Reed's jaded street hymns. Sometimes, just to freak people out, I slow-danced to Lady Day until somebody would say, "What are you, some kind of fag?"

Finally, the arrival of a new guy named Rocko, who shaved his head and listened to the New York Dolls, took the heat off me. Back then, it was really weird to shave your head. This is when a lot of Navy guys couldn't wait to become civilians so they could grow long hair, as if that would make their lives complete.

But I digress.

Steve Hunter is a top-notch guitarist! He composed the intro to Sweet Jane on Rock and Roll Animal, which is my favorite Lou Reed album. Have you listened to that one?

I like that you made reference to the background "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" films of Andy Warhol. I definitely want to see the Berlin film by Julian Schnabel

by Mike Knippel on

Thanks, Michael. Great review. I listened to this album over the years; often in the 70s and 80s, almost ignored in the 90s, but again the last few years. Sad Song embodies his ability to infuse hope in the worst of situations. I see this in most of his songs and themes. Still having a hard time getting my wife to listen to The Kids, though.

by Steve Plonk on

I liked the title song of the album: “Berlin”. I am more familiar with Lou Reed’s music with “the Velvet Underground”. The album was depressing but that hopeful song redeemed it. Sad songs embody people’s misery and sometimes alleviate it
by saying “what if?” or “aren’t you glad it wasn’t someone you know?” Sad songs shoot a warning shot across our collective bow and remind us of what’s out there. One sad song I like is “Heroin” by the Velvets. (Then there is the famous blues song: “Cocaine”, sung by Eric Clapton et al, which grabs me with its directness.)
One of my favorite songs by the Velvet Underground is “All Tomorrows Parties”. which wishes folks good luck, to my way of thinking… Hey, don’t forget “Sweet Jane”. Then there’s “Waiting for my Man” and “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and “I Found a Reason”. To repeat, Lou Reed and Co. songs can be depressing but still uplifting by the warning tone they bring. People don’t start out by wanting to waste their lives. They start out looking for sensation, etc. It’s a sad note when folks are reduced to addictive behavior & searching through their cabinets for a fix when they are running low on their favorite high, etc. It is especially sad when children are involved.
Sing on, Lou Reed, your songs ring true.

by poetpunk on

I have a great respect for Lou Reed, I have most of his albums, but sometimes we get so obsessed with a single artist that we lose sight of the many new artists that are out there. Just to clarify, I am 18 years old, but I do not think that my age excludes me from this discussion. Lou Reed's album Berlin is a work of art, a catalyst in the creation of the Emo(or emotional hardcore) sub-genre of the punk scene. However on the West Coast, in LA, many different artists were making music just as poignient. An example is the song "Billy" by the melodic hardcore band Bad Religion. The song is about a young man that has wasted his life but who had enormous potential, and the lyrics go thusly: "I can recall the warm youth of a summer day, the sweetest lemonade, the darkest game arcade, and young Billy had a yearning in the corner of his mind, it moved him secretly, it moved him powerfully, but the prescience was lacking and present was all and his aptitudes were carelessly wasted and challenging life with the abandon of a fool, he squandered away the hours of his day. Then darkness and disorder slapped him sharply in the face, it hit him like a friend, struck somthing deep within, he couldnt break the chain of slow decay that seemed to drag him in just like a fatal tie to the other side. And Billy was a lunatic just barking at the moon and his brain was totally wasted, he then exchanged his friends for a needle and a spoon and he threw his future away. Bolt the door and throw away the key, your dim reflection is all you can see. So where is the justice when no one is at fault and a human life is tragically wasted? How fragile is the flame that burns within us all to light each passing day?" That is the story of my generation today, kids with potential trade knowledge for drugs and then their future is wiped clean away. Most people dont even listen to my words or the words of that song, they just keep listening to the same old stuff, and not hearing the voices of today. The words of Bad Religion speak the times of today, as well as many other bands that have carried on the punk genre since Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

by Levi Asher on

I guess I oughta weigh in myself on our Paris correspondent's article. The reason I was glad to publish this piece is that I consider "Berlin" one of the best albums ever made, and I have listened to it obsessively at various points in my life.

I also wrote about the live recording of the album myself in a personally significant post here. I haven't seen the live show or the film yet, though.

poetpunk, thanks for posting the lyrics to the Bad Religion song. there is powerful poetry in those words.

by dlt on

Digital Programming

Can't beat that
Dragstrip sound of
Fifties and sixties records. Berlin
Has
The warm hiss that
Still existed in the early seventies.

I seem to be coming at Lou Reed backwards, having first discovered him through "Dirty Boulevard" from his album "New York" that enjoyed a little success on MTV (although I somehow knew Reed had been around a lot longer), and then when a friend included "Sweet Jane" on a compilation tape. On a whim I picked up Transformer and a Best Of CD. As much as I love what I've heard, how in the heck have I missed Berlin? I read an earlier review that called Berlin a slap in the face to the fans who loved Transformer, which intimidated me, but this review has changed my mind.

by steve vickery on

I look forward to seeing this film but doubt that it could have the same effect on me as the album did . I received a copy of the record from a friend who listened to it once and hated it. I listened to it a lot that winter, playing both sides of the record, until finally my older brother asked me not to play it when he was at home. Hearing it convinced me to go out and buy the Live 1969 Velvet Underground record, and much later to see Lou Reed play live when he had about ten video monitors on stage. Thanks for mentioning this great piece of work.