The New York Times, describing Berlin, released in 1973, noted that it was "sometimes called the most depressing album ever made."
Lou Reed refers to it with an understatement that borders on dismissal. “It was just another one of my albums that didn’t sell,” he said dryly at a West Village cafe recently.
But get him talking a little — and a little talk is all one can expect from Lou Reed — and it becomes clear that Berlin, his bleak, Brechtian song cycle from 1973, is a treasured high point in a what has been a lifelong project of pushing at the aesthetic boundaries of rock ’n’ roll.
“It’s a great album,” he said. (He has also called it a masterpiece.) “I admire it. It’s trying to be real, to apply novelists’ ideas and techniques into a rock format.” He mentioned William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Chandler as literary models.
“But it sounds so pretentious saying that.” he added. “It just sounds too B.A. in English. Which I have. So there you go.”
Sometimes called the most depressing album ever made, Berlin is the story of Caroline and Jim, a lowlife couple in the title city — she is promiscuous, he beats her, and they both do lots of drugs — and the tragic dissolution of their relationship. The demimonde of drugs and sadomasochism glamorized in songs by the Velvet Underground, Mr. Reed’s visionary 1960s avant-rock band, is shown with miserable consequences, as in “The Bed,” when Caroline commits suicide and Jim remains bitterly numb:
This is the place where she lay her head/When she went to bed at night/And this is the place where she cut her wrists/That odd and fateful night/And I said oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, what a feeling
The album was made at a high point in Mr. Reed’s career. His second solo record, Transformer, produced by David Bowie and released in 1972, had become a glam-rock keystone, and the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” from that album, was a major hit. (It remains his only song to have reached the Top 40.) Looking to continue Mr. Reed’s commercial success, his record label enlisted Mr. Ezrin, who, though only 23, had already made several hit records with Alice Cooper. “The expectation was that I was going to do something very commercial with him,” Mr. Ezrin said from his office in Toronto. “Sort of Alice Cooper-ish, real mainstream. In reality I had become mesmerized by the poetry and by the art of Lou. Maybe I lost sight of my mandate. Honestly I can look back and say I probably didn’t do what I was hired to do.”
Recorded in London with a group of high-profile musicians including Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce, the songs of Berlin are rock filtered through a Brecht-Weill sensibility, with piano at the center of arrangements for band, horns and strings. Songs like “The Bed” and “The Kids” are among the most joyless Mr. Reed has ever recorded, but also some of his most delicate and intense.
The album has a narrative that stretches over 10 songs, and Mr. Reed and Mr. Ezrin had dreams of staging it. “We were bordering on genius with this work,” Mr. Ezrin said. “We were doing things that you’re just not supposed to do with rock music.”
But the album was, as Mr. Reed puts it, “a monumental failure at the time it came out — commercially, critically, you name it.” Reviewers savaged it. A reviewer for Rolling Stone, appalled at its seediness, called it “a disaster”; one critic described the vocals as “like the heat-howl of the dying otter.” (Not all writers were so cruel, though. John Rockwell of The New York Times praised it as “one of the strongest, most original rock records in years,” and Rolling Stone took the unusual step of publishing a rebuttal to its own review, saying that “prettiness has nothing to do with art, nor does good taste, good manners or good morals.”)
Though it stalled at No. 98 on the charts and drifted in and out of print, over time “Berlin” has built a passionate cult audience.
When asked about the circumstances of its creation, Mr. Reed said, “I don’t remember.”
As for the title, Mr. Reed is typically blunt when asked why he chose to set the story in the once-divided city of Berlin instead of, say, New York. “I’d never been there,” he said. “It’s just a metaphor. I like division.” Ben Sisario, NY Times
Lou Reed: vocals, acoustic guitar
Gene Martynec: acoustic guitar, synthesizer
Dick Wagner: electric guitar, background vocals
Steve Hunter: electric guitar
Michael Brecker: tenor saxophone
Randy Brecker: trumpet
Jon Pierson: bass trombone
Bob Ezrin: piano, mellotron
Blue Weaver, Allan Macmillan: piano
Steve Winwood: harmonium, organ
Tony Levin , Jack Bruce: bass
Aynsley Dunbar, B.J. Wilson: drums
2. Lady Day
3. Men of Good Fortune
4. Caroline Says I
5. How Do You Think It Feels
6. Oh Jim
7. Caroline Says II
8. The Kids
9. The Bed
10. Sad Song
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