Guest Column – Lou Reed's Berlin: music to slit your wrists to? By Public Access TV

Guest Column – Lou Reed's Berlin: music to slit your wrists to? By Public Access TV

publicaccesstv_colourNew Yorkers Public Access TV (above) have released new Double-A Side single Double Patti Peru/ In Love And Alone this week (29 September), ahead of a full album next year. While waiting to complete his record, guitarist Xan Aird has written about his love of an LP by a fellow Big Apple native, Berlin by Lou Reed...

Lester Bangs called it "a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancour that may well be the most depressed album ever made." Rolling Stone found it "so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance" on its creator. And that bum Robert Christgau, priggish giver of grades, thought that its pretensions to the class of artistic achievement were, simply, "horses hit." (He gave it a C).

I suppose the moral of the story here is that you should never, ever trust a rock critic [Steady on! Ed]. I will spare you the rant – if you know anything about the man in the pillory, you've heard it before – and get to my point, namely that Berlin is the best record of the 1970s and among the greatest ever made.

To be fair, the story of a couple’s violent, drug-fueled dissolution doesn’t make for the easiest listening. The narrative, to the extent that there is one, is simple. Jim meets Caroline, they fall in love over candlelight and Dubonnet on ice, and then it all goes to shit—she takes speed, belittles her man, turns out to be a “miserable, rotten slut,” begs Jim to stop beating her, ends up losing her children to the authorities, and, in the end, offs herself. But if Berlin is a concept record, as it’s generally taken to be, it’s unified less by a story that doesn’t even kick off until Side B than by the prevailing mood, the hatred, anger and despair of a broken man. As Lou himself said: “When a woman does a certain thing to you, you end up with Berlin.”


The truly disturbing thing is the way the story is sung. The vocals sound flat, detached, weary, numbed-out, as though the singer couldn’t be bothered to feel a thing, even in the aftermath of his woman’s suicide. And this all happens over and against the most bombastic music—woodwinds, horns, piano, lavish string parts, a mellotron, double Detroit City guitars and, underneath it all, one of the strongest, most menacing rhythm sections ever put to tape. Even while Jim, sick, pathetic fuck that he is, denies his feelings and Caroline nullifies hers with promiscuous sex, amphetamine and self-inflicted death, the music refuses to go along, to join them in their descent and their apathy.

Sad Song, the final track, sounds anything but sad. It’s nearly uplifting, triumphant, glimmering with the hope that for Jim there might be a way out of this mess and toward redemption and peace. Side A ends with the best moment of the album, the outro of Oh, Jim, when all the ornate production is stripped away and we’re left with Lou as Caroline, naked, hurt and pleading for answers. This interlude is bleak but it’s beautiful; and it’s crucial because it gives a voice to the other person implicated in the whole deranged affair.

Men Of Good Fortune is the closest thing to a political song Lou Reed has ever done and it helps account for why Berlin deserves the title of best record of the 70s. Again, it’s Caroline who sings, like a weary prostitute indifferent to the parade of men who have paid to lie in her bed: “Men of good fortune / Often wish that they could die / While men of poor beginnings / Want what they have and to get it they’ll die... But me, I just don’t care at all.” This is a song of that lost decade, the painful, head-splitting morning after the orgy has ended and the sun has come up to pass judgment. Can you picture Lou Reed smoking a joint? A tab of acid on his tongue and flowers in his hair? I can’t. I see him on the cover of Punk magazine No 1, insect-eyed and made of dead flesh, a 20th century Sophocles singing the song of the Oedipus that that decade deserved (Jim has nothing on that father-murdering, mother-fucking, self-mutilating freak).

Berlin shows us that all those promises about the Edenic beauty of love and drugs turn out to be dirty, rotten lies and to be blind to this means death, literally and otherwise. I think we would do well to follow Jim’s lead when he sings, at the close of his sad story, “I’m gonna stop wasting my time.” Don’t get carried away, though, and forget the next line: “Somebody else would’ve broken both of her arms.”

Thanks for that, Lou. And thanks for your beautiful dark twisted fantasy, your masterpiece, Berlin. Xan Aird @Public_AccessTV

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