The Hamlet of electricity

BERLIN 1973: the city thick with women with fox-stole eyes, shattered glass and junkie Schoeneberg faggots seeking out yet another fix. And, then, police find a chick’s skeleton, shot through the temple, in the woods near Munich.

Call this bitching Katzenmusik where jacked-up ‘sons of good fortune’ slug it out on the streets, or end up in the Dead Section of some penitentiary. Makes me smile, this; I recall LaMonte Young naming the Velvets ‘cat gut music’.

City streets are sheeted by ice, crumbling underfoot as I walk it. Track one: some piano, the two of them in a café where the guitars play. And that devil-guy counting down; eins, zwei, drei, vier ... At the autopsy, the doctor said her brain was TV static, like rows of needles in a lab, from shooting herself up with pills.

‘Poison is the essence of the performer,’ according to that old bore, Nico, my Germanic Queen, ha. Track two: oh-oh-oh Lady Day, when she walked down the street she was like a child staring at her feet. I open the door, velvet and tassled. Track three.

Here is the border zone. Eyes glazed, staring at me.

Hair shaved to the bone, dyed ice-blond with crosses dyed in. I’m no voyeur, just your average guy; average looking and average inside, listening.

SOME years before the reunification of Germany, Dr Dietfried Müller- Hegemann, director of East Berlin’s main psychiatric hospital, investigated a clinical syndrome among Easterners that he named Wall Sickness (Mauerkrankheit). It showed through in phobias, depression of varying degrees or psychosis that led to suicide. Precedents for the condition were ‘barbed-wire sickness’ among long-term prisoners of war during the First World War and KZ- Syndrom, a cluster of mental aberrations that troubled concentration camp survivors from the Second World War. This psychological malaise was not confined to the east, with West Berlin registering the highest number of suicides among all west German cities. A surprising number of drivers ended their lives by ramming into the wall at full speed.

Others have since noted the ‘hidden wall’ (or the Mauer im Kopf) that afflicts Berliners, years after the Wall was destroyed. With Berlin (RCA, 1973), his third solo album, Lou Reed came close to representing this condition in music: frac- tured, bruised, transcendent. ‘Berlin’, he explained,

is a divided city and a lot of potentially violent things go on there. And it’s not America, although some of the characters appear to be American. It just seemed better than calling it ‘Omaha’. Berlin was just suggestive to me. It makes it tackier that it’s in Berlin—it reminds me of Von Stroheim and Dietrich.

The 24-year-old Bob Ezrin, who produced the record, had suggested that they weave the tracks together into a ‘film for the ear’. Grove Music Online has since claimed that Reed invented the album as ‘a combination of existentialist novel and neo-Romantic film noir’.

Berlin was recorded at the Morgan Studios in London, reached number seven on the UK charts, but stalled at number 98 in the United States, selling only 20,000 copies. Critics almost universally panned the album on its US release. Music critic Lester Bangs described it as a ‘gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made.’ (He also referred to Reed, his erstwhile rock’n’roll hero, as a depraved pervert, pathetic dwarf and huckster selling pounds of his own flesh.) Rolling Stone called Berlin a ‘disaster’. Respond- ing to this view of it as ‘a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide’, Timothy Ferris wrote ‘It is’, but

I fail to see how that makes it a bad record. Berlin is bitter, uncompromising and one of the most fully realized concept albums. Prettiness has nothing to do with art, nor does good taste, good manners or morals.

Reed acknowledged:

It is involved with violence, both mental and physical. It takes place for real in Berlin in 1973. The really important thing is the relationship between the two major char- acters. The narrator is filling you in from his point of view, and his point of view is not particularly pleasant.

Split into two sections, Berlin charts the relationship of Jim and Caroline, which is bolstered by methamphetamines and booze, and ends with her slitting her wrists. As her children scream out for her, their father numbly sings that he could not care less. ‘I’m just a tired man, no words to say / But since she lost her daughter / It’s her eyes that fill with water—and / I’m much happier this way.’ Reed intones like a somnambulant.

The album opens with a nightmare sequence: babbling talk, a voice, slowed down and distorted, saying eins, zwei, drei, vier ... A tinkling piano line merges with the dusty captured atmosphere and a group singing ‘Happy Birthday’. Reed’s voice, as delicate as it could ever be, whispers into the microphone:

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

Introducing Berlin in live recordings, Reed teases his audience, saying that it is his Barbra Streisand number: ‘a real nightclub torch thing, like if you were Frank Sinatra you’d loosen your tie and light a cigarette.’

Buoyed by brass, reminiscent of oompah-pah cabaret music, Berlin’s first half introduces us to the characters. (As seen in the black-and-white stills: Caroline, lounging on a bar with her latest conquest looking on adoringly, and Jim hovering in the dark; or Jim, half-naked, behind the bars of a staircase, staring at Caroline’s image where she looks like Mary, Queen of Scots). Many of the songs have the camp theatricality of Transformer, with Reed entreating an unnamed conquest to come just a little bit closer in the single, ‘How do you think it feels ...’

Then, suddenly, it shifts. ‘Oh Jim’—the album’s unacknowledged masterpiece— begins with drums rumbling low in the mix. The brass is all bombast, echoed by Reed’s stance: ‘I don’t care where it’s at / I’m just an alley cat.’ At three minutes twenty seconds the machismo disappears; the guitars and horns recede as Reed sings:

Oh Jim, how could you treat me this way? Hey-hey, how do you treat me this way?

You know you broke my heart Ever since you went away. Now you said that you loved us But you only made love to one of us Oh, oh, oh, oh Jim ...

When you’re looking through the eyes of hate.

In 1974, Andy Warhol and Reed met to talk about transforming Berlin into a Broadway musical. One of Warhol’s acolytes paraphrased the conversation and has Reed describe Jim’s psychology like this:

He only shows emotion when he’s on speed, Lou said, and when his drug dealer makes it with his girlfriend but not him. When his girlfriend commits suicide, he can only describe and feel nothing.

Nothingness pervades Berlin. One critic wrote that it had ‘no hope ... (The char- acters) stare straight into each other’s eyes, and find only emptiness’. Yet in ‘Oh Jim’ the emotion is fierce, with Reed’s voice cracking, becoming almost frail. Even more mysterious is the point of view: who is the ‘us’? Who is singing the song, is it the ‘miserable rotten slut’ Caroline, the narrator, or someone completely new? Musically, the shift is equally stark. The guitars are submerged, subterranean (resembling much of the low-fi music from the 1990s), eschewing the bombast, switching off the light.

Disappointed fan, Lester Bangs confronted Reed after the album’s release:

You know, Lou, one thing I kinda resent about Berlin is that you never give her point of view. It was a very selfish album: ‘I’m beating you up, bitch, You’re dead bitch.

(To which Reed reportedly replied, ‘She was making it with a dealer.’) Such liter- alism has plagued Reed’s career, alongside a desire to see his music as therapy. Certainly, on occasion he has encouraged this perspective, including snippets from his autobiography in his music, then using them to taunt interviewers. During the recording of Berlin, for instance, Reed’s wife, Betty, tried to kill herself in a bathtub in a hotel. ‘Cut her wrists,’ Reed said.’ She lived. We had to have a roadie there with her from then on.’ While doing publicity for Berlin, he evoked with apparent enthusiasm the image of Betty ‘holding a razor blade up, and she looks like she might kill you, but instead she starts cutting away at her wrists and there’s blood everywhere’.

When talking about the modus operandi of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’, Lou Reed described his methods:

The only way to go through something is to go right into the middle (and) not to kid around. Storm coming—you go right through the centre and you may come out all right.

Then he added as an aside: ‘All the people I’ve known who were fabulous have either died, or flipped or gone to India.’

Describedbyonereporterasa‘prettycocktailwaitressandaspiringactress’,Betty had met Lou Reed in Bloomingdales. In September 1972 he slurred in an interview:

Imean,Bettyisnothipatall...That’swhyIloveher...Iwanttokeepherthatway ... ha! Lou Reed, bisexual chauvinistic pig ... I mean, she is so pure ... And I believe in princesses ... And I believe in sparrows ... I believe in pretty princesses.

They divorced in 1974. ‘I think women admire force all the more for not having it—it’s axiomatic that a woman is all the more impressed that you could kill her,’ Reed said around this time. ‘(She) can get turned off if you’re appreciative of her when all she wants is to be smacked across the mouth.’ His delivery of the lines amid the stereophonic swoon of ‘Sad Song’—‘I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms’—is remorselessly upbeat.

You can find counterweights to Reed’s rank misogyny in Berlin: ‘Caroline Says II’, for instance, recreates the battered woman’s perspective with tenderness, as she gets up off the floor, making up her eye, saying she does not love Jim any more. Yet this misses the point. More interesting is the way ‘Oh Jim’ confounds identification with any single, unitary point of view: it is all and none at the same time. Caroline’s self-destruction, through addiction, is also his own. ‘It explains the whole motiva- tion for the girl in Berlin,’ he said. ‘It’s a central theme for almost everything I do.’

Berlin reflects Reed’s intention to elevate rock’n’roll to the level of complex and ambiguous art. ‘I’ve always liked trash, and I hear some trash records these days that are cute,’ Reed said on the release of Blue Mask in the early 1980s.

But I don’t hear anybody trying to do a Lear, or a Hamlet soliloquy in rock’n’roll. Who says you can’t do that? My goal has been to make an album that would speak to me the way Shakespeare speaks to me, the way Joyce speaks to me. Something with that kind of power; something with bite to it.

In the early 1970s, Reed dubbed himself the Hamlet of Electricity.

Berlin 1973: The bombings have begun. Call these skirmishes unrest sustained by Utopia, the permanent motive for

action. Makes me laugh, this, these dickless wonders naming themselves after

Melville—the skanky loaf, Baader is Ahab; his lawyer, Starbuck; Esslin, the ship’s cook.

Geriatric volunteer helpers of the border troops keep a close watch over this heart of mine. Bunnies frolic near the trip-wire in the death strip—bodies so tiny they leave no mark. This city of shadow architecture and yellow flowers, sedum infested with napalm.

No head tricks are being played here; no trip games. You don’t have to be stoned to get it, or particularly crazed, or degenerate. On maps where I am now is white space.

By the café Kranzler, riot police turned on the water. So, this guy goes to meet his lover, a couple of love letters in his pocket, jumps the wall; gets arrested and is left to rot in some Stasi prison for three years or maybe more. I saw it on Aktuelle Kamera. Go down the subway, you’ll see the graffiti, the machine-gun icon with three letters.

Messages to the people: R.A.F. is good and trying to make people free.

‘Violence rules, from birth to the grave, and it is simply heightened if you fight against it—it becomes totally concrete,’ in Berlin where blood stains the sidewalk.