Monday, October 17, 2011

A Classic of Despair

Lou Reed's Berlin is one of the saddest albums in the entire history of rock and roll. It's a brilliant and morbid tale of a doomed couple. The songs touch on a lot of heavy subject matter (or at least it was considered that way back then, back when people actually used words like "heavy") -- drug addiction, abuse, prostitution, suicide, and the breakup of a family -- but the dominant note is heartbreak. It's about the singer watching his girlfriend, Caroline, kill herself, coming closer to the end with every song.

People hated it when it first came out in 1973. It's a bum trip, to quote a line from the album, and there's nothing remotely subtle about it. Reed just lays it out there, offers you no distance. He rubs your nose in the sheer pain of it all.

Parts of it are pure poetry, such as "Carolina Says II," which perfectly captures the sheer numbness of someone who has to stay high to kill her pain. In this song, Caroline is referred to as "Alaska," which brings to mind both the snowy whiteness of her dope and her own coldness:

She put her fist through the window pane
It was such a funny feeling

It's so cold in Alaska
it's so cold in Alaska
It's so cold in Alaska

The record reaches a high point of sensational morbidity with "The Kids," where Caroline's children are taken away by the authorities. Reed took no chances when it came to making sure the song brought tears to the eyes of his audience: as the orchestra swells with melancholy, we hear actual piercing cries of children screaming Mommy.

It's a record you have to be in the right mood to listen to, because it's a classic downer.

I listened to it again this evening after hearing a recent Sound Opinions podcast, which featured a great interview with the producer, Bob Ezrin -- who describes just how he recorded those horrible, gut-wrenching, pain-wracked cries of wailing children.

He brought a tape recorder home -- and told one of his young children it was time for bed. He was a toddler; of course he wailed. Then he played a game with his two kids: pretend Mommy is behind this door, and she can't hear you. The kids banged on the door, screamed "Mommy!" at the top of their lungs.

He was laughing as he told the story and I laughed as I heard it.

The first thing it brought to mind was a story the film director Lukas Moodysson told about the making of Lilja 4Ever, which includes a very hard-to-sit-through rape scene, where the victim muffles her screams by burying her face in a pillow.

Except that she wasn't screaming. She was laughing hysterically. She was a young actress on a set in a studio, naked and sprawled on a bed, trying not to laugh during a scene that, at the time, as it was being rehearsed, just seemed absurd.

Another reminder of the enormous difference between what we hear or see and the circumstances under which it was created.

Anyway ... hearing that podcast drove me back to listening to Berlin again, for the first time in maybe a year or two. Ezrin downplayed its effect a little, said that what seemed bold then probably seems tame today, but it didn't, because it's not about the subject matter. It's about the mood, the feeling, the vibe. It's as fascinating and as alienating and frightening as ever.

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