Back to Berlin

I know I’m getting old, because I just don’t follow music the way I used to. Even the goings-on of my lifelong musical loves do not register. Case in point: I just found out today that Lou Reed did a concert version of Berlin about two years ago. And a film of the show came out last year. And a DVD and CD are now being released. Where was I through all this? (Surfing the first temblors of the Crisis, but that’s another story…)

If you don’t care about Lou Reed, you are bad. Probably a terrorist and a traitor, and I say off with your head. (Boy, this country is getting polarized, huh?) If you do care about Lou Reed but don’t care about Berlin, you might be like a lot of rock-and-roll fans who experienced the 1970s first-hand. The Tribune article I read announcing the new Berlin DVD pointed out that the original 1973 album was a critical and commercial flop. No one liked it then. Except me, I guess.

Now, I will preface that by saying in my teens, I was drawn to the glam rockers and songs about drugs and the bohemian underbelly. I knew Lou (“Lou”: Yeah, we are on a first-name basis) through Transformer, and of course the Velvet Underground, although I didn’t know then their true brilliance and far-reaching influence. Hell, who knew the influence then; it would only really flourish in the years to come. (And here I will plug one of my favorite VU-influenced bands, the Feelies.) Though I should point out, my other musical god, FZ, seemed to think Lou and the VU were crap. I have not yet reconciled this…

Separated at birth from...

(A Lou Reed concert aside: Waterbury Palace Theatre, mid-to-late 1970s. I am there with a group of friends who are equally adoring fans. Lou is so drunk/wasted that he cannot perform. He spends some time sitting on stage talking/ranting. In my own drug-induced stupor, little of these words stick in my brain. I just leave knowing one of my musical idols has turned in what will always be the worst concert experience of my life. Thankfully, he redeems himself some 15 years later, playing an incredible show at Great Woods, outside Boston, on an unusually cold and rainy Memorial Day weekend before only a few thousand fans. I am grateful I am one of them.)

So, Berlin: When it came out, I was predisposed to like it. And I played it often, usually the more upbeat (at least musically) first side; I found it a good boost in the morning before heading off to school. The guitar work! The horns! Maybe the arrangements were not typical kick-ass rock-and-roll most teens cranked in the morning; I loved it. And so did some of my friends. I would wager good money that Simon Magus, the band my friends formed and for which I was the “road crew,” was the only high-school cover band in the nation doing “Oh, Jim” at cafeteria dances. “All your two-bit friends, they’re shooting you up with pills…now you said that you loved us, but you only made love to one of us…” Teeny bopper, it was not. Nor danceable, either, but we didn’t care.

(Commercial break: To hear what Scott Hiestand, our singer of “Oh, Jim” is up to now, please sample this selection from his self-produced solo CD, Humble Savant. Thank you.)

Then there was Berlin‘s painful, unrelenting, achingly beautiful second side…I liked that too, especially when I was in one of my typical teenage-angst fits and wanted to wallow in it. My mother said she always knew when I was depressed when that was spinning, and she would invariably call out, “What is that?” as the children cried and screamed through “The Kids.” OK, these are not really songs you “like”; the narrative might make you want to join Caroline on her bed on that odd and fateful night. But it felt real like not much else did. And the music just touched me. Did I cry, back then, listening to “Sad Song”? Maybe not, but I knew I should. And again, orchestration, arrangements, that you did not hear on most rock albums.

Berlin was one of the first CD’s I bought as I made the transition from analog to digital. With no sides, I would listen to it straight through and think, “Man, this is fucking brilliant.” But I still felt like I was in a minority. Now, it seems, the new concert version is winning respect for Berlin that was a long time coming. Is it because the subject matter now seems tamer, less overwhelmingly depressing, while still feeling real? Is it because the choir and strings and film clips Lou includes on stage make it seem theatrical in a way the studio version couldn’t? Or is it because the music is still just so kick-ass when it’s rocking and so pierce-your-soul moving when it’s not? Dunno. All I know is, I’m glad to see it’s out there in a new form and winning fans, and I can’t wait to get the DVD, and I will play Berlin very loud this afternoon when I am home alone. I will think about the teenage angst-filled days and the current Crisis-inspired bouts of depression and regret and nostalgia and I will think about crying as the chorus and strings swell on “Sad Song.” And then I’ll remember how the last notes, even after all the pain and suffering that preceded it, seem to offer a glimpse of hope of something out there that makes life worth living. And I will thank Lou Reed.


~ by mburgan on October 12, 2008.

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