December 2006




12:14:2006: DOWN AT THE ROCKandROLL CLUB....

Lou Reed performs Berlin - St. Ann's Warehouse $65

Let’s talk about the “music to kill yourself to” sub-genre of rock’n’roll. I want to off myself whenever I have to hear Sufjan Stevens - but that’s only because I can’t stand to listen to him. This isn’t what I’m talking about. And though I am referring to depressing music, I’m also not necessarily thinking of Pink Moons, Starsailors, New Skins for the Old Ceremony, etc. that tend to help melancholy adults get by. Or even the hundreds of amazing hair-razing sad jazz vocal, country, and blues songs outside of the rockosphere. I’m talkin’ teenage depression. I’m talking Closer or whichever album you played over and over again alone in your room in high school and contemplated whether or not it was all worth it.

Out of all of the cannon of sonic miserablism, Lou Reed’s Berlin wins hands down as not only the most poignant, but also the absolute most hopeless of any collection of tunes I’ve ever heard. Far from accidental, Berlin was Reed’s stab at the most dismal album ever and met overwhelming success in that regard. And it works every time... My stomach tightens whenever I think about it.

Despite a variety of threads, the conclusion, “Sad Song” reinforces the main theme. The material isn’t only sad, but about sadness itself - the entire ribbon tying the entire beast together is sadness. The protagonists of Reed’s tragic opera, Jim and Caroline, are a couple who descend further and further into the depths with drugs, domestic violence, infidelity, suicide, and even state intervention (“They’re Taking Her Children Away”). The changes in what Reed’s was going for here as opposed to his past characters is best illustrated by the changes he made to the contemplative and ambiguously sad lyrics of the then unreleased Velvet Underground song “Stephanie Says” which turned into “Caroline Says” on Berlin. Whereas Stephanie, adorned in cold imagery, wonders "why she’s given half her life to people she hates now," Caroline says, “You can beat me all you want to but I don’t love you any more.” This is the difference between the bleak existential situations of high Italian neo-realist cinema and the early Passolini films that critics began calling miserablism – the ones that were just plain depressing as a means unto itself. Miserable for miserable’s sake. While Berlin introduces itself with the exterior by the wall ("Berlin"), and works its way towards the patron saint of sad songs, Billy Holliday, ("Lady Day") and a sort of Marxist view of inherited economic and social standing ("Men of Good Fortune"), it next leads you by then hand into the couple's apartment and refuses to let you leave no matter how hard you bang on the door. You are captive voyeur and it’s all interiors from there on out.

Lou Reed had become rich and famous with Transformer and exchanged this currency for big names, big production, and commercial mass murder – sort of a negative of Metal Machine Music. As opposed to most of the cannon of sonic miserablism, Berlin isn’t a sparse dry affair but suffocatingly baroque in its arrangements, words, and concept. The perversity of the situation is augmented by epic production by the man best known at the time as Alice Cooper’s main man, Bob Ezrin, and cheesy performances by famous rock stars - proggy studio cheese bass by Tony Levin and Jack Bruce, pompous drum fills by Aynsley Dunbar, and even, the name says it all, Steve Winwood. Everybody knows that, whereas high melodrama looks corny from a distance, when it is successful, it has far greater power to move you than any brand of subtlety. Berlin is pure unapologetic operatic pathos.

If you can get a hold of some tickets, Reed’s doing Berlin tonight through Sunday. Apparently it will be a theatrical take on the album featuring Antony of Johnsons fame. I have no idea what to expect but would love to go – though I can’t imagine Berlin on stage having the same power it had in my little room at my parents house in high school, or my dorm room in college, or the dozen or so little rooms I’ve rented out since… escaping at first from cheap combo stereos and later from a series of cheap used record players, increasingly crackly with each play. Unlike most music that meant something to me when I was young, Berlin still spins. When every little bit of hope is gone, sad songs say so much.


Beat the Devil, Owls & Crows - Sin-e $8
Bone: Hugh Hopper, Nick Didkovsky, John Roulat – The Stone $15
Gwar, The Red Chord, Municipal Waste - Irving Plaza $22/$25
Hans Tammen and Third Eye Orchestra – Roulette $15
La Laque, Salt & Samovar, The Green Olive – Tonic $8
POING, The New York Miniaturist Ensemble – ISSUE Project Room $10
Rad Unicorn, The Leader, Ne’er Do Evers – Goodbye Blue Monday
Right Rides Benefit: These Are Powers, Crash Diet Crew, High Places – Cake Shop $7
Room, Donkey Tail Spin - Bar on A FREE
The Octagon, Stay Fucked, Shaka Zulu Overdrive – Club Midway $8
The Shapes, The Rinse Man In Gray, The Spies – Union Pool







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© New York Night Train , 2006