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How Lou Reed’s “Berlin” continues to haunt listeners 50 years later

Chelsea Marie Hicks | Flickr

Lou Reed’s groundbreaking art rock tragedy “Berlin” was released 50 years ago in October 1973. Critics panned the album at its release, but it soon received critical appraisal as one of the greatest rock albums in history. Public opinion tends to wane and wax according to the cultural zeitgeist of the moment, so it’s important to revisit these works and examine if they still hold up.

“Berlin” was innovative in the sense that it is one of the first concept albums to emerge from the rock genre.

However, it wasn’t received with open arms at its release. The grimy proto-punk found commercial success with the 1972 “Transformer” album and its hit single “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.” Audiences expected its successor to perform a similar glam rock sound and vibe.

Reed continues to illustrate tales of drugs and off-kilter characters in “Berlin,” though it is presented in a grimmer tone.

The album tells the tale of Jim and Caroline, a toxic drug-addicted bohemian couple and their two children living in the titular city.

The album shifts between the perspectives of Jim and Caroline throughout to paint a portrait of an eccentric yet mutually destructive pair.

The first half of “Oh Jim” sounds like a show tune about shooting up amphetamines, which isn’t a dig at all. In a sense, it puts the listener into Jim’s euphoric and drugged-up perspective. As Jim’s high fades, the song transitions into a sparse acoustic number, with Caroline asking Jim why he treats her cruelly “with the eyes of hate.”

Reed’s greatest strength as a songwriter is his skill in conveying intricate emotions in a frank and brief manner. It’s chilling when Caroline says to Jim, “You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you anymore” in the melancholic “Caroline Says II.”

Devoted Velvet Underground fans may recognize that the song’s melody, chorus and hook are lifted from the 1968 deep cut “Stephanie Says.” The refrain “it’s so cold in Alaska” refers to Caroline’s detached personality and empty life, hammering in the album’s dark themes.

“The Kids” reveals Caroline’s children were taken away from her because, as the narrator frankly explains, “she was not a good mother,” citing her occupation as a sex worker and speed habit. The track ends with two children wailing and crying out for their mother. This outro goes on for nearly three minutes.

Jim walks the listener through their cramped hotel room and what had occurred in “The Bed.” It’s revealed that Caroline has committed suicide on the same bed where her children were conceived.

Reed’s quiet and brief delivery sinks the listener into despair as the song progresses. The simple chorus of “and I said [oh] what a feeling,” is simultaneously empty and complete, as it’s a morbid moment that’s difficult to process.

“Sad Song” desperately tries to convince the listener that it is a sad song, but Jim doesn’t shy away from showing his schadenfreude about the outcome of his failed relationship. The woozy flutes sound like the start of a delusional fairytale, as Jim reminiscences about Caroline’s supposed resemblance to Mary, Queen of Scots.

On the closing track, he proclaims, “I’m gonna stop wasting my time/Somebody else would’ve broken both of her arms,” which is delivered in such a way that makes the listener want to do the honors to Jim, not Caroline.

“Berlin” tells a timeless tragedy that could apply to any time or circumstance. Jim and Caroline could easily be a Latin couple living in a Bronx project or a pimp and courtesan in the red-light district of Bangkok.

Fifty years later, “Berlin” remains the crown jewel of Reed’s discography and an example of masterfully crafted storytelling through song. The plot and music are so rich in emotion and tragedy that it can easily be converted into a theatrical production.

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Mia Euceda
Mia Euceda, Arts & Culture Editor
Mia Euceda is the Arts and Culture Editor of The Ticker.
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