Perhaps everyone is familiar with the saying, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Well, along those same lines, Lou Reed’s Street Hassle might be seen as an attempt to make an album that succeeds by going about everything in the wrong way. The album is an amalgam of live and studio recordings. Reed and his band quote old songs, they use a muddy-sounding (and soon obsolete) recording technology, and seem to be against audience expectations. Reed’s lyrics are also dumb, guttural, defiant, and contrarian. Far from being a liability, this is why the album works! In fact, it might even be possible to say that songs like “Dirt” helped lay the foundation for the sludge rock of the 1980s — especially Flipper (who used a saxophone similarly on their quasi-hit “Sex Bomb”). The first side of the album is great, with the title track being one of the very finest moments of Reed’s entire career, and the second side is fairly good too.
Continuing Lou Reed’s constant effort to describe struggles for transcendence, he delivers a very average album here. Quite universally panned by critics on release, most have since corrected their underestimation of Berlin, some going too far in the other direction to call this some kind of masterpiece. It’s not his best work, but it’s not his worst either.
Combining brash decadence with bleak misery, Reed crafts an unlikely album. On the surface is over-the-top arena rock and maudlin prog rock. Fueling the fire are Reed’s brilliant songs. Coming off the surprise success of Transformer (an excellent but misunderstood album) Lou Reed had the support to assemble quite a studio band including Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, and the Brecker brothers.
Berlin tells an ongoing story. It is a concept album. The storyline is very easy to follow. Caroline is the main character. Out of the depths of Berlin nightlife (“Berlin” is Reed’s Barbara Streisand song) she falls in love with Jim. “Men of Good Fortune” contemplates the possibilities of the rich and the poor. Reed finds the glory in both without passing judgment. “How Do You Think It Feels” blasts an indignant reply to the first part of the album. After the odd novelty wears off, Caroline and Jim’s relationship burns out. Jim abuses Caroline and leaves her with the children. In her desperate struggle to cope, she sinks deep into a world of drugs (notably amphetamines). The state takes her children, “The Kids,” as society mocks her existence. Reed fades to Caroline’s suicide on ”The Bed.” “Sad Song” is the climax. Jim never fully grasped the situation. Was Caroline’s life for nothing?
The most singularly amazing aspect of Berlin is how Lou Reed turns unreleased Velvet Underground songs (at least, unreleased on proper studio albums) into the bulk of this entirely new story. “Stephanie Says” (a great Velvet Underground song, likely never released because of John Cale’s abrupt severance from the group) became “Caroline Says II.” “Oh, Gin” formed a good part of “Oh, Jim.” It takes remarkable skill to re-work these songs into an ongoing storyline.
These songs stand alone well, but make something more in the context of the ongoing story. I like to think Berlin turned out exactly as Reed planned, but critics wanted nothing of Reed’s designs. The production does seem out of place, exactly as the characters do. Rather than a hindrance, incorporating songwriting, production, and all aspects of the album into it’s story is remarkable. Few dare like Lou Reed.
This album broke Reed free from his glam-rock period. He now stood alone as the solo artist he always wanted to be. He was not understood yet, but the beauty of Lou Reed is his persistence. His attitude has ruined many possibly great works but it also helped plow ahead with something like this. This record reveals subtle beauty masked with blunt rock and roll. It does find success more than seems apparent at first. But it still sounds kind of shitty in many ways.
[For what it’s worth, Berlin: Live at St Ann’s Warehouse is slightly better, mostly because it ends with three songs not from Berlin.]
Here’s my recollection of a conversation with my wife listening to this.
Wife: “No, this is all wrong. It’s like they stitched together two things that don’t belong together at all.”
Me: “I think it’s alright.”
Wife: “You don’t know metal at all.”
Me: “Who said this was supposed to be metal?”
Wife: “He [Lou Reed] can’t sing at all! They should have told him they were recording, but, you know, not recorded him and then put in different [Hetfield] vocals.”
So, if you approach this as a Metallica fan, knowing little or nothing about what Lou Reed albums tend to sound like, chances are you will hate this. If you like Lou Reed, then you might find this not exactly his best, but a fairly typical middling offering. The pairing with Metallica works for me. They play pretty generic thrash-lite riffing, but it’s a change of pace for a Reed album. Pretty okay.
One of Reed’s best-known albums. And really it is one of his finest. But you know, I think some of the “standout” tracks on this album I find the least interesting. It’s the “filler” like “Hangin’ ‘Round” and “Goodnight Ladies” that makes this one interesting to me. One of my favorite Lou Reed lines is from “Hangin’ ‘Round”: you’re still doing things that I gave up years ago.
The way Reed recorded The Bells (with a quickly defunct technology) definitely sounds like something from the 1970s. It sounds like it has an inbred echo. Hearing it feels a bit like sonic vertigo, if vertigo was a pleasant feeling. The album does open itself up, though, after you get a sense of it.
“I Want to Boogie with You” has the old time sentimentality of Springsteen but more depth. Reed recants stories of family life. He doesn’t feel compelled to make it a pretty picture though. The dysfunctional “Stupid Man” or the vaguely autobiographical “Families” mark the arrival of a changed songwriter. On “Families,” he shakily cries “momma” as Lou Reed brings his struggles for transcendence to new contexts. He still had a passion of old fashion rock and roll, but was tackling that with a renewed energy. This makes up-tempo rockers like “With You” a natural environment for Reed, as well as for his band that previously backed Alice Cooper.
Reed’s lyrics over the years changed contexts but always retained core themes. His music, however, varied widely. The Bells teams Reed with the legendary Don Cherry, who co-wrote “All Through the Night.” Cherry is quite effective playing with a Harmon mute on “City Lights,” a tribute to Charlie Chaplin. The irrepressibly charming trumpet toots recall so well Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The lyrics, “Don’t these city lights/ bring us together?” are very worthy of being called Chaplinesque. The improvisational closer, “The Bells,” wants to be wrong, to fail, but Cherry turns out a baffling, lingering success of a song in just a few notes. Cherry always did play well in a rock context, as was certainly clear a few years later playing with his stepdaughter Neneh for Rip, Rig & Panic.
“Disco Mystic” with only two words worth of lyrics is sharp commentary on the vacuousness of the genre, even if disco commentary (good or bad) is of marginal interest. Fortunately, the plain groove of the song will never fade away.
The Bells is dense in sound and content. The whole thing is legitimate. It’s ambitious. Despite years of writing, recording, and performing Lou Reed still uncovers a wealth of inspiration. The album jacket too, with Reed gazing away from his reflection in a mirror, is a fine indication what might be his least indulgent work.
Well, Lou Reed’s career has covered as much territory as anyone else’s in rock. The Blue Mask renewed his critical cachet in the early 1980s. Frankly, it is executed flawlessly. Robert Quine adds some scorching guitar to bolster Reed’s occasionally humdrum fretwork. Let’s face it, Reed was always a risk taker on guitar, but he was hardly ever more proficient than a thoroughly average rhythm guitarist, sort of rock’s equivalent to baseball’s utility infielder. But Quine was willing and able to deliver plenty of explosive guitar excursions, as best summed up by the unrelenting, jaw-dropping abstraction of his solo that concludes “Waves of Fear”.
So if there are complaints to be heard bout The Blue Mask, they have to be about the concept. And what of the concept? Basically Reed takes up the challenge he more tentatively presented on earlier works of making a middle-aged rock album. Conventional wisdom is that rock and roll is a young person’s game. The Rolling Stones touched on the issue with Jagger’s “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll,” which reviewer BradL describes as “a song about the relationship between the musician and his audience, and the inevitable gap that arises as he gets older and his audience stays young[.]” Well, truthfully, that’s just one possibility. The “other path” is for the aging rocker to change, and essentially leave behind “rock” per se in favor of more of a sophisticated pop sound, to wit Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and others. But Reed’s version of middle-aged rock will have nothing of the latter. This is rock. His lyrics are about domestic life and ordinary concerns of life in Western Civilization. But those lyrics are as much about contentment as fear, uncertainty, and disturbing undercurrents running through everything else.
Lou Reed is certainly writing about what he knows. The casual autobiographical style of so much of this album attests to that, like his expressed adoration for his writing, his motorcycle and his wife on “My House,” his supposed worries about crime waves in the streets on “Average Guy,” and the emotional outpouring for then-wife Sylvia on “Heavenly Arms.” But honesty and the act of conveying something that the artist knows are not enough, else any self-indulgent claptrap would pass for something special. It doesn’t, unless it touches on something elemental and grand, something lasting and universal. It is there that almost all argument with this album lies. Something serious and lasting is here, if you are willing to accept it. The psychiatrist C.G. Jung postulated “individuation” as the process of maturing to where a person is conscious of both the personal and collective unconscious. In a practical sense individuation is about accepting and resolving supposed contradictions, and about assimilating opposite characteristics. Jung’s genius provides the key to this album really. But because individuation rarely starts before you are in your thirties, if it ever starts at all, it is no wonder that the standards of youthful rock and roll hardly seem to apply to something unmistakably middle-aged.
If you reject what you just read, you still probably fall into the camp where you can appreciate some of the harder stuff here like “The Gun,” “The Blue Mask,” and “Waves of Fear” just for its drive. But to really get behind this whole motherfucker, it takes some kind of appreciation for the notion that purely adult themes have a place in rock and roll. Not everybody will agree with that premise, but The Blue Mask is one of the better arguments for it.