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VINIL Universal Records Lou Reed - Berlin

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Prezentare generala VINIL Universal Records Lou Reed - Berlin

In an extract from his new biography, rock writer Anthony DeCurtis reflects on the icon he knew personally and delves into the making of his 1973 solo album Berlin :


“That was the bad move,” Lou Reed said jokingly, decades later, about following Transformer with Berlin. “That’s one of those career-ending moments. They said, ‘You want to do what?’”

Lou and [producer] Bob Ezrin decided that Reed should write a suite of musically and thematically connected songs based on the disintegrating marriage of the two characters in Berlin. That Reed’s own marriage to Bettye Kronstad was falling apart would only lend the project additional force. It would be something like a film in song form, a “film for the ear”, as RCA’s movie-style promotional posters for the album described it, or a “movie without pictures”, in Ezrin’s terms. Those literary and cinematic strategies also served to distance Reed from the visceral power of the material he was drawing on. “Berlin was real close to home,” he would say later.

Brian Eno News on Twitter: "Lou Reed, 1972 #TheVelvetUnderground ...

“People would say, ‘Lou, is that autobiographical?’… Jesus. Autobiographical?

If only they knew!”

The working notion was for Berlin to be a double album, complete with an elaborate booklet filled with lyrics, accompanying text, and photographs illustrating the record’s grim story. Setting aside the darkness of Berlin’s narrative, record companies shiver whenever the notions of double albums and elaborate booklets are mentioned. They are expensive to produce, and therefore the album needs to be priced higher, which tends to diminish sales. Reed had only just established himself as a commercial artist, so this expansive concept for Berlin was by no means an easy sell to his label.

 The album is tough going for even the most objective listener. For Lou's wife Bettye Kronstad, it was devastating

Besides that, according to Kronstad, conceiving what the album should be turned out to be much easier than writing it.

“Lou had become abusive on our last US tour, when I got him on to the stage as clean as I could… He gave me a black eye the second time he hit me,” Kronstad wrote. “Then I gave him a black eye, too, and that stopped him from using his fists. Everybody knew he was abusive – abusive with his drinking, his drugs, his emotions – with me. He was incredibly self-destructive then.”

The problem Reed had finishing the songs for the album, she sarcastically explained, “might have had something to do with all the fucking drugs and drinking he was doing. With Lou, people that he love become part of him, so I got to be part of that incredible self-destructiveness.”

Things had gotten so bad that Kronstad flew to Santo Domingo to get a 24-hour divorce from Reed. The legal standing of such a divorce is complicated, but Kronstad’s action is more significant as an indication of how desperate she had become in her marriage.

She was frightened and she wanted out. Kronstad remained in their apartment, on which she held the lease, and Reed moved out.

“I don’t know where,” she said. Then, one night, Reed called her from a local restaurant that had been one of their favourites, the Duck Joint, on First Avenue between 73rd and 74th Streets. “He was, like, ‘Can you meet me here?’” Kronstad said. “I was in a pretty good mood because I’d basically gotten my name back and I was no longer legally attached to him. So I went. He was there with two other people; I don’t remember who they were. They were having a wonderful time, and he was so positive… He said, ‘I’ve stopped. I’ve quit it. I won’t do that stuff. I’ll play it straight. We can do this. I need you. Can I just come over and talk about it?’” Kronstad let herself believe him. “I had invested a great deal of my life in him, so I guess there was a part of me that wanted to be convinced.”

But even when Reed finally did complete writing the album’s 10 songs, things didn’t get easier. “I remember the morning I woke up and found him in the living room next to a mostly consumed bottle of Johnnie Walker Red,” she wrote. “It was 8.30 in the morning and I became upset. His drinking didn’t usually begin until at least the afternoon.” Reed explained that he had completed writing the album. He handed her his notebook with the lyrics in it, picked up a guitar, and sang the songs he had written.

The songs on Berlin trace the disintegration of a couple, Caroline and Jim, through infidelity, violence, and suicide. Caroline is portrayed as unfaithful and promiscuous; Jim swings from yearning for her to icy contempt and malevolence. He beats her and, in the song The Bed, describes her cutting her wrists and her subsequent death with a truly eerie detachment. The album is tough going for even the most aesthetically objective listener. For Kronstad, listening to it was a devastating experience. Scenes from her marriage and other details of her personal life are woven into the songs. Even when treated as composites or fictionalised in other ways, they were clearly identifiable to her and hit with intense force. It’s hard to imagine why Reed would have chosen to play her those songs without any explanation, and even harder to fathom how he expected her to respond.

Kronstad’s mother, who had been living in Queens, had recently died. At five years old, Kronstad had been taken from the woman, who had left Kronstad’s father when the girl was three. Reed adapted that story and wildly elaborated on it for his Berlin song The Kids. Kronstad had attempted to reconcile with her mother at various points over the years, never completely successfully, so hearing a character based on her mother essentially described as a bisexual whore and drug addict in a song written by her husband was quite a blow.

“The other thing,” she added, “is that he was actually writing a lot about what was happening in our relationship. That’s what writers do. But who wants their marriage, as it’s falling apart, to be put on an album for the entire world to hear? Or who wants the couple of times that he fucking socked me— who wants that? But there it was.”

Kronstad understood, of course, that Berlin was not exclusively about her marriage. Talking about the character of Caroline, she noted, “I think Nico is in there. Lou did know her and she was German… someone once said that the woman in Berlin is a combination of all the women in Lou’s life, and I think to a certain extent that’s true.”

Despite being hurt, Kronstad remained determined to see her husband through the recording of the album, which was primarily done at Morgan Studios in London.

At the time that he wrote the title song and even when he started work on the album, Reed had never been to Berlin. “I love the idea of a divided city,” he later explained, joking that the album could just as easily have been titled Brooklyn, tellingly the place of his birth. “It was purely metaphorical.”

Berlin was released in July of 1973, just eight months after Transformer. A week before the final version of the album was due to be turned in (Reed was on vacation in Portugal at the time), RCA told Ezrin that it would not accept a double album. The album was nearly an hour long, and at the time, artists were encouraged to keep each side of a vinyl LP at 18-20 minutes in order to ensure sound quality. To preserve the conceptual integrity of Berlin, Ezrin did not want to remove any of the album’s songs.

Consequently, he explained, “I dropped 14 minutes of endings, solos, interstitial material, digressions inside songs.” Still, the album was nearly 50 minutes long, but Ezrin was not available to oversee the final mastering of Berlin. He was in the hospital. “It was a heroin rebound,” he admitted. “I would rather have had a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know what heroin was till I went to England on this gig… we were all seriously ill. It took me a long time to get on my feet. I paid a heavy price. It put me out of commission for quite a while.”

Berlin took its toll on Reed as well. “Lou doesn’t want to talk about it much,” Ezrin said about the album not long after it came out. “He didn’t even want to listen to the album. Every time he listens to the album it gets to him. I mean, I can see tears coming into his eyes and everything.” Reed himself said, “I think I’ve gone as deep as I want to go for my own mental health. If I got any deeper I’d wind up disappearing.”

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