Dave’s Underrated Albums … “Berlin” (1973) by Lou Reed

After years of artistic success and commercial failure, Lou Reed finally hit the commercial zeitgeist with his 1972 album “Transformer” and his controversial, but very popular song “Walk on the Wild Side.”  Given this berth, an artist can do many things.  The two most common are: going even more commercial to maximize the success they just achieved … or … using this commercial breathing room to make the artistic statement they always wanted to make, but couldn’t because it’s too “negative” or “disturbing.”  I think you can guess what Reed did.

“Berlin” is, undoubtedly, the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded.  It’s a nearly 50-minute song cycle chronicling the failed relationship between a man and a woman who suffers from severe mental illness and drug addiction.   Produced by Bob Ezrin (who hit commercial pay dirt in the early 1970s with most of Alice Cooper’s biggest commercial successes, KISS’s 1976 “Destroyer” album, and Pink Floyd’s monumental commercial blockbuster “The Wall” in 1979) “Berlin” is the ultimate musical statement about self-loathing, substance abuse, and mental illness.  It makes Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” seem like the Spice Girls.  “Berlin” is a monumentally negative statement about humanity, summed up in the lyrics of the last song “Sad Song”:

“Staring at my picture book
She looks like Mary, Queen of Scots
She seemed very regal to me
Just goes to show how WRONG you can be
I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time
Somebody else would have broken both of her arms”

Holy s–t! is the only statement I can muster at the summation of this album.  And weirdly enough, the two songs preceding this horrendously negative finale are seriously way more despairing.  “The Kids” chronicles about how the female protagonist’s kids were taken away due to her drug use and promiscuity, climaxing in the sounds of actual young children screaming “MOMMY!” in anguished voices during the last two minutes.  The next song, “The Bed” is about the female protagonist’s suicide.  The lyrics are not sensationalistic, but the simplistic acoustic guitar and plain singing make the lyrics more horrific:

“This is the place where she lay her head
When she went to bed at night
And this is the place our children were conceived
Candles lit the room at night
And this is the place where she cut her wrists
That odd and fateful night”

As I said earlier, this is the most horrendously depressing album ever recorded.  However, it’s a damn good one.  And it’s a lot better than many people gave it credit for at the time.  In subsequent years, Rolling Stone magazine included it in its list of “Best 500 Albums of All-Time” … despite the fact that rock writer Stephen Davis, when reviewing the album for Rolling Stone in 1973, called “Berlin”:

“Lou Reed’s Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide. There are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them. Reed’s only excuse for this kind of performance (which isn’t really performed as much as spoken and shouted over Bob Ezrin’s limp production) can only be that this was his last shot at a once-promising career. Goodbye, Lou.”

Whatever.

The ultimate vindication for Reed, in my opinion, was when Oscar-nominated director Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Before Night Falls,” and my personal favorite “Baquiat”) directed a beautiful feature-length concert film of Reed performing this album in its entirety in 2008, simply called “Lou Reed’s Berlin.”  It’s one of the best concert films of all-time and I can’t think of a better series of songs to deserve this treatment.

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“Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” – Tom Waits

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It’s hard to pick what the best Tom Waits song of all time is. However, “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the greatest in my opinion. A beautiful and sad variation on the Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda,” “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is about the ravages of alcoholism. According to Bones Howe, Waits’ producer, the inspiration for the song came from a time when Waits “went down and hung around on skid row in L.A. because he wanted to get stimulated for writing this material. He called me up and said, ‘I went down to skid row … I bought a pint of rye. In a brown paper bag.’ I said, ‘Oh really?.’ ‘Yeah – hunkered down, drank the pint of rye, went home, threw up, and wrote ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ […] every guy down there… everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there.”

According to Waits, he used the melody from “Waltzing Matilda” because “”when you’re ‘waltzing matilda’, you’re on the road. You’re not with your girlfriend, you’re on the bum. For me, I was in Europe for the first time, and I felt like a soldier far away from home and drunk on the corner with no money, lost.”

The song was used brilliantly in the film “Basquiat” when Jean Michel-Basquiat learns that his mentor Andy Warhol has passed away.

“Basquiat” (1996) dir. Julian Schnabel

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One of the best films about an artist’s life I’ve ever seen, as well as being one of the coolest films I’ve ever seen about any subject, “Basquiat” is a biopic chronicling the fast times and short life of legendary 1980s postmodernist/neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat created some brilliant (and highly commercial) art and also ran with a lot of famous people (Andy Warhol, Madonna, Keith Haring) back in the day. However, personal demons and drug abuse wound up getting the better of him and Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988.

Jeffrey Wright does a terrific job in the lead role as Basquiat and leads an all-star cast that includes David Bowie as Andy Warhol, Gary Oldman playing a character based on director/artist Julian Schnabel, Michael Wincott as critic Rene Ricard, Dennis Hopper as art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, and Christopher Walken, Courtney Love, Claire Forlani, Benicio Del Toro, Tatum O’Neal in supporting roles.

“Basquiat” also boasts one of the coolest soundtracks of any film, featuring the Pogues, Public Image Ltd., Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Charlie Parker, Melle Mel, the Modern Lovers, and Peggy Lee among others.

This was director Julian Schnabel’s directorial debut, a career that has led to great films such as “Before Night Falls,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and “Lou Reed’s Berlin.”