Two words that I am going to consider in relation to Lou Reed. Nihilism and agnosticism. These are not normally considered to be opposites but listening to “Revisionist History” yesterday, Malcolm Gladwell described how to distinguish between the two. An agnostic shrugs his (or her) shoulders and a nihilist raises his eyebrows. His example is the election of student representatives in a school. He says that an agnostic wouldn’t show any interest in the election of reps but a nihilist would consider the whole system so flawed that they would want to destroy the current system and change it for the better. There was an interesting example given of a school where they decided to elect the school reps by lottery. The claim was that the normal system of putting your name forward, giving speeches and promising favours for support was flawed and the best people rarely got elected. An agnostic would claim “so what”. A nihilist would look at this and say “give me a break” – this system is terrible. An agnostic shrugs his shoulders and a nihilist rolls his eyes.
Obviously, the word agnostic is normally used in reference to religious beliefs. According to Wikipedia, agnostics believe that “human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.” However, for the purposes of this distinction, an agnostic is someone who really doesn’t give a damn about anything and isn’t prepared to act to change anything.
There’s a great clip of Lou Reed being interviewed in Australia in 1974 where it’s clear that he has nothing but disdain for the whole process of press conferences. His attitude certainly goes a long way to undermine the process. An agnostic wouldn’t care and would go along with the banality, if offering very little. Lou Reed, however, in this interview, clearly ridicules the whole process and, in his own way, is trying to effect change.
One of the few journalists that Lou Reed respected was Lester Bangs with whom he regularly traded insults. In “Creem” magazine, Lester Bangs wrote “Lou Reed is a completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf – a wasted talent living off the dumb bell nihilism of a 70s generation that doesn’t have the energy to commit suicide.” Lester Bangs appears to be saying that Lou Reed was too lethargic and nihilistic to even kill himself?
Reading various articles makes it clear that the word nihilist is frequently used when describing Lou Reed’s outlook on life. It is always convenient to attach a label to a person as if that alone defines their every action. However, Lou Reed was not always destructive. Certainly his songs were sometimes destructive, sometimes lethargic and sometimes tender and loving. A random quote I found says that Lou Reed gave “a poetic rock ‘n’ roll voice for bitterness, ennui and vice, as well as for beauty, glamour, and camp.” Although most of the characters in Lou Reed’s songs are at rock bottom, they are described with warmth and humanity.
When “Berlin” first came out in 1973, it wasn’t received well. It was only a year after “Transformer” which included “Walk On The Wild Side”, “Perfect Day” and other great “pop” songs and “Berlin” was in complete contrast. This reminds me of Neil Young releasing “Time Fades Away” after “Harvest”. What happened in 1973 to make them both do this? Here is the review from “Rolling Stone” in it’s entirety.
“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.“
It’s a much better album than that but it’s not easy listening and there are no hit singles. It is a “concept” album insofar as it tells the story of two people, Caroline and Jim, describing their experience of drugs, prostitution, depression, violence and suicide. Here is an example of the lyrics from “Caroline Says 2”. “Caroline says, as she gets up off the floor, ‘Why is it that you beat me. It isn’t any fun.‘”
My favourite song on the album is “The Kids”. Not that it’s a pleasant experience listening to it but it’s the song I return to. It starts with a guitar and bass and Lou Reed singing (in the talky way that he made his own), “They’re taking her children away because they said she was not a good mother.” He sounds as sad and resigned as anyone possibly could. The bass guitar is especially brilliant. It is played by Tony Levin who later went on to play with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. (Jack Bruce played bass on the rest of the album but not this song). After a couple of minutes, the drums (by B.J. Wilson of Procol Harum) kick in. Lou Reed sings “And I am the water boy, the real game’s not over here” – it is claimed on Wikipedia that Mike Scott took the name for his band, The Waterboys, from this line. As Caroline’s terrible story unfolds, a slide guitar adds a sense of horror. “That miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn, anyone away.” An apocryphal story was widely circulated at the time about the end of the song. The last few minutes make for very uncomfortable listening as two children are heard crying and screaming for their mother. It was claimed that the producer, Bob Ezrin, told his children that their mother was dead and recorded their reaction. This has been denied and the hopefully true version of the story was included in the sleevenotes to “Between Thought And Expression” (a box set released in 1992). “According to Ezrin, the story is that he went home and told his seven-year-old son David that he was doing a play in the studio and he needed some kids’ voices to sound scared because their mom was being taken away. The first few attempts didn’t sound terrifying enough but on a third, unprompted, his two-year-old joined in and just started screaming. The two children screamed so loud that they distorted the tape.” At the end, all the instrumentation except the guitar stops and Lou Reed sings “Since she lost her daughter, it’s her eyes that fill with water and I am much happier that way“. Jim appears to like to see Caroline in pain as it reduces his own. Lou Reed’s delivery is astounding.
However, Jim is not ready for what happens next. In the song that follows, “The Bed” describes Caroline’s suicide. “And this is the place where she cut her wrists that odd and fateful night and I said oh what a feeling.” It’s easy to feel that Lou Reed is entirely dispassionate and numb when “singing” this song but I prefer to interpret his style as ineffably sad, dejected and remorseful. It’s one of those recordings where the singer must have been very close to the microphone because although he is singing quietly, it’s as if he’s in the room with the listener.
Do I shrug my shoulders or roll my eyes? I hope I’m more of an eye roller than a shoulder shrugger but after listening to this album I’m a smiler. Immersing myself in such bleak darkness always helps me to dissipate any of my own negativity.