The Song Lou Reed Refused to Give Up On
In 1973, Lou Reed was interested in the future. He had released his debut solo album the previous year and had no plans to let his previous band, the Velvet Underground, define his entire career. But he also had no problem looking back.
"We're writing these songs and a character appears in a song and then disappears forever," he explained in 2007. "And we’d thought, 'Why does he or she disappear forever? Why can’t they reappear in the next song or the song after?'"
There was one song from Reed's 1972 solo debut that warranted another pass: "Berlin." The song was about lovers in the German capital who drank Dubonnet wine on ice by candlelight near the Berlin Wall: "It was very nice / It was paradise."
"I never actually drank Dubonnet," Reed admitted in 2007. "And I hadn't been to Berlin when I wrote it."
Listen to Lou Reed's 1972 Version of 'Berlin'
That didn't matter then, and it didn't matter much in 1973 when Reed decided to record the song again for his third album, which was titled after the track. This time around, the entire album focused on the couple, drug addicts Jim and Caroline. "I have no idea," Reed said in 2004 when asked where he got the idea. "It was just getting together with [producer, Bob] Ezrin, we wanted to do what we were calling a movie for the mind, and it grew out of that idea."
The city of Berlin turned out to be a perfect metaphor for Jim and Caroline's duality. "It was simply that Berlin was a divided city, and it was cosmopolitan and a very sophisticated city," Reed noted. "It was the home of German film noir and expressionism. And I wanted this to be the city in which this little plot takes place, and it was emblematic that it was a divided city."
Reed was quite frank about his drug use during this period. "I take drugs just because in the 20th century in a technological age living in the city there are certain drugs you have to take just to keep yourself normal like a caveman," he told Let It Rock in 1973 [via The Guardian]. "Just to bring yourself up or down, but to attain equilibrium you need to take certain drugs. They don't getcha high even, they just getcha normal."
In revisiting "Berlin," Reed found an opportunity to examine his work with fresh eyes — a daunting but deserving task.
"What I was concerned with was, you know, I really loved it then. How would I feel going back with the writing hold up?" he said in 2007. "I was a little worried that maybe it's too melodramatic. Maybe the language isn't as good as I thought. Maybe I really could have done it better. Maybe I could really do it better if I started all over again. But, it was OK."
The 1973 version of "Berlin" wound up shorter and considerably more somber than the earlier version and served as the perfect lead track to the tragic tale at the center of Berlin.
In 2007, Reed was asked if the locals were disappointed when he finally performed the album in its entirety in Berlin. "They were," he replied. "But I was thrilled."
Listen to Lou Reed's 1973 Version of 'Berlin'