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But she's not afraid to die

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Tonight I bought a song I haven’t listened to in the better part of 35 years: “Caroline Says II” from Lou Reed’s 1973 album “Berlin.”

“Berlin” is a record you listen to at 3:30 in the morning after you’ve been drinking all night after your boyfriend/girlfriend/lover/soul mate dumped you, and you feel awful—but not awful enough yet. You need to punish yourself, to reach bottom, where you can wallow in the cruelty of it all. “Berlin” is music to wallow by. Writing for Creem magazine, Lester Bangs called it “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made.” Writing in Rolling Stone, Stephen Davis said the album “tak[es] 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.”

Naturally, I loved it.

The musicians Reed recruited to record the album were some of the best: Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Aynsley Dunbar, Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, to name a few. In fact, those five guys would make one hell of a band. And the music sounds so plausible because Reed sings like a guy who has just crawled across the living room after waking up after passing out after an all-night bender, dragged himself into the bathroom and is getting ready to slit his wrists. Either that or he doesn’t give a rip about anything at all.

“Caroline Says II” is a song that occasionally pops up in the shuffle of my mental jukebox, which says something not only about the song but also about scar tissue in my brain that still gives me a twinge of pain every now and then. If “Berlin” is, as Bangs said, “the most depressed album ever made,” then “Caroline Says II” is right at the bottom of the bottom, right from the start:

Caroline says
as she gets up off the floor
why is it that you beat me?
It isn't any fun.

Reed’s vocals sound like they’re echoing from a room one floor down, an attempt by producer Bob Ezrin to disguise just how badly Reed is singing. If, in fact, you can call what he is doing “singing.” Bangs quotes the piano player Blue Weaver: “We went in and laid down all the instrumental tracks, the whole thing was done and sounded great. Then they brought Lou in. He can’t do it straight, he’s got to go down to the bar and then have a snort of this and that, and then they’d prop him up in a chair and let him start singing. It was supposed to be great, but something went wrong somewhere.”

Caroline says
as she gets up from the floor
you can hit me all you want to,
but I don't love you anymore.

Caroline says
while biting her lip
life is meant to be more than this
and this is a bum trip.

Those last four lines are the ones that have stuck with me all of these years. Maybe it’s because when I was listening to “Berlin” when it was still relatively new, my life (I was a junior in college) was headed toward bottom too, a “bum trip” in its own right: a spectacularly disintegrating academic life, no job, no money, a girlfriend who was beginning to realize I wasn’t the guy she wanted to earn her “Mrs.” degree with, no prospects, no talent, no hope. I recall one evening sitting in the kitchen of the house I shared with five other guys. Actually, it was one morning, about 3 a.m., and I had gone around the house and rounded up all the cigarette butts so I could shred them and roll a cigarette with the left-over tobacco. The house was dark and quiet. Everyone else was sleeping. They had classes the next day. I hadn’t been to classes in weeks. It was one of those moments that hit you in the head and heart as heavily as an unabridged dictionary. And there were no words in that dictionary to describe just how far astray I had plummeted.

But she's not afraid to die.
All her friends call her “Alaska.”
When she takes speed, they laugh and ask her
What is in her mind.
What is in her mind.

A bunch of us were sitting around the house one night listening to “Berlin,” and I joked to my girlfriend that I was going to start calling her “Alaska.” I didn’t explain, though, that I thought calling her “Alaska” was a good idea because, in an episode of uncharacteristic recklessness, she had once taken speed. (This was before I knew her.)

She didn’t make the connection. Instead, she snarled, “Oh, because I’m frigid, huh?” This was reminiscent of Bangs’ recollection of taking “Berlin” to a party, “where every new arrival wanted to hear it, so we got to listen to its entirety about twenty-five times in one night. The party ended up with a room full of total strangers making vicious verbal slashes at each other.”

I can’t tell you why I bought that song tonight. Maybe it was to look back, way back, and cut through the nostalgia filter that tends to gloss over the gloom and highlight the happiness. Maybe it was to see if the song was as powerful as I remembered. After all, it had lingered in my mind for those many years, despite the fact that every molecule in my body has probably recycled itself a dozen times since then.

I have had occasion over the past few years to question the definition of things I enjoy: art and poetry, for example. Why is it that 30 years ago I thought Jackson Pollock’s paintings were the farthest thing from art, but last year, when I stood with a Pollock painting in front of me and then turned to face a work by Willem de Kooning, my reaction was almost physical, one of delight and awe?

I can’t define “art” for anyone else. I know some things are art, but they don’t move me. Other art moves me for a moment, or for a month, and then I forget about it.

“Caroline Says II” has cast its foggy pall across my mind many times over the years. It is a hateful song in many ways, a musical car wreck that I can’t help but rubberneck, but to pretend its lyrics are merely fiction is to deny the underbelly of life. When I listened to it again tonight, for the first time in more years than I can really count or remember, it was just as I remembered it. And because of that, I remembered dark nights, cigarette butts, an angry girlfriend, and life in a slow, downward draining.

To me, then, this song is art. Awful, ugly, depressing art. As Robert Motherwell once said, “The function of the artist is to express reality as felt.” And I still feel a lot of things when I listen to “Caroline Says II.”


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 19th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
Aug. 20th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading, Jeff.
Aug. 20th, 2010 10:09 am (UTC)
I don't know the song, but I certainly feel something reading this, and I feel a lot of it. And it's good, even when it's ugly.
Aug. 20th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Holly.
Aug. 20th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
Wow is exactly the right word. A fantastic post. Wow.

...despite the fact that every molecule in my body has probably recycled itself a dozen times since then. What a great way to describe the passage of time.

Maybe it was to look back, way back, and cut through the nostalgia filter that tends to gloss over the gloom and highlight the happiness. Wow.
Aug. 20th, 2010 06:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jamie.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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