Lou Reed who died last week.
How so? Without the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed there would be no New York punk deriving from the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and Television. Therefore no exportation to the white British Working Class of this art school generated sound. Vis no Sex Pistols, Joy Division or the Clash. Moving it on you have the Smiths, Springsteen, REM, the Stone Roses and then Nirvana and Radiohead following into the Libertines and the bands inspired by them.
The Beatles and U2, although mighty and deservedly massive sellers, really just reflected and stylised what was going on in music at the time, whereas Reed was genuinely innovative and what he produced spawned countless other artists, the old cliché being that the Velvet Underground album shifted only 12,000 or so copies at the time, but each person went on to form a band.
Our Sixth Form was universally mainstream as far as music went, the most experimental we got was Bob Dylan and you would have attracted derision for anything more offbeat.
It was only at University and coming into contact with Belfast Grammar School boys who had smoked pot, and listened to more ethereal music such as Lou Reed, Nick Drake and early Pink Floyd that I became exposed to stuff out of the conventional 18 year old standards.
Mike Fisher (fellow Militant Tendency activist, now a Uni lecturer in Oz) played me Transformer and the Velvet’s album, which I got. Eventually.
If Transformer was Reed’s most popular record, then I would opinion that Berlin was his most important.
To say this is a “difficult” record is like saying Lou Reed himself is a complex character, i.e. a statement of the bleedin obvious as we join young woman taking a painful journey into her past and discovering the darkest sides to humanity via drugs, sex work and losing her kids
It really is an album suited to what Carl Jung describes as the “second adolescence”, when we have had our kids and are realistically very much embarking on second part of our lives where hopefully we are more reflective, mature, tolerant and have a greater understanding of the more existential stuff. Why we are here, what we hope to achieve for ourselves and more importantly for our fellow travellers in this life.
Thus at 19 I had no clue as to what this record was trying to say, perhaps because I was blinded by what I considered to be certainties, self evident truths, those of Socialism and Reason which were discussed long into the night over endless cups of coffee, beer and fags.
This sort of academic, University based introversion is crucial in personal development as you test your beliefs and values in an environment where if you make mistakes it doesn’t really matter and I truly reckon that I came out the other end a person who was ready to get down and dirty in the so called real world from a position of having mulled over some important issues to do with meaning and purpose.
As a result my core values and belief systems (that we do stuff much better together than on our own) were put in place and then I had to figure out how to make that work for the betterment of Society through my teaching career and the Labour Party. The “real” world if you like. Pragmatism. Putting these values into action in a modern context.
My Father in Law played a huge part in this. He was very interested in my job and what we were trying to do in the Labour Party and his emphasis on getting the relationships right in tandem the political theory was totally spot on.
We argued like mad about the philosophical direction of the Left, and I couldn’t get my head around why he voted for Blair in the 1994 Leadership election but Tony Benn’s idea of Principles Without Power Are Futile was his mantra.
That’s why the dawn of 2nd May 1997 meant so much to us…
The point is that Berlin is the perfect exposition of the visceral, horrible and brutal side of the unfettered, misogynistic and hate filled economic system that is Capitalism.
Caroline’s miserable life and experiences put me in mind of Ken Loach’s films put to music, especially Cathy Come Home and 2006’s C4 masterpiece It’s a Free World where we see just what men are capable of and how Society is completely run against the interests of women.
But it’s the acceptance of her lot that is the most depressing but resonant truth of this record. Losing the will to fight. It only happened to me twice. Once on Donny Station in July 1987 and again during the worst ravages of my treatment in December last year. It’s indescribable. Horrible in retrospect, it the realisation on the way back that’s the killer feeling as, at the time you actually feel quite calm and almost elated. “The Bed” from this record best articulates this.
If you want to understand the hidden truths of our world, and maybe find something out about yourself in the meantime then buy this record.
Rich and I saw Reed perform this record at Nottingham Royal Court in 2008 and the resulting film released in the cinema in 2009 is a good representation of the experience, particularly as there are no audience shots. Rock crowds are ugly, overwhelmingly male, and sad. We don’t need to see ourselves ta very much.