“I’m a street-walkin’ cheetah with a heart full of napalm.
I’m the runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb.
I am the world’s forgotten boy.” –Iggy Pop
Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure
Lou Reed, Berlin
[Failure: how can this be constructed not as a binary success/failure, but as a multi-axis graph, so we may learn to fail better? How do social, economic and political moments effect Youth Culture, and how are these interpreted through Youth Culture? If punk is about tearing down, what remains when all is torn down? What rhetorical voice does each lyricist use? I argue these questions can be answered through a close reading of the best albums in the punk project and the following punk tradition. Of their lyrics, song titles and album titles, mixed with analysis of 21st cultural theory and a few additional 20th century texts.]
Far more lyrically complex is Lou Reed’s third solo album, 1973’s Berlin. It begins with monotonous counting in German over lounge piano playing, piano which continues despite the off-key Happy Birthday song suddenly introduced. Without saying a word, Reed has given us a portrait of an American growing up in Germany. The first lyrics confirm this: “In Berlin, by the wall, you were five-foot ten inches tall.” This you is immediately placed in sexualized space– if a woman, 5’10” is tall and constructed by white-males as classically beautiful– but also in public space, by the Berlin wall. These lyrics appear on the album cover, along with two photos of Lou Reed– one frontal with a guitar, in the center, one profile, to the album-left, staring at a female figure with bob hair-do, album-right. This establishes the dynamic between Reed as narrator and character– a problematized and especially Post-Modern interplay between creator fearing failure and critical reception, and the artwork itself, effected and limited by these doubts.
Lady Day introduces this female character, later dubbed, Caroline. She is a figure of failure, a prostitute in post-war Berlin, drug addicted, slumming and raising a daughter in a decrepit hotel– a intriguing capturing of youth culture in the early 1970’s. But, music is a redeeming force in Caroline’s life, and an existential and definitive moment occurs. She sings in the bar, and there is applause.
Men of Good Fortune raises issues of failure and economic rich/poor binaries of success/failure: “Men of good fortune often cause empires to fall, while men of poor beginnings often can’t do anything at all… Men of good fortune often can’t do a thing, while men of poor beginning often can do anything.” The issue here is that the privileged rich who rule the corporations and governments sometimes cannot function without help; while underprivileged classes have a drive for success, and a greater capacity to endure. But for Reed? “Me, I just don’t care at all.”
Caroline Says pt. I is a sophisticated development of Caroline’s psychology through her relationship wants. “She doesn’t want a man who leans,” can be interpreted variously as, a man who does drugs like her, or a man of good fortune from the previous song, but is certainly directed to the character of Reed. How do you Think it Feels opens a knotty problem within the texts of musical lyricism which I call the Fallacy of Rhyme. When Reed sings so emphatically, “how do you think it feels to always make love by proxy,” how can that be interpreted literally? What does that actually mean? How does one make love to someone on behalf of someone else. Though clearly meant to address the emotional life of a prostitute, Reed is just rhyming, there is no meaning in that would-be-profundity; at least, with Reed, it sounds clever and different.
The story continues through Oh, Jim and Caroline Says pt. II, developing the character as a beaten woman. Her frustration mounts until, “She puts her fist through the window pane,” followed by a tinkling piano refrain. The climax of the piece centers around the Kids, in which, “They’re taking her children away because they said she was not a good mother… because number one was the girlfriend from Paris, the things that they did– huh– you didn’t have to ask us… because of the things she did in the streets, in the alleys and bars, no, she couldn’t be beat, that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn anyone away.” This opens the character toward a queer relationship. It also introduces a recurring trope of the punk tradition: the exterior and empowered They, a force of institutional or governmental conformity and control– as the punk project develops, this They becomes a target for rebellion and protest, and a potential location for rhetorical voice.
But in Reed’s work, there is only nihilism and rejection of futurity. “I am the water boy. The real games not over here.” He is again playing with the idea of creator and character. This is no trope of modesty, he seems sincerely concerned about the quality of his masterpiece. But it raises the question, where is the real game? On the streets. For Reed, music and art can only hydrate for the game of reality. His rhetorical voice is similar to his message, “I just don’t care at all.” Lou Reed doesn’t even care about not caring.