Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

Lou Reed


A one-time Andy Warhol mentee, Lou Reed had a tough act to follow– his “Transformer” album of 1972 had broken him out into popular success, and its lead single, “Walk on the Wild Side”, was in the top twenty on the charts for both the US and the UK.  But Reed and David Bowie– who produced the “Transformer” album– fell out, and fell out hard. Reed needed a fresh direction for his new found stardom.  So for the follow-up album, “Berlin”, Reed junks the glam rock super hits and heads back to the moody, weird music of his 1960s group the Velvet Underground, the group so greatly championed by Warhol.  Yet for its lyrical content, “Berlin” remains on that wild side, that wild side of hustlers, derelicts, junkies and prostitutes.  

Over heartbroken piano tickling, the first words on “Berlin” count to four in German, followed by the American song “Happy Birthday To You” in English.  30 seconds into the work, and Reed has developed a rounded character– an American growing up in Germany.  As Reed himself begins to sing, his first two lines establish that the Berlin of the album title is Cold War era, “by the Wall”.  We have a setting and a time period.  And this character– still nameless, still genderless– is “five foot ten inches tall”.  Since the very next song does genderize this still nameless character as a lady, 5’10” would be quite tall.  Add to it that the cover image depicts a tall, slender, normatively pretty woman, and here is our American-German character, soon to be named Caroline.

Most intriguingly, the image on the album cover is almost minimized on the front sleeve, with the monochrome photograph harshly cropped, shrunken, and surrounded by swirling neutral tones.  And, importantly, the album cover of “Berlin” features the full lyrics to the eponymous first track printed directly below the image, almost more prominently featured than the image is.  He’s up to something, isn’t he.  What do these authorial artistic decisions imply?

Lou Reed is demanding that we focus our listening on his words.

So, question. Which side of the Iron Curtain delineated by the Berlin Wall is our character situated in?– the communist Eastern Bloc, or the more democratic Western Europe?  With a single line, “candlelight and Dubonnet on ice”, Reed tells us.  Not much access to fortified wines made in France in the Eastern Bloc of the 1960s.  Dang, but Lou Reed is a subtle so-and-so.

The second track is titled “Lady Day” , and yes, the main character is now genderized.  A life-defining, existential moment occurs for her immediately.  “When she passed the bar and she heard the music play, she had to go in and sing… After the applause had died down… she climbed down off the bar.”  Our Lady Day sings, and the people applaud.  This fleeting moment of triumph and beauty and recognition, painfully fleeting, is the only bright moment of “Berlin”.  That this glittering moment occurs so early in the work speaks volumes.  In the existentialist literature of the 1940s, this moment would be something for the narrative to build toward, a climax to the text.  However, when this life-defining moment arrives as swiftly as it does in “Berlin”, disappearing even more swiftly, Reed’s album has nothing but misery left for poor Lady Day.  The statement is one even bleaker than that of Camus and the majority of Sartre– after the existentialist moment that makes living worthwhile occurs, there is a whole lot of life left to suffer through.

Much like the “by the Wall” of the first song, Lady Day remains in a public space in this second song: “as she walked on down the street”.  Our setting is the Cold War West, with a great deal of liberation and freedom of movement for women– there is no reason that Lady Day should avoid public space. Perhaps she just likes to wander.  After all, her private space– “the hotel that she called home, it had greenish walls, a bathroom in the hall”– is certainly somewhere she might want to get away from often.  However, that Reed’s words– so succinct, so subtle– insistently place Lady Day in public space, on the street, he is developing her as a streetwalking prostitute.

“Men of Good Fortune” is next.  This song nonchalantly introduces another important character to the text, a narrator character, a speaker character.  The single line, “me, I just don’t care at all”, brings first person pronouns into the text.  This me, this I, is telling the story, nominally Lou Reed himself.  The rest of the song is fairly trite, lyrically– cliches of “it takes money to make money”, and statements like “men of poor beginnings often can do anything”, followed by the oxymoronic counter-statement– however, there is a purpose to the song, a reason it is included in the concept album.  With Lady Day already alluded to as a possible prostitute, a song referencing men with money appears to take us towards a libidinous encounter.

In “Caroline Says I” our American-German woman is given a name.  It is only when speaking, only when saying something, only when exerting our individual voice, that we are given a name. Dang, but Lou Reed is heavy as a so-and-so.

Mostly, what Caroline has to say involves ragging on the narrator character/ Reed, “Caroline says that I’m just a toy, she wants a man, not just a boy”, to which Reed responds, “She can’t help but be mean, or cruel… Just like poison in a vial, hey, she was very vile”.  Yes, yes– a homophone, rhyming vial with vile.  But this first time that Caroline says anything– there will be a “Caroline Says II”– does give Caroline something intriguing and elusive to say: “Caroline says moments in time can’t continue to be only mine”.  This is open literature that Reed is creating, and what the line can mean is up to the reader.  Or listener.  But really the reader.

Let’s investigate in full the next song, “How Do You Think It Feels”, with some close reading:

“How do you think it feels when you’re speeding and lonely, come here baby,“ that’s a drug reference to stimulants and uppers.  “How do you think it feels when all you can say is if only,”  a statement of regret, if only things were different. “If only I had a little, if only I had some change, come here baby.”  This statement references lack– lack of money, lack of the drug– but there is a way of obtaining these things– come here, baby could refer to a sex work act.  

Let’s take a moment to examine the syntax of these verses.  Almost the entire song is spoken to a second person pronoun, you, yet still from a first person perspective, I.  It is clearly an internal monologue, most likely the thoughts of Lady Day.  It is through this predominantly second person addressee that Caroline’s extreme isolation is depicted. If we read these lines as Caroline’s inner monologue, then she has no one she can talk to other than this rhetorical you.  We can draw from the interspersed babys that Caroline is not speaking directly to another character with her you pronouns. She is roaming the streets, pitying to herself, because no one external to her monologue can understand her suffering.  No external you knows how it feels to be in her position.

One of the most potent statements of the album comes next, “If only, if only, if only– how do you think it feels and when do you think it stops?”  Despite these insistent regrets, these ad nauseam if onlys, the heartbreak comes with “when do you think it stops?” There is seemingly no stopping this psychological state of addiction and isolation.

There is one last powerful verse in the song: “How do you think it feels when you’ve been up for five days, come down here mama.  Hunting around always, ooohhh, ’cause you’re afraid of sleeping.”  Five days is a very long time without sleep, probably edging close to cognitive damage from sleep deprivation.  Drugs are not the only reason this speaker stays up, however.  It is the moment of lying down waiting to fall asleep– an extremely intimate moment, a moment alone with one’s self, alone with one’s conscience, one’s self-doubts, one’s fears– this is what terrifies the speaker. She does not sleep in order to avoid herself.

The next verse raises a consistent problem in analyzing album lyrics as literary texts, an issue that this column must regularly address– what I call the Fallacy of Rhyme.  The verse begins, “how do you think it feels to feel like a wolf and foxy”– making clear sense, so far, the speaker is hunting like a predatory animal, just as in the previous verse.  But the next measure loses its grip on actual, concrete meaning.  “How do you think it feels to always make love by proxy.”  Reed is just rhyming here, that phrase means nothing. Making love on behalf of someone else, love by proxy, is not really what’s going on, in this instance.  Though a hooker might well be made love to in place of someone else– imagined to be someone else– the line misses the point of the objectification and depersonalization of sex workers. That is the always scenario: sex workers are made to be less than human.  Though Reed clearly tries to allude to the emotional life of a prostitute, the statement doesn’t get to what it’s trying to get at.  All that really goes on here is that by proxy rhyme with foxy— and it’s an extremely forced rhyme, at that– which becomes my point with the Fallacy of Rhyme.  Lyricists of this caliber cannot be merely rhyming– they actually have things to say, they use sophisticated literary devices, they make sense.  With a lyricist as good as Reed is, a rhyme just to rhyme sticks out in the text like an aggravated boil.

The sixth track on the album is “Oh, Jim”.  Until this point, we’ve spent most of our time with the main character, Lady Day– Caroline.  In track three, we get an I a me, the narrator, and I’ve called this character Lou Reed.  In that same song, we are introduced to some unnamed men, both of good fortune and of poor beginnings.  But in track six, we are introduced to a man with a given name, Jim.

He turns out to be not much of a man at all.

The second person perspective is taken up in the lyrics of this song, with more you pronouns– resulting in a very confusing effect.  “When you’re filled up to here with hate… beat her black and blue and get it straight”.  At this point, it seems that Jim– who has yet to truly appear in the narrative except in the song title– is the one referred to by the second person you.  There is no one-to-one narrative equals sign linking the one filled with hate to Jim, but the lyrics make more sense when we understand the you of these lines as Jim.  This textual confusion, however, is fascinatingly productive, here. The text, itself, the creation, itself, seems to be slightly beyond the author’s control. The characters have become somewhat conflated– at least their pronouns certainly have– but this kind of muddled storytelling has a very Postmodern result, much in line with a theory known as “Death of the Author”. Do not worry, no authors were harmed in the theorizing of this criticism, the theory has to do with lack of authorial intent. Released in 1973, “Berlin” is prime Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism, and the album seems driven by forces far beyond what the author intends.

Content warnings need abound before listening to the song “Oh, Jim”, though none are necessary in this article. From the standpoint of existentialist philosophy only, the darkest moment occurs in the second verse, as it takes away Caroline’s life-defining moment from the “Lady Day” song.  “All your two-bit friends, they asked you for your autograph, they put you on the stage, they thought it’d be good for a laugh.”  Suddenly, her moment of glory when she sings at the bar, and the people applaud, suddenly that moment is but another exploitation of the Caroline character.  Her no good friends forced her to sing in order to make fun of her, and the applause was contrived from the very beginning.  

Other lyrics of interest: we have a return of the first person perspective, “I don’t care just where it’s at.  I’m just like an alleycat”.  This line will soon be developed into a turning point, wherein Reed the creator of the album grapples with his Artwork.

There is a lengthy electric guitar solo in the middle of “Oh, Jim”, and then the music switches starkly to minimalist acoustic guitar– clearly differentiating the first two thirds from the last third, as well as the earlier lyrics of the song from the latter ones. Jim is finally referred to by name, and there is dramatic change in perspective.  “Oh, Jim, how could you treat me this way?”  Caroline is now the speaker.  “Now you said that you love us, but you only make love to one of us, oh, oh, oh, oh, Jim…  You know you broke my heart ever since you went away.”  This line offers a lyrical reason for the stark musical breakdown of the song, it explains the differentiation between the beginning and the end.  Jim has gone away, and his perspective has shifted back to Caroline’s, who now mourns his leaving.

But what do we make of the lyric, “you said that you love us, but you only make love to one of us”?  This could be opening the prospect of children into the scenario.  Caroline is the one Jim makes love to, the only one of us, while the initial us is first person plural, us two or us three.  A family dynamic has appeared.

In “Caroline Says II” her development as a drug addict and a woman surviving physical abuse is even more explicit. And she has quite a bit more to say, “Caroline says as she makes up her eyes, ‘You ought to learn more about yourself, think more than just I’”  As she ignores and hides her difficulties, she philosophizes about self-knowledge.  But it does not seem out of place, it is appropriate as a criticism of whomever it is that is now causing her abuse– Jim seems to be out of the picture, so she has found another abuser to take his place.  And more: “Caroline says, while biting her lip, ‘life is meant to be more than this’”.  This character has grown a great deal since “Caroline Says I”.  In that song she could only belittle other characters.  Now, she is able to pine for a better life, even though that prospect seems very far from her reality.

At the end of the song, we have another important moment in Caroline’s life.  “She put her fist through the window pane”, followed immediately by wind-chimes and a light, tinkling piano riff.  It is a moment of impotent violence– cathartic, perhaps, but accomplishing nothing– far from any sort of existential moment.  Yet the musical response to this violence marks it as a beautiful thing.  “It was such a funny feeling”, the lyrics continue.  Funny how?  Reed gives us no more.

Third to last on the album, “The Kids” provides a true low point for our Caroline character.  She has indeed become a mother, and “they are taking her children away because they said she was not a good mother… because of the things they heard she had done… 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”.  Yeah, that’s a rough one.  Bless her heart.

Reed’s character/ the narrator, however, isn’t overly distressed by Caroline’s situation.  “I am the Water Boy, the real game’s not over here.  But my heart is overflowin’ anyway.  I’m just a tired man, no words to say.  But since she lost her daughter, it’s her eyes that fill with water, and I am much happier this way.”  Reed is happier, nay, much happier, that Caroline is crying over her lost children.  This ultimately will confirm that the I character, the narrator, which I have identified with Reed, is additionally the artist figure, the creator of this work called “Berlin”, who has inserted himself into the text.

We are soon to be back in “the hotel that she called home” with the next song, “The Bed”.  “This is the place where she lay her head when she went to bed at night.  And this is the place our children were conceived… And this is the place where she cut her wrists”.  Caroline has cut her wrists– in the past tense.  She has done away with herself, then.  Poor dear.

Highly intriguingly, the kids from the previous song are now our children.  This our, since sung by Reed, indicates two things, both at the same time.  The first reading maintains the interpretation of narrator-as-character in the story of the album– these children are not fathered by Jim from track number six, but by the Reed character.  This is a knotty development, how does this our children fit into my reading of the text?  Does it fit at all?– has my interpretation now fallen completely apart?  Let’s investigate with some critical thinking.  Return with me to a line from “Oh, Jim”: “You said that you love us, but you only make love to one of us”.  The Lady Day’s children preexist the Jim character’s relationship with her– meaning that the narrator could have had a relationship with Caroline long ago, long before Jim, long before the abusers subsequent to him, perhaps even dating back to the unnamed men of good fortune or poor beginning.  It’s something confusing like that.

The second reading of the our children line relates to the work of Art that Reed and his American-German character Caroline are here creating. The progeny called “Berlin” is not only the child of Lou Reed, but also of Caroline the character. The creation creates itself as much as the creator’s intention does. Die author, die.

In the midst of “The Bed” comes some direct and forthright grappling with the Artwork that Reed has lost authorial control of.  “I never would have started if I’d known that it’d end this way.  But funny thing, I’m not at all sad that it stopped this way”.  He recognizes what I have pointed out about the characters conflating, and the pronouns getting in the way of each other, and that the creation is beyond his intentionality, so he puts that recognition into the text.  I would consider that a reclaiming of ownership over the Artwork, and a refutation of any Death of the Author theorizing.

And this recognition is a shift from Reed’s previous statements of the creator confronting the creation. There’s a lot of indifference about his Art across the text, but it is an ever evolving indifference. Recall these two passages, “I don’t care just where it’s at, I’m just like an alley cat” from “Oh, Jim”, and also “I am the Water Boy. The real game’s not over here”, from “The Kids”. At first, the indifference strays like an alley cat. The not-caring then becomes more like a sports game– somehow, I haven’t a clue what that could mean, the line doesn’t even rhyme with anything, which actually makes the weirdness way better, somehow– but the work of Art is hydrating in Reed’s mind, a magnificent image, a crisp and refreshing dram of clean, clear Art. And then, by the penultimate song of the work, he’s not at all sad at his creation, he just never would have started it.

I’ll make note of one more gorgeous lyric from “The Bed” before moving on to the big finale, “Sad Song”.  “And these are the boxes that she kept on the shelf, filled with her… poetry and stuff”.  Nothing to be said, here.  Save that beauty is real.

And so we have reached the ultimate number, “Sad Song”.  The high note at the end of “The Bed” fades out into over a minute of droning vocal harmonies, and when we do reach “Sad Song”, we are in a melancholy place, indeed.  Not for long.

With “Sad Song” we are greeted by a shimmering, flute-like keyboard melody in a major key.  Lyrically, we have a genesis for the entire album in the first verse, “Staring at my picture book, she looks like Mary, Queen of Scots.”  Lyrically, Caroline– the only she of the entire work– is now a picture in Reed’s photo album.  From the cover image, to the five-foot-ten woman, to the setting of West Berlin, we have a biographical basis to this character, at least in the lyrics.  

It’s not really a very sad song, at all– remember the line from the previous track, “I’m not at all sad that it stopped this way”.  All that is remotely sad about “Sad Song” is Lou Reed’s apparent disappointment in his work: “she seemed very regal to me.  Just goes to show how wrong you can be.  I’m gonna stop wastin’ my time”.  It’s a certain type of authorial doubt found throughout much of Postmodernism, particularly in low culture texts– scare quotes implied– a doubt of the creator in the creation, a doubt of the value of any Art in any medium.  

Extrapolating from the quotation, Reed seems to have planned on writing a very different narrative in his “Berlin” album, planned on telling the story of a regal woman in West Berlin– doubtlessly still slumming in a rundown hotel, doubtlessly still drug-addicted, doubtlessly still abused, doubtlessly still on the wild side– yet the album he planned, the album that went as wrong as can be, the album that wasted his time, turned out to not be a glamorization of the majestic speed-head, the queen-like prostitute, the noble victim of abuse, but a tragic and depressing dirge to a suicidal mother.

The story is sad.  But with what Reed has created in these ten tracks, how wrong you can be makes “Sad Song” a moment of things ending well, despite the creator’s best efforts.

So– Punk.  May we label “Berlin”, and therefore Lou Reed, himself, Punk— along with everything associated with the term?  There is much in “Berlin” that would soon be tied with the Punk ethos of Patti Smith and the Clash. While “Berlin” is far from punk music, it definitely is the lyrical material of punk, it definitely is punk in its content. I argue that this is most so in the moment of impotent violence when Caroline “put her fist through the window pane”. The musical glorification of such a moment makes “Berlin”, if only lyrically, the second punk album ever made.  That is mighty punk, the glorification of violence for no purpose. Mighty Punk.

The first punk concept album ever, of course– as if we didn’t all already know– is “Funhouse” by the Stooges. Iggy Pop’s lyrics are… limited, let’s say, compared to Reed’s profundity. Iggy doesn’t even use words most of the time.  No, Iggy’s necessity lies in the raw power of his screams, his sexualized grunts and his straight outta the gutter half-syllables.  Punk.

Join us this Sunday, as we dive into the crisp, hydrating waters of Emilie Autumn’s intertextual opus, “Opheliac”.

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more Concept Albums Explained
ready for the real thing? T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Explained
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