1973.06.22 - 07.17
After the poppy “Transformer,” Lou wanted to create a grittier rockier album so RCA suggested that producer Bob Ezrin see Lou at the Massey Hall, Toronto on 1973.04.09. Soon after the show Reed fired his backing band, the Tots. Bob had previously produced Mitch Ryder and Detroit's version of “Rock and Roll,” which was Lou's favourite cover of the song. Lou met Bob and ended up sitting on the floor at Bob's house on Summerhill Avenue in Toronto with an acoustic guitar. Bob told Lou that it was an amazing facility to tell a life in two minutes and 30 seconds. But every once in a while, Lou told a story that Bob wished he knew the ending of. Bob said as an example, "You wrote this song “Berlin” (on 1972 solo debut) about this couple … and what happened to those people?" Bob asked Lou to use the same concept but to tell the whole story. Lou loved the idea and accepted the challenge.
Bettye and Lou had heard that Bettye's mother from whom Bettye was estranged because Bettye had been taken away from her when Bettye was a young child had recently died in NYC. During 1950's Bettye's mother was an 18 years old single mom with only a high school education and a little girl she couldn't really take care of alone. She had left her husband because he was abusive, as a result of the wounds he had received in WWII, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and won two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. Bettye's mother was accused of not taking care of her daughter, among other things, and lost custody because she didn't have the money to hire an attorney to fight the charges. It wasn't true, of course.
At 8:30 one morning Bettye found Lou in their living room next to a mostly consumed bottle of Johnnie Walker Red whisky. Lou told Bettye he had written “the” album over night. Lou gave Bettye his notebook and told her to read the lyrics. Bettye was shocked at what she read. The story was about a couple who were tearing each other apart and the woman was sleeping with everyone and her children had been taken away from her and then she killed herself and the man calmly assessed the situation and didn't really care anyway. “Oh, Jim(Oh Gin),” "Men of Good Fortune," "Caroline Says II(Stephanie Says)" and "Sad Song" had already been written during the Velvet Underground era but Lou's revision made the songs synonymous with a woeful bleakness. The album "Berlin" seemed to be written around the dissolution of Bettye Kronstad's parents relationship. Lou had never been to Berlin but used that once-divided city as a metaphor for the division of star-crossed lovers.
Around the beginning of June '73 Lou returned to Ezrin's Toronto home with the songs that would form the album "Berlin." Ezrin was amazed by the work, the story of a violent drug addict and his prostitute girlfriend. Lou had a way of taking the reality of the street and making it beautiful. If the Swedish film director Ernst Ingmar Bergman had been a rock musician he would have created something akin to "Berlin." They decamped to the Morgan Studios, London and began sessions on 1973.06.22. Lou and Bob had already discussed how they were going to do the album so Lou really didn't need to be in the studio. He would drop by to see how things were going whilst the basic tracks were recorded. 1973.07.17 the London sessions were concluded. "Berlin" was presented to RCA as a double album. The record company were horrified. They were assuming "Transformer" MkII but instead were awarded wretchedness, jealousy, violence and suicide. At first RCA threatened not to release it. To realise the project Reed struck a deal with his record company, that if he could do Berlin then he’d deliver a live album and something more akin to Transformer after that. But still RCA insisted on "Berlin" as a single album. The tapes were remixed at the Record Plant Studios, New York. 14 minutes of solos, endings and digressions were edited out. Reed and his producer, Bob Ezrin, had had such high hopes for Berlin. They talked of it in terms of being a "movie for the mind" or a "film for the ear", and were toying with a stage version even then. "More than toying," he said. "Actually planning: what the hotel looked like, what the club looked like, how many floors, things like that. But they didn't like it. There was no way to get backing, no way to do it. That was that. You win some, you lose some, like a football game." A few years later, Reed told his biographer Victor Bockris that Berlin was the big disappointment of his life. "I pulled the blinds shut at that point. And they've remained closed."
The home front was proving difficult for Bettye. She promised Lou's managers she would see him through the recording of “Berlin”. They said he wouldn't be able to finish it if she left. Manager Dennis Katz brought in his brother Steve, previously of the Blues Project and Blood Sweat & Tears, to help consolidate Lou's new touring band. Rehearsals were held in Lenox MA beginning 1973.08.27 ending on the 31st. The first show was performed at the Music Inn in the same town on 1973.09.01. The tour resumed in Europe and progressed to Paris 1973.09.17 where Bettye couldn't take it any more and told Lou's management she wanted a ticket to fly home. As Lou was performing at L'Olympia Bettye wandered around the city in the rain crying until a Parisian policeman stopped her under l'Arc de Triomphe and told her to go back to her hotel and get some sleep. Bettye flew back to New York the next day. Lou's response was a nihilistic consumption of drugs. The backing band kept the show together as Lou's performance deviated from bad to worst. Berlin is released in October just as the European tour ended. In December Bettye filed for divorce.
1973.11.26 New York rehearsals with new recruit Prakash John (George Clinton / Parliament / Funkadelic) on rumbling funky bass for two days. Plans are provisionally in place to professionally record a show using the Record Plant Remote Recording Truck less than a month later. The day that everyone had been working towards arrived and the two shows on 1973.12.21 at Howard Stein's Academy of Music, New York were both recorded. The Sound engineer Dinky Dawson brought the entire Dawson Sound crew and the full Acoustic Suspension System with vocal PA to the gig. The results in the hall were fantastic but there were management issues. Dinky held up the second show until Howard Stein, the promoter at the Academy, paid Dawson Sound for their services. Stein thought he was bluffing and tried to open the curtains. The band played, but there was no amplification. As Lou came up to the mic, it became evident there was no sound. He was not pleased. The required cash was accepted. The mics were turned on and all was well. Most of the audience assumed it was just equipment malfunction. The gig was subsequently released as Rock n Roll Animal & Lou Reed Live.
It would take more than thirty years before Lou and Bob's Berlin concepts to be fully realised. But that's another essay entirely.