Randy's Corner Deli Library

16 July 2008

Lou Reed Stares Tragedy In The Face

Lou Reed Stares Tragedy In The Face

Julian Schnabel’s film of the classic rock opera “Berlin” recalls a time before heartbreak faded from the performing arts.

Kurt Weill, wrote "The Threepenny Opera," a tragedy with corollaries to Lou Reed's "Berlin," like "Wozzeck," by Alban Berg.

by Eric Herschthal
Staff Writer

It took nerve for Lou Reed to record his tragic rock-opera “Berlin,” in the summer of 1973.

He had just established himself as a rock star independent from his trailblazing band, The Velvet Underground, when he released his first solo album earlier that year, “Transformer.”

His most popular song from that album, “Walk on the Wild Side,” was still ruling the charts when he decided to release a sophomore album that was unsparingly bleak. Two drug-addled lovers, Jim and Caroline, elope to Berlin only to see their dreams dashed by her suicide and his loss of their children to the authorities. There was no happy ending; only, as the album’s final song is titled, a “Sad Song.”

Despite being a commercial flop when it debuted in the United States, it is now widely recognized as a classic. With Julian Schnabel’s new film of the concert— when Reed performed the album live at St. Anne’s Warehouse in 2006, Schnabel, who also created the set design for the show, filmed the whole performance—audiences are again compelled to ask, what makes this album so unnerving? And why do we continue to listen?

Part of the answer, to both questions, speaks to the steady disappearance of tragedies in the performing arts. Artists simply write less of them, which makes the tragedies tha do exist more jarring, and more resonant because of it. In 1961, the scholar and cultural critic George Steiner argued in a controversial book, “The Death of Tragedy,” that theatrical tragedies had begun their steady decline with the rise of rationalism and the Enlightenment in the 17th century. The Greek notion of tragedy was premised on man’s inability to control his fate in the face of capricious, often brutal gods. But the point of a tragedy was to dramatize man’s ability to make choices whatever his uncontrollable end.

The emphasis was not on the death—what the gods usually had in store—but on what the hero died for: the state, love, his own dignity. Did he die nobly? Or with shame? For a worthy cause? Or pitiless self-interest? Tragedies, then, were ultimately “an investigation into the possibilities of human freedom,” as Walter Kerr put it in “Tragedy and Comedy” (1967).

With the Enlightenment though, man increasingly believed he could fully control his fate, with science, technology, and reason giving him all the tools he needed. “When the new world picture of reason usurped the place of the old tradition,” Steiner wrote, “theatre entered its long decline.”

Steiner’s focus was mainly on the English-language theater. But he did leave a glimmer of hope for the tragic vision: “It is not a play but an opera that now holds out the most distinct promise of a future for tragedy,” he wrote. He had plenty of evidence to go on, too. The operatic masterpieces of the twentieth century, from Strauss’ “Salomé,” to Berg’s “Lulu” and Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” are all devastating, unremittingly bleak tragedies—what Olivier Messiaen called “black masterpieces.”

The most relevant of the twentieth century’s tragic operas that live on in Lou Reed’s “Berlin” are probably the Brecht-Weill collaboration “The Threepenny Opera,” and Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.” When “Berlin” first debuted, John Rockwell, one of the few critics to praise the work from the outset, wrote in the Times that “Berlin” was “enriched by a subtle acknowledgement of Brecht and Weill.” In Schnabel’s director’s statement for the new film, he writes that Reed’s album is “one of the most poetic and touching works of music since the Three Penny Opera [sic] and Wojeck [sic].”

There is an obvious Berlin connection that Schnabel may or may not be picking up on: “The Threepenny Opera” was composed by two displaced Berliners (Brecht and Weill), and Berg’s “Wozzeck” had its debut in the city in 1925. But there are more compelling corollaries too. “Wozzeck” tells the story of a soldier abused by his captain who, psychologically tormented, ends up murdering his wife. In terms of plot and theme, it is the clearest antecedent to Lou Reed’s “Berlin.” Much like “Wozzeck,” whose murderous act stems from the torment of his captain, Reed’s character Jim shoots himself up with drugs, then beats his wife, with the encouragement of his “two-bit friends.” Forces beyond the central character’s control propel the tragic fate in both works—in each case, a brutal society.

“The Threepenny Opera” is also a barbed attack on society. But here the attack is aimed most directly at government and capitalism. The tragedy’s anti-hero, the ruthless, corrupt criminal Macheath (or, “Mack the Knife”), gets pardoned moments before his execution because of his connections to the authorities. Though Reed’s “Berlin” is less concerned with political commentary there is a very clear capitalist attack. “Men of good fortune,” he sings in a track of the same title, “often cause empires to fall.”

It’s tempting to ask why Reed shared the tragic vision of Berg, Brecht, Weill and so many other artistic luminaries. But it shouldn’t be answered so easily with an obvious, but superficial: because he was Jewish, and Jews know tragedy. Brecht and Britten weren’t Jews, and they knew it too. What’s more, Reed was probably more tormented by his repressed homosexuality—his parents had him treated with shock therapy to “cure” him—than by his comfortable middle class upbringing, in Jewish Long Island.

Better then to ask what it takes to stare tragedy in the face, and not flinch. Steiner suggested an answer, in the negative, when he wrote: “The modern pursuit of tragedy is marred by a great failure of nerve.” But that criticism can’t be directed at Schnabel or Reed now. Both have the nerve.

No comments: