Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Saddest Song Ever Written: "The Bed," by Lou Reed

No, it's not the "Hungarian Suicide Song." In 1973, Lou Reed was riding high. He had scored a reasonably popular single in the last year off of the LP "Transformer," produced by glam rockers David Bowie & Mick Ronson . That song was "Walk on the Wild Side," and it charted at #16 in the U.S. and #10 in the U.K. What would Lou Reed follow-up his commercially successful glam rock LP?

As Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore so aptly put it, Lou Reed followed-up "Transformer" with the most depressing album ever made. I would add that it also included the saddest song ever written on it: Berlin. The album tanked.

Making the album was so depressing that producer Bob Ezrin, who produced Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, and a gaggle of others, told Reed to "put the tapes in a drawer and forget about it." Everyone plays on Berlin: Steve Winwood, Jack Bruce, the Brecker brothers, Aynsley Dunbar (fresh from Frank Zappa), Steve Hunter, and even Tony Levin! Almost all of them hated the album and the experience.

Before this album, rock just didn't deal much with truly adult themes, and its time had come. After Berlin, things would never be the same. It reflected the horrible disillusion of 1973. Watergate was everywhere, and the war in Vietnam was ending in a very ugly way. Heroin was everywhere. Cynicism was rampant. I don't know how you write a song like "The Bed" at the age of 30-31. You have to lose a lot of people before you even begin to understand what loss means, but it's a testament to Reed's sensitivity to understand the themes in "The Bed."
I never would have started if I'd known
That its end this way But funny thing, I'm not at all sad
That it stopped this way

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

Candles lit the room brightly at night

And this is the place where she cut her wrists

That odd and fateful night

And I said, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, what a feeling

And I said, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, what a feeling

("The Bed," Lou Reed, 1973)
In all of American songwriting--at least--I cannot think of a sadder song. Sure, there are a few uplifting moments on Berlin, but they're hard-won. That's just like life, and it's OK to recognize this in our culture. Just two-years-later Reed would foist "Metal Machine Music" on the world, once again rejecting superstardom. Yet, he was just doing what he had with the Velvet Underground--his own thing. Maybe Lou's burned-out nowadays, but he's always going to be the voice of the Velvet Underground and the man who wrote "The Bed."