Another Reason to Be Mad at Alaska: Lou Reed's "Caroline Says, Pt. II"
Lou Reed, "Caroline Says, Pt. II" (MP3)
From Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse
Lou Reed's 1973 release Berlin is not a tale of "character," "hope," or "change," it's actually a depressingly messy tale of addict-lovers Jim and Caroline, a 10-song cycle through the couple's initial drug-euphoric enchantment, their violent betrayals, their fatal collapse. But when the album first came out in 1973, as the startlingly somber follow-up to Reed's Bowie-produced glam-rock triumph Transformer ("Walk on the Wild Side"), Berlin was largely dismissed as a creative and commercial flop, an indulgent fallout from Reed's first divorce.
Things change: 30 years later, pieces of the Berlin Wall are for sale on the Internet and Lou's German-junkie ode has been recast as a masterpiece. Reed had never performed Berlin live in full until 2006, with a landmark five-day stretch at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. Director/artist Julian Schnabel brought cameras to commit the performance to celluloid; the record's original producer, Bob Ezrin, was enlisted to oversee.
Now this October, Schnabel's film is coming out on DVD and Matador is releasing the live album Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse on October 21 (September 30 on iTunes).
But back to Alaska.
Berlin's basic premise is that Caroline and Jim are junkie types, she fucks around on him, he beats her, she commits suicide. Her suicide is predominantly foreshadowed on the above track, a song in which Reed limns Caroline's dazed despair— her wondering listlessly why Jim hits her, covering up her black eye, putting her fist through a windowpane. Then this: "[Caroline's] not afraid to die/All of her friends call her Alaska/When she takes speed/They laugh and ask her/What is in her mind?"
Then the permafrosty refrain, sung with an inflection that emphasizes isolation, icy distance, a preamble to chilling destruction: "It's sooooooooo cooooold/In Alaska." Get it? It's a metaphor for bad shit.
Two songs later, Caroline's dead.