“Sad Songs.” The idea of compiling a list of sad songs came to me as I was falling asleep a few months ago, and it’s bothered me ever since. What makes a song “sad?” There are so many ways to be sad, so many ways of expressing it. Sometimes a song can seem sad one day and seem a different way the next. How is “sad” different from “depressing?” Or “melancholy?”

I’d like to explore these questions, and I’ve got a lot more of these in the works. But I want to start, perhaps unsurprisingly, with one in particular….

Lou Reed “Sad Song” (Berlin, RCA, 1973)

Like much early Lou Reed solo material, “Sad Song” began life as a Velvet Underground demo. Recorded in April 1970 when the band was kicking around ideas for Loaded, it was a light-hearted, somewhat tongue-in-cheek vignette about Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry V, primrose, and kilts. It’s a little goofy, full of convoluted history, and makes sense as a companion to the commercially-minded material that comprised Loaded, Reed’s last record with his band.

In 1973, “Sad Song” appears in updated form as the last song on a record full of much sadder songs. Berlin is Reed’s infamous “concept album” portraying the devastating implosion of an ill-conceived relationship between two wasted Americans, Caroline and Jim. At the time, Reed had never been to the then-divided city of Berlin, but he was a resident expert of this emotional territory. On offer are stories of desperation, speed, booze, sexual misadventure, physical abuse, hate, having your kids taken away because you’re not a good mother, loneliness, and suicide.

After these tales of every kind of mistreatment and piles upon piles of loss, comes “Sad Song.” No longer a funny ditty about historical figures, it is now the pathetic justification of the complicit and abusive Jim after his girl Caroline has slit her wrists. Sung with eerie detachment, the narrator states, “I’m gonna stop wasting my time/Somebody else would have broken both of her arms.” As he looks back wistfully at his pictures and thinks back over that time in his life, he sings the only song on the record that shows any regard at all for the future.

During “The Bed,” the song which precedes this one, the singer claims, “I never would have started if I’d known/That it’d end this way/But funny thing, I’m at all sad/That it stopped this way.” Now he insists that throughout the relationship he “tried so very hard,” a statement that rings patently untrue with the triumphant burst of guitars accompanying each denial of wasted time. It’s a song full of conflict that grows more conflicted with each listen, the combination of facts and attitudes proving truly grotesque.

The closing credit aspect of the song’s three and a half minute coda seems to imply that this emotional gimp is off the hook and very possibly off on his way to make life miserable for someone else. The crane pulls back, the lights come up; he walks down the stairs and back into the streets; we get up from our seats and walk back to our lives. And everyone knows it’s all going to happen all over again. If not to us, to someone else, if not now, some other time. It is a moment of mean-spirited cynicism, a jaded sneer, a wicked wink and a wicked smile. Reed’s patented monotone is especially lethargic as the “sad song” refrain begins, sounding disinterested and tired. As the coda picks up pace, he raises his pitch and becomes almost sickeningly earnest; it’s an awkward attempt to sound sweet and, like so much of the rest of this record, it hurts to hear it.

It’s as though Reed is excusing Jim and, by extension, himself. Lou’s mistreatment of his wife Betty during this period is well documented, and in fact she attempted suicide not long before the record was recorded. When Berlin, for all its searing content, ends with such a jaded disavowal of responsibility, it is possible to imagine that, more than just a “film for the ear,” the record is a very public, perverse, nasty apologia for abusive behavior. There might be all the sympathy in the world for Caroline at various points in the story, but Caroline is fiction, a wasted, romanticized vision. (According to Nico, Lou had written Berlin “to make it up to me…. He wrote me letters saying Berlin was me.”) No matter who or what Caroline represents, her sad, idealized party-girl wildness seems far easier for Reed to empathize with than the real-life Betty who was, he said at the time “not hip at all, and I want to keep her that way.” The marriage collapsed not long after the album’s release, prompting such sensitive statements as “My old lady was a real asshole, but I needed a female asshole to bolster me up; I needed a sycophant who I could bounce around, and she fitted the bill…. But she called it ‘love,’ ha!” Caroline, in other words, she was not, and as such she received all of the vitriol and none of the rearview romance.

Drawing direct links between Lou’s life and the content of this record is tricky territory, especially how much of the material is reworked from earlier sketches, but there can be no doubt that he was in a particularly fertile state of mind to grapple with these unpleasant issues. In 1991 he published Between Thought and Expression, a selection of lyrics and poems spanning his career. Accompanying certain pieces was commentary by Reed printed along the bottoms of the pages. Six songs from Berlin were included. Under “The Bed” (the suicide song, remember) were the words “I’d gotten married.” A few pages later, under “Sad Song,” read “We got divorced.”

Berlin was critically panned upon release, despite reaching #7 on the UK charts. Reed was disappointed, and much of the material rarely found its way into live shows. A strident version of “Sad Song” appeared on the Lou Reed Live LP, recorded in late 1973 released in ‘75 on the heels of Rock N’ Roll Animal’s success. Removed from the narrative of Berlin, “Sad Song” as it exists here is given new life as a fiery rocker. Reed sings like an excited reptile, squirming his way through the verses and pushing through the loud guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. It would be the only officially released live version of the song to surface for over thirty years.

It shows back up in 1979 on bootlegs from the infamously wasted Bells tour. Some of the lyrics from the Velvets version start appearing again, indicating that Lou was either consciously referencing his past or so wet-brained that he was starting to forget the past nine years. The performances I’ve heard are good enough, but there’s nothing remarkable about “Sad Song” per se – it lives more as a part of the drunken tapestry of the full shows. There are some spectacularly messy moments. The reports are that Lou returned from the tour puffy and tubby, able to down a fifth of Johnnie Walker Black in an hour’s time.

In 2006, many years sober and many years older, Reed resurrected Berlin as a theater piece, performed in Brooklyn and in Australia. He wrote in his program notes, “Berlin is a stylized rock paean to life outside the circle, the orchestrations filled with the lyrics of the broken hearted and the willfully disabled.” The phrase “willfully disabled” sent a shiver down my spine when I read it six years ago, and it has continued to gain power and nuance with each passing year.

In the context of the 2006 performances, “Sad Song” took on a new kind of sad meaning, existing as a prelude to the entire suite; Steve Hunter picked an acoustic guitar against the voices of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. In the songs that followed, all of the bombast of Bob Ezrin’s original production and arrangements were enhanced to the point of pomposity, while Reed’s singing was far more matter of fact and world-weary. If in 1973 he was first experiencing what sort of misery this hideous treatment of other people might produce, in 2006 he had lived many times through the sorts of scenarios laid out over the record’s depressed duration. On those nights his guitar was angrier, the backing ensemble more impassioned, the vocal resigned, unimpressed. His voice carried the truly dispassionate tone of narration. The tone of apparent disinterest was occasionally interrupted by breathtaking moments when he would growl angrily or his voice would fade away completely.

When “Sad Song” reached its marvelous coda, rather than let his vocals rise with the swarm of sound, Reed slowly stepped back from the microphone, grabbed hold of his guitar, and launched into a feedback-drenched solo. Say whatever you want about whatever kind of person he might be or whatever kinds of musical mistakes he may have done over the years, Lou Reed is one of the first popular guitarists to understand the emotional ferocity of free jazz, the material sensuality of minimalism, and the conceptual freedom of 20th century avant-garde composition and actually synthesize it all into something that worked as rock and roll. At the end of “Sad Song,” despite the nearly thirty people surrounding Lou, it was the guitar that stood out, guiding and punctuating by turns, the only audible voice in the choir. I was in the room one on one of those November nights in Brooklyn, and it was some of the best guitar playing I’ve ever heard.

Is “Sad Song” really sad? In the end, in and of itself, not really; and certainly not compared to the rest of Berlin. In context it sounds determined and almost proud of itself. But it’s the end of an incredibly morose batch of songs, and in that sense its defiance of sadness might be its most difficult attribute. To end on a one-dimensional downbeat tune would make the rest of Berlin too simple. To end with this instead throws the complexity of feeling back into the mix. At the end of the story, would we prefer Jim to spend his days debilitated by the fact that his actions contributed to Caroline’s suicide? We know from the rest of the songs that she actually was an unhinged mess, so we know it wasn’t completely his fault. But he was there and not only did he not help her, he was an active part of whatever drove her to her end. He got off on it, in fact. But so did she. And so did we, since after all we’ve been enjoying all of this misery in the context of rock and roll. To place the blame entirely on Jim (or any of the others mentioned in the saga) would be too easy. “Sad Song” asks the listener to question the nature of responsibility. There are ways in which we might contribute to whatever emotional state drives someone to behave a certain way, but to take on the full weight is to ask for trouble right out of the gate, to enter a land of infantile, self-centered moralizing.

Berlin is a record that takes these tough issues by the horns and tries to work through them, all the while presenting it as a twisted kind of entertainment, a degraded theater. Despite (or perhaps because of) Reed’s weird brand of arrogance and clever skirting of culpability, the record remains a playpen for emotional misbehavior. And if that’s not at least part of what we ask of art, I think we might be talking about different stuff.