Bruce Springsteen had the Badlands. Neil Young conjured Greendale. Lou Reed breathed life into Berlin. So it’s only fitting that a similarly singular artist who took his surname from that latter city, Rick Berlin, now has his Badville. After all, here’s a guy who’s resided inside a self-made, ever-mutating world of music, stories, and art longer than most of his cohorts in the Nickel & Dime Band have been alive.
The way he describes it in the notes to his band’s new EP of the same name, “Badville is a tattoo and a town located in the 4th dimension.” It’s also an attitude and a state of mind, a place populated by a cracked cast of characters: the lovelorn and the loveless; wry observers drinking rye whiskey. Bukowski would fit right in rubbing elbows with the depraved dreamers and scarred souls who sidle up for the last call ringing out from behind the bar in Berlin’s brain. As Rick writes on the second song in, he likes ’em crazy, shy, awkward, fearless, oblivious, broken.
“Badville”‘s name and identity springs from the kind of idle, overheard (or misheard) bar chatter, smack talk, and truth-telling malapropisms that often fuel Berlin’s best songs. And he has been writing very good ones for a very long time now. In the early-to-mid 1970’s, Berlin’s first band, Orchestra Luna, was signed to Epic Records, toured with Roxy Music, and later shared bills at CBGB with the likes of the Talking Heads and Ramones. An array of musical projects and directions would follow into the ’80’s– Berlin Airlift, Rick Berlin: The Movie, to name but a couple — and beyond, right into a new century. Which brings us to “Badville.”
Like most of Berlin’s work, there are slices of joy, fun, sweetness, absurdity, and a randy dose of salaciousness on “Badville.” (I mean, what’s the point of living — or rock & roll, for that matter — without a little lust and temptation?)
There are also bouts of terrible beauty. The final track on the new EP, “My Girl Is Gone,” for example, is one of the most emotionally eviscerating songs I’ve heard in a long time — a primal scream and despairing dirge that’s part pure anguish, part cathartic exorcism. It’s also about the loss of a pet.
The song, Berlin explains, was “written in a flash after my cat, Sofi, 20 years old, had to at long last be put down. But it’s true of any great loss. It destroys you as it fills you up.” The performance, which was left in its raw demo form, typifies Berlin’s ability as a songwriter to fully feel, and distill, the depth of life’s everyday moments whether large or little (or those that only seem small until you’re in them). In his songs, everybody and anybody wounded by fate or gutted by circumstance — including Berlin himself — is a spiritual reclamation project.
The size of the stages may have downsized a bit since those heady days of playing Frank Zappa parties. But for Boston’s quintessential outsider-DIY establishment figure (if there can be such a thing) who is now a thoroughly improbable 70 , the commitment and hunger to write, record, and perform has never waned. Not one iota.
“Rockin’ and rollin’/ And livin’/ And lovin’/ It never gets old,” Berlin sang on “Ain’t Gonna Leave The Stage,” a track from his Nickel & Dime band’s 2014’s release, “When We Were Kids.” And the title track, by the way, is a sweetly brisk bit of autobiography of Berlin’s early years scuffing his platform boots on a glitter-encrusted, mascara-smeared glam rock landscape populated by giants named Ziggy, Iggy, and Freddie.
Rick Berlin’s kaleidoscopic life in and around music made for a fascinating tale when I heard it from the proverbial horse’s mouth and wrote about it in feature form for The Boston Globe back in 2006. I distinctly remember setting out to write what I hoped would be a long overdue, definitive profile on this enigmatic singer-songwriter of restless talent and boundless creative gifts.
I had seen those gifts on display, up close, countless times by then. Berlin was one of the first artists I made it my business to see, hear, and experience when I first moved to Boston in 1997 to begin writing about the music sparking the city. Needless to say, he was a human fuse of electricity. I swear the city’s glittering skyline looked a notch brighter as I drove home that night.
Berlin and the Nickel & Dime Band will celebrate their new release at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA., next Saturday, March 12, with special guests including legendary Boston rocker Willie “Loco” Alexander. Go here for details:
One afternoon in 2004, a few of the folks affiliated with Hi-N-Dry, the Cambridge loft-turned-recording studio-turned record label were sitting and talking around the kitchen table. Singer-songwriter Rick Berlin had dropped by for a quick visit and, as he was leaving, reached out and struck a chord on a nearby piano that, like the Norfolk Street loft, had once belonged to late Morphine leader Mark Sandman.
“It was really nice hearing the piano and we said, ‘Rick, sing us a song’,” recalls ex-Morphine drummer Billy Conway, who was there that afternoon and would later help produce Berlin’s striking new CD, “Me & Van Gogh.” “In the middle of the day, he played the most beautiful song for the little crowd, like a little treat, and then off he went. And I thought, ‘this guy’s got a switch that’s always on’. Rick can throw ideas around at will – he’s got a million of ‘em.”
Or, at least as many ideas as he’s been able to cram into more than 30 years of writing, recording, and performing, both solo and with bands of every stripe, style, and sound: glam rock, New Wave pop, torched cabaret. You name it, Berlin has likely done it, musical and otherwise: Shook hands with Richard Nixon. Dropped acid before his physical exam for the Draft. Dropped out of Yale Drama School on a full scholarship. Performed at a Frank Zappa anniversary party with Patti Smith and LaBelle. Opened for Roxy Music and the J. Geils Band. Signed to, and then dropped by, Epic Records. Turned down legendary label honcho Seymour Stein’s $100,000 offer of a Sire Records contract. Wrote musicals rejected by Disney. Received a curious phone call from the namesake of his last band, the Shelley Winters Project.
The creative switch that was flicked on with Berlin’s first band, Orchestra Luna, in 1973, has rarely been turned off.
“It’s bizarre because I never thought (music) would be a career,” says Berlin. 60, tucked into a booth at Doyle’s Café in Jamaica Plain, where he’s waited tables for more than 15 years. “Six months after I put my first band together [Orchestra Luna], we were signed to Epic and I thought, ‘wow, this is easy’!”
There would, of course, be as many trials as triumphs through the decades, but at the moment, Berlin’s basking in the latter. Tonight and tomorrow, dozens of local denizens – old friends, rapidly rising protégés, rockers, multi-media experimentalists – will pay tribute to the vast, enigmatic Berlin catalog, from then to now. Any version or interpretation of any song welcome. Berlin says he’s “incredibly moved that this many people want to take the time to learn something that’s not theirs. That’s a big deal.”
In addition to writing songs – he’s always writing songs – Berlin’s now shooting a documentary entitled, “Jamaica Plain-Spoken (Small Town America in the 21st Century?)”. He’s interviewed 55 people for the film project, which he hopes to complete in two years.
“My favorite type of art to do is the stuff I know the least about,” Berlin says. “I never really studied music or piano for very long” – he studied architecture at Yale University – “so I trusted my ability to make something original because it wasn’t coming out of a school. I’ve watched so many movies – most gay people watch too many movies – but I thought, it’s about time I tried to make one.”
“Me & Van Gogh” is a tender, funny, moving, raw nerve of a record, set dramatically alight by nothing more than Berlin’s starkly expressive voice and Sandman’s acoustic piano. He sang and played at the same time with no overdubs. “I wanted to see if I could actually make a record that had nothing else on it and if the songs could stand alone,” he says. “The less you have, the more the listener can imply. It’s a private record, not a party record.”
Conway, who co-produced with Tom Dube, urged Berlin to leave intimate, open spaces, hit fewer notes but emphasize dramatic chords, stretch out. “His piano and his voice dancing to their own time” is how Conway describes the recording sessions.
Indeed, “Van Gogh”’s dozen vignettes defy convention: think John Waters and Jim Jarmusch crossed with Raymond Carver and Randy Newman. Tracks like “Criminal”, “Don’t Talk About Joan”, and most powerfully “A Letter”, are verite snapshots; plain-spoken portraits of human frailty, humor, and torment.
Most of Berlin’s material is grounded in real life conversation, either overheard in the bustle and din of the everyday, or aimed at him directly. Berlin estimates that roughly 90 percent of “A Letter”’s lyric comes verbatim from correspondence a troubled young acquaintance sent him from prison.
“I met him, he was a hustler, and I picked him up more than once,” Berlin says. “He wound up in prison and wrote me this letter and I was so moved by it. I used his life.” He guiltily calls his modus operandi “vampiric”. But isn’t it the true storyteller who can recognize art in the ordinary, seize it, and create something special from it that captures yet transcends its quotidian beginnings?
This uncommon touch inspired the albums’ tenderly empathic title track. “It’s hard for an artist who has not succeeded in a financial way to not wonder about an artist like Van Gogh, because he was driven to do that work, he was going insane as he did that work, and his brother was the only one who bought anything. And now he’s on every poster in every college,” Berlin says with a bitter laugh.
“In Western culture, if you’re not making money for somebody else, you’re a flop. And I’ve never succeeded, I’ve never made any money doing this, ever. And yet, I’m so compelled to do it. I’m not at the level of Van Gogh, but I think about him.”
Rick Berlin: Paper Airplane (Hi-N-Dry)
By Jonathan Perry
Boston singer-songwriter Rick Berlin may have traded in the glammy art-rock poses of Orchestra Luna and Berlin Airlift for a more modest contraption ages ago. But the lower altitudes of his homemade paper airplane have allowed him to better zero in with the kind of close-up, vivid storytelling that has made him one of the city’s most distinctive voices and cherished musical figures.
Berlin’s third solo album in four years continues a stunning mid-life creative streak for this poetic chronicler of the inhabitants of both his beloved Jamaica Plain neighborhood and the dive-bar home of his head (“Walkin’ In The Hood”; “I Wish I Could Talk With My Dad”). Ace guitarists Kevin Barry and Duke Levine, plus an intrepid rhythm section in bassist Andrew Mazzone and drummer Andy Plaisted, give Rick ample room to roam those streets and corners of his soul, and he does.
His breathlessly astringent voice – sarcastic one moment, sincere the next – alternately stabs and caresses image-rich couplets: guys with “shoulders like Picassos”; bitter bums who rhyme dreams of a “swimming pool physique” with their “picture on the cover of Newsweek.” “Madness in the suburbs is like a cherry bomb,” Berlin blithely observes on the title track. “Looks kind of silly, but it blows up everything.” Ultimately, though, he loves his town and its menagerie of losers, lovers and hustlers. It’s a place where, after all, “a smile’s more important than what your T-shirt says, and a wave can get you hammered before last call.” Add Berlin to the equation, and who wouldn’t?
“Badville”can be found here: