RICK BERLIN'S FILTHY GENIUS (CONTINUED)
In 1974 he was the piano-crooning ringleader of a truly weird band, Orchestra Luna on Epic Records. They shocked rock clubs with ambitious, flamboyant music theater-like compositions. Their album was produced by Rupert Holmes (you know, “Do you like pina coladas…”? Oh never mind.) By the eighties he was an openly gay rock luminary fronting Berlin Airlift on Handshake/CBS. Unfortunately the label named after a bad deal turned out to be just exactly that, and soon fell apart. Despite that setback he had a few serious hits on WBCN, a station that used to be kind of a big deal in these parts.
I relate all this because to truly appreciate Berlin’s book you have to have a sense of just how much of a rockstar he once actually was, since his writing is so self-effacing if you didn’t know better you would think he was not much of a success. But the fact he sees himself this way is a feature not a bug. You get fascinating insight into the way he looks at life, the kind you would never get from reading his Wikipedia page. And when the rubber hits the road it turns out as an author Rick Berlin is a pretty talented and funny writer with his own unique voice.
“If you’re not embarrassed by what you’ve written, you probably shouldn’t be writing,” Berlin tells me as we sit down in the second story JP apartment he shares with two roommates amid a clutter of keyboards, amps, drums and an imposing grandfather clock he says is worth “next to nothing.”
If embarrassment is the test of authenticity, then "The Paragraphs" has got it down. Berlin makes an entertaining point of answering all the sticky questions you never asked, tracing the origins of his music, homosexuality and general life philosophy. So you can check off drugs, sex and other illicit encounters, as well as heart-breakingly funny yet fraught portrayals of family members.His parent’s marriage slowly, vividly shattered under the pressures of time and the itch of infidelity. We get a front seat view as the cracks start to happen. Berlin takes us on a skiing trip he took as a young child with his banker father, in which a few college co-eds are involved in ways that he doesn’t quite understand.He promptly tells this to his mother in a phone call, right in front of his father and the girls. Ouch.
““I don’t know what’s going to happen when I can’t waddle around Doyle’s anymore, I’ll be drooling in a fucking hallway somewhere.””
— Rick Berlin
Throughout it all Berlin’s words, humor, gritty descriptions and commitment to honesty make it easy to care.
“I know there are some people who are scared of it,” he says, a bit warily. “There are some disturbing features.”
By this he might have been referring to the attempted draft-dodging period he documents when he left Yale and in an attempt to avoid the unspeakable horror of Vietnam became an art teacher at a small public school in Moosup (“As in there’s a moose up the river”) Connecticut, and fell into an affair with one of his young male students. He took off before he could be found out, and promptly tried teaching English at another Podunk in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “What was i thinking?” he writes. “Three months down the road i have ‘those feelings’ again, this time for K, my English student. we spend hours together, get wrecked on Robitussin and take long walks in the snow, the electricity of high emotion and laughter bouncing off the hills.” This time he does get caught and accused of sleeping with both boys AND girls. Laughable if they’d really known him.
By the way, don't start writing letters about my atrocious editing in this piece, because I’m quoting the book exactly. Berlin goes in for a self-conscious EE Cumming’s-like attack on the English language, with scant punctuation, sentences that never begin in capitals, and an insistence that every “i” remains lowercase. Needless to say, I didn't find this one of the books strongpoints, although it wasn’t long before the writing won me over.
Berlin explains that "The Paragraphs" was originally just a collection of bits of memorabilia he spit out and posted online as a kind of exercise to hone his songwriting, “to have new song lyrics hit the page like bullets.”
The book is broken up into vaguely chronological sections, beginning with “boyhood” (remember, no capitals), and “family”, followed by “early warnings” where he explores the beginning of you-know-what. With “appearance” he jumps to the present and we get short chapters about his Salvation Army clothing, his “ridiculous hair”, “fat face”, and so on. Finally he gets to the biographical meat of the story with “music”, back to early childhood and a description of his first encounter with the piano: “all those 88’s extending from one horizon to another…the sound of a single note held down and reverberating sang in my chest like a money shot.” Later he drops acid at Yale, plays with his eyes shut while hallucinating psychedelic film clips. He describes breaking his leg and losing his part in a production by soon-to-be Meatloaf mastermind Jim Steinman called “Neverland”. Steinman eventually stole away a few of the band members of Orchestra Luna, including most famously one of the singers, Karla DeVito, who went on to make her fame sweating it out with the Meat man in the video for “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”.
Berlin insists they've always been friendly, yet can’t resist a touch of snark: “I hear Steinman isn’t doing all that well these days health-wise,” he says. “But he’s loaded. And I’m a waiter.”
I ask if he’s bitter about never coming within a light year of “Bat out of Hell” level success.
“It’s not money, its reach,” he says. “Every artist deserves to have their work shown to as many people as possible to judge whether it’s relevant to them or not. Of course it would sure be awesome to have some money,” he readily admits. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when I can’t waddle around Doyle’s anymore, I’ll be drooling in a fucking hallway somewhere.”
He says he did try to write hits back in the days of Berlin Airlift, and had some modest success but never felt good about it.
“I like to stay innocent about what I’m doing,” he explains. “I once got a lot of people to give me money so I could do the Brill Building thing and write all day. I only came up with one song that was any good. I’m really ignorant, I don’t know the chords, I can follow from middle C down. But I’ve been lucky to have really fine musicians all my life.”
Luck doesn’t begin to cover it. He got his record deal because someone involved with a major label was walking by his house in Somerville and heard him playing piano and singing. He feels like this book came about the same serendipitous way. He had been posting some of his paragraphs on Facebook and had some people read a few in a show he did at The Lizard Lounge with his current group The Nickel and Dime Band. He eventually came to the attention of two young women, Kate Layte and Katie Eelman who run the bookstore Papercuts in JP and were thinking of getting into the field of independent publishing. They urged him to compile his biographic bits, helped impose a structure on the random collection and released the book.
Now he stays as active as any band can be in this town, gigging, releasing many videos of his songs (here's two of my favorites "Galway Girl", a good example of his penchant for writing about local friends, and "Devil Rat" with disturbing and spectacular visuals), and doing readings at book stores where he performs solo. He’s also well-known on Facebook and Twitter, using his notoriety to pass on articles about Trump and opine about the current toxic mess in Washington. I ask him about life under Trump versus Nixon, and he says it was worse then, because of the threat of certain death in Southeast Asia, but he’s not cutting any slack to the current occupant of the White House.
“It’s horrific, and I think it’s more dangerous than any of us can even imagine,” he says. “At the same time I do think there’s some inherent self-correcting part of this democracy that will turn the ship away from disaster. I hope. I copy letters and send them out, and give what I can to the ACLU.”
He says the most political song he’s ever written was called “How Can I Hate People I Don’t Even Know.” “It wasn’t really intended that way,” says, “But nowadays it’s a political statement.”
As far as future literary projects, he intends to keep writing although has no plans to try his hand at any kind of fiction that isn’t based on true events. He will however keep documenting his wild, rich, surprising past as more memories return to him.
“I actually forgot a lot of these things after I wrote about them,” he says. “When I went back and read them I found myself laughing. It’s fun being old.”