Rick Berlin has written his share of “personal” songs of what he calls the “I love you/I lost you” type. But he’s at his best when he’s telling his own life story through portraits of others — character studies rich with overheard dialogue and cinematic detail. When we get together at the Trident bookstore café on Newbury Street to talk about his new Me & Van Gogh (Hi-N-Dry) and this weekend’s two-night Berlin extravaganza at the Lizard Lounge, he gives me an example:
“I go to the Brendan Behan Pub every single night — it’s right next to my apartment — and this friend of mine I’ve known for years tells me this story. This is what he’s told me: he says, ‘My roommate Michiko she doesn’t eat, I’ve never seen her eat. Anything. She’s into shoes. High-heeled shoes. My friends ask me, “What’s up with your hooker roommate, dude?” ’ I took that, I went upstairs, and I ripped him off. ‘Michiko,’ you know?”
Me & Van Gogh is full of characters who have walked into Berlin’s life and right into his songs. “Don’t Talk About Joan,” dating from the early ’90s and now recorded for the third time, is about friend and ex-Dambuilder Joan Wasser. “The back story there is that a friend of mine, Eddie, knew Joan from BU, they were both studying music there. And Joan jumped into a cab with us at the Middle East — she was on her way to go bartend at Bill’s Bar or something. And she had this hair.” Berlin extends his arms on either side of his head. “She looks like Gong Li to me, incredibly beautiful.” A couple of weeks later, he and Eddie found themselves in “this little hipster apartment, with these two little hipster girls in it, smoking pot — and I wouldn’t smoke pot because it freaks me out — and I started talking about Joan and they said, ‘Don’t talk about Joan! I’m in love with her!’ ”
It’s a long way from the histrionics of that moment (the girls didn’t know Joan, and Berlin promised to keep their crush a secret) to the plaintive piano chords and stalker’s lament on the CD. Although Berlin has performed solo plenty of times, alone with only his piano, this is his first such CD. He’s been making music on the Boston scene — with varying degrees of fame, including a couple of major-label deals — since the early ’70s, beginning with the semi-legendary Orchestra Luna, and then on to Berlin Airlift, Rick Berlin the Movie, Berlin Backwards, Rome Is Burning, and, most recently, the Shelley Winters Project.
About a year and a half ago, he pulled the plug on the Shelley Winters Project after — as he puts it — “three years, three drummers, three bass players, and two violinists.” There were also three CDs, all of which showed Berlin’s knack for pop song forms, his powerful go-for-broke vocals, and his storytelling acumen.