Some people cling to an identity to define who they are, what they believe in, how they behave and who they love. Because it feels safer this way, using an identity as a life raft. But Rick Berlin isn’t interested in labels, unless you are offering his band a place on one. There are many ways you could try to categorize Rick: rocker, musician, artist, anomaly, gay, or idealist. He escapes those boxes though, at least in his own mind. He doesn’t much care about your judgment if you try to put him in one.
Rick rejects this idea of associating with a certain group of people to validate uniqueness. “You just are who you are, [being gay] doesn’t make you any more or less special,” he said. That isn’t to say it’s always been easy for him to accept who he is. For Berlin, that acceptance has come slowly, with many years of experience and tumultuous relationships at his back.
Rick had his first experience with love when he was nine. “I remember my heart quickening up whenever I saw him,” said Berlin. This was a time of several “firsts.” It was the first time he “realized there was something about boys,” and it was also the first time he experienced a sense of real loss. “When I moved away from Connecticut and Richard, I felt that I was being ripped away from something I really loved,” he said.
After Richard, Rick had experiences with other boys, but it wasn’t until his second year at Yale University that he really began to struggle with his sexuality. “It wasn’t until then that I really saw that this was pulling at me,” said Berlin. He recalled a fellow student at Yale telling him, “There’s a tiger inside you, you should let it out.” He replied, “Well, if there’s a tiger inside of me, I’m going to fight it and get rid of this shit.”
Rick described his four years at Yale as mostly “dating girls and getting drunk.”After graduating at 21, Berlin came out to those closest to him. I the years that followed were a time punctuated by intense relationships, heartache, drugs and movement. From 1968 to 1972, he moved from Moosup, Connecticut to Philadelphia to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to Grenada, West Indies then finally to Somerville, Massachusetts.
In those four years, he fell in love twice. After the demise of the first relationship, Rick returned to Philadelphia and would walk through the most dangerous neighborhoods “hoping to be killed.” He was deemed homicidal and suicidal by a psychiatrist. Though he proclaimed to give up on love, he fell in it again in Colorado, which ended in another messy parting. In 1969, before leaving the state, Rick had to get a physical. “I had to for the draft – I had letters from both the Peace Corps (whose exam he had failed), and the letter from my psychiatrist that I had seen before moving to Colorado. I got my 4-F deferment while I was tripping on acid in Denver,” he said.
Rick recounted these stories to me over a cup of coffee in the kitchen of his apartment in Jamaica Plain, which he currently shares with two other roommates. As we talked, he vacillated between gleeful laughter and serious confessional outpourings of those intense years in his life. He told me about a fling with a pyromaniac he met while wallpapering the Ritz-Carlton here in Boston. “The pyromaniac, I don’t know where the fuck he went, he just vanished. He had like, four names,” he said, shaking his head. Another relationship involved a boyfriend who once pulled a gun on him in a fit of jealousy. “He was intense,” Rick said.
It was only after coming to Boston that he felt that he could stop moving. Soon after moving to Somerville, he began writing songs and playing the piano in earnest. The city had brought him back to an honest place, he said. More importantly, it gave him a direction in music that still steers his life today.
“Writing songs, to sum up in terms of these romantic disasters, which were actually very beautiful when I think about them, they weren’t dark or manipulative. But I felt that besides keeping a journal and drawing, songwriting was the first time that I was sublimating the tensions in my emotional life in a place that was honest, fun, absurd and safe. More stuff would come along subsequently, but now I had a vehicle. I would stop moving from town to town, I was self-employed in bands of my own devising,” he said.
It’s taken a while but these days, Rick is at home with himself. He’s grateful for his colorful past and looks forward to more of the same. “If you’re cool with what you are — and the older you get, the cooler you are — you could give two fucks about how you look and your appeal is not external, it’s who you are to other people in whatever relationship you entertain with them.”