Lou Reed‘s 1973 album Berlin is a concept album relating the tale of a doomed woman named Caroline living in the eponymous city. The term “concept album,” then and now, invokes immediate condescension from fans and critics alike, calling to mind the progressive rock excesses of 1970s megabands The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia), Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), and Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans). The poet and arty downtown Manhattanite Reed might have better served himself by referring to Berlin as something more fancy-sounding, perhaps a “song cycle.”
Reed’s previous album Transformer was a great commercial success, debuting the enduring hits “Satellite of Love”, “Perfect Day”, and “Walk on the Wild Side”. To follow it up with something like Berlin may have been loaded with artistic integrity, but was asking for trouble in terms of making a living. I recall reading that enough material was written and recorded for it to be a double-LP, but it was too much for a single LP, so the work was unsatisfactorily edited down to a single disc before release (I can’t find a source for this factoid online, but I believe it was related in the liner notes of his 1992 retrospective boxed set Between Thought and Expression). Produced by Bob Ezrin (whose concept album credentials also include Pink Floyd’s The Wall), it was a commercial disaster at the time. So, cursed from the beginning, the full studio version has apparently never been released.
In retrospect, Reed now seems to have been compelled to flee from commercial success, or at the very least was bound and determined not to repeat himself. Reed’s other infamous commercial disaster Metal Machine Music was another deliberate provocation: even the most open minded musicologist might charitably characterize it as earsplitting noise. But Berlin is different, hated more for its intensity and subject matter than its sound. Several of the songs are lovely, but wow is the complete work depressing, full of anger, venom, resentment, death, despair, and guilt. The song “The Kids” is especially harrowing, ending with a tape of children wailing.
Over time, the album was eventually rediscovered. One of those reappraising Berlin was no less than artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. So it came to be, that 33 years after its release, Schnabel proposed to Reed that Berlin really ought to be a film. Schnabel is obviously attracted to artists dedicated to their work with utter conviction: revolutionary New York Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the eponymous biopic, the gay poet Reinaldo Arenas in Castro-era Cuba in Before Night Falls, and the paralyzed writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The Berlin DVD bonus features include a brief conversation with Reed and Schnabel on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, in which Schnabel describes his attraction to the cinema from the perspective of a painter: he reverently refers to the canvas-like movie screen as “The Rectangle.”
Something best appreciated by seeing Reed perform live is that he is a great guitarist. He’s also visibly in surprisingly good shape for a former junkie (sorry, but it’s true). Does he practice yoga? Reed in performance is supremely cool and detached, but some startlingly real emotion comes through in his vocal delivery; he spits out the lines “they took her children away” from the song “The Kids” with real venom.
Original guitarist Steve Hunter rejoined Reed for the Berlin tour, and can barely contain his pleasure, despite the grim subject matter. Bob Ezrin himself conducts with great enthusiasm, but oddly, he seems to be facing the drummer, away from the choir and woodwinds. One of my favorite bassists, Fernando Saunders, doesn’t really get to shine, but perhaps it was my sound system that couldn’t do him justice. Julian Schnabel’s daughter Lola directed film clips projected during the performance, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline.
So Reed finally got a chance to present Berlin live, as a whole piece. Now the once-denigrated work has become a world tour, a theatrical feature film, a live album, and a DVD. Reed is now considered a New York deity, not the erratic addict he was back in the day. His career is far from over and there’s plenty of time for more drama, but could this be his ultimate revenge?
The encore includes a special treat, a lovely version of “Rock Minuet” sung by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) in his otherworldly voice. “Rock Minuet” was not from the original album, but a special request from Schnabel, who rightly felt it belonged. But it’s followed by a bummer: a desultory performance of the Velvet Underground standard “Sweet Jane”. It’s a letdown that after the emotionally intense proceedings, that Reed seems truly bored here and just walks through a song he’s probably performed hundreds if not thousands of times.