LOU REED – THE BERLIN WALL OF SOUND
By Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2006. No part of this site may be reproduced in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
In the over-indulgent age of Rock Opera came this strange anomaly by Lou Reed – the first and only Rock Novel… his third solo album Berlin. It followed his uber successful 1972 Transformer album.
Everyone expressed their disdain for Berlin’s creepy cabaret – a dismal story about depravity, love, hate and decay. Lush in its’ simplicity, the melancholy orchestral score illustrates a couple’s doomed romance. Prostitution, drugs, betrayal, beatings, suicide, apathy – the whole gamut of Velvet Underground song topics converge in the lives of two wretched people in a decadent city.
The lyrics read as if Brecht and Weil sprayed graffiti on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. It sounds disturbing even by description, yet the delicate, evocative musical score illuminates the sadness of the story, and it somehow becomes beautiful. We actually start feeling sorry for these people! Through Reed’s detached apathetic narrative, we can clearly see the seedy rooms they live in, the bars, streets and alleys they scour for drugs. Only a true artist can make this happen. Listeners just didn’t get it – for thirty years.
In hindsight, Reed’s masterpiece is given due respect – even by the artist himself now age 64, who just thought of it as “Another one of my albums that didn’t sell.” It apparently took much convincing for Reed to perform the work in its’ entirety at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in December. All four nights sold out quickly. Sets and films were specially created for the theatrical multi-media event by painter Julian Schnabel and his daughter. The album’s original producer, Bob Ezrin (the man behind KISS and Alice Cooper’s early hits, and the other ‘Wall’ by Pink Floyd) is also the musical director of the live show. There is a horn section, and a choir is joined by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. Ezrin is on stage directing the proceedings. (The performance travels to Australia’s Sydney Festival in 2007).
Upon the album’s completion, producer Bob Ezrin had a semi-nervous breakdown and was quoted as saying “I think the best idea is that we put it in a box, put the box in a closet, leave it there and don’t listen to it again.” Musicians on the album, recorded in London included the horns of the Brecker brothers, Steve Winwood on keys, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, and Cream’s Jack Bruce on bass. For the live performance Lou nabbed Steve Hunter (who is also Reed’s classic Rock N’ Roll Animal featured player) on guitar, along with a few of Lou’s long-time comrades.
A friend said, “Oh, you’re going to the Lou Reed show – that should be fun!” It made me laugh. This was not about fun. This is the most depressing album ever made! Of course it bears some of Lou’s sarcastic trademarks. The heroine is on heroin, he rhymes vial with vile, and eye with I, but no amount of unintentional levity can raise us from the depths of despair in this pitiful story.
After a brief overture of “Sad Song” by the astounding young choir, the song “Berlin” begins eerily with warped, ghoulish voices – a drunken birthday party, clinking glasses and slurred voices. A warm on-screen glow is lit by candles. The lilting, bluesy cabaret of the piano is the only sound, until Lou begins his familiar monotone narrative.
In the purely Germanic oom-pah of “Lady Day” we are taken to the bar where the heroine, Caroline sings in her moment of glory. As she walks home, Reed artfully depicts her life with few words; In the hotel that she called home – It had greenish walls – a bathroom in the hall.”
“Men Of Good Fortune” is illustrated by marching military men, poor peasants and workers on-screen. Rich or poor, for better or for worse – and Lou, he just don’t care at all! The song is extended to exhibit the magnificent dueling guitar work of Hunter and Reed. All of the instruments sound exactly as they do on the album. This is a major achievement. It wasn’t like seeing the movie version of a book. It was as though Lou was reading the book (album) to us in his living room by the fire.
After the pulsating intro to the druggy “How Do You Think It Feels” sung in the first person of a succinct, articulate drug addict, (“When you’ve been up for five days / hunting around always / Cause you’re afraid of sleeping.”) Everybody on stage rocks out, including the horn section. During “Oh Jim”, a hateful tale of betrayal another roaring Hunter/Reed guitar exchange ensues.
Read my story all about the song, including an amazing cover version by Howard Tate with Lou on guitar!
‘How Do You Think It Feels?’
The delicate score of “Caroline Says (II)” illustrates the shattering and twinkling of broken glass in slow motion, and an almost soothing, shimmering ambiance during the lines, “She put her fist through the window pane – It was such a funny feeling.” Then comes a cool musical chill during the line “It’s so cold in Alaska” as Caroline, peacefully blacks out, leaving us ‘comfortably numb’.
During “The Kids”, with his eyes closed and intensity on his face, Lou achieved his best ‘donkey gets hit by a train’ guitar solo. With his eyes closed you could see Lou levitate a foot off the stage in his mind, as his instrument brayed in unison with a choir of crying children. It was one ugly/beautiful cacaphonic moment among many this evening. “In the alleys and bars, no she couldn’t be beat – that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn, anyone away. They’re taking her children away.”
In “The Bed” Caroline’s suicide is explained…”And this is the room where she took the razor, and cut her wrists that strange and fateful night – And I said, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh what a feeling.” Then the choir achieves the supernatural. It is ghostly and ghastly, eerily rejecting our heroine from heaven and taking us with her into the beyond for a moment, capturing that exact spooky, ethereal feeling from the record. Amazing!
The strings and choir tear at our hearts in the beautiful eulogy “Sad Song” which goes on and on until we are emotionally exhausted, and when it’s over, we wish it wasn’t.
About Berlin, in his usual sarcastic, deadpan Warholian delivery, Reed told The New York Times, “I’d never been there. It’s just a metaphor. I like division…
I had never been to Berlin when I wrote Berlin. It was an imaginary journey. I couldn’t even go coach.”
“It’s now called classic. My albums have continuously gotten seriously panned and then, twenty years later, they’re re-released and they say ‘this is a classic.'”
The encore was a bit of a let down after the stunning Berlin performance. “Sweet Jane” with R&R Animal Hunter on guitar should have been incredible, but it was slow and without punch. Antony rendered a compelling version of “Candy Says”, and another sick little ditty, “Rock Minuet” was a mellow treat. It was fitting that the encore was low-key because we were all in such a vulnerable condition after Berlin. Still, this was one of the most important live gigs I’ve ever seen. By the way, it was filmed for a future DVD release.
The next Reed revival on the horizon; Bob Ezrin is working with Berlin’s avant-garde orchestra Zeitkratzer on their version of Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music!
- For more about the origins of the Berlin song cycle, see Betteye Kronstad’s book, Perfect Day, An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed. Betteye is Lou’s ex-wife, who explains that the album imagery is culled from actual events in their lives.
© Madeline Bocaro 2006. No part of the materials available through madelinex.com may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of Madeline Bocaro. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Madeline Bocaro is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without prior written permission of Madeline Bocaro.
9 thoughts on “LOU REED LIVE – THE BERLIN WALL OF SOUND”
Thanks so much for this review (that Jayne County posted on myspace)! In return ——>>Lou Reed live @ St. Ann’s 120406 (free mp3s of entire show) >>http://www.bigozine2.com/archive/ARrarities06/ARlrbrooklyn.html>>(I find this site a bit tricky and I don’t think these files will be up for very long.)>>Lou Reed – Berlin song-cycle>Brooklyn 2006 [no label, 1CD]>Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, December 14, 2006 >>This is what David Fricke of Rolling Stone magazine wrote: “On December 14, 33 years after the album’s release, (Lou) Reed opened a sold-out four-night stand at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, performing the whole of Berlin live for the first time, with full orchestration… The story still thrills as it repels: the way Reed, with a poet’s ear and a reporter’s eye and no intruding moral comment, renders both artificial ecstasies (booze, speed, reckless sex) and real-life horror (beatings, blood on the sheets).>>“But the most astonishing thing about hearing Berlin live was the greatest-hits glow of the songs. The arrangements, which sounded muted and crowded on the album’s original, flimsy RCA pressing, bloomed in 3-D. The German beer-hall thump of Lady Day became an elephant-march heartbeat with guitarist Steve Hunter, who played on the album sessions, breaking out in fits of arena-rock shriek. In Caroline Says I, Reed countered the flirty melody and gently buoyant score with dry vocal cool. And when he got to Caroline Says II, Reed offset the escalating violence and emotional collapse with a tenderness, in the music and his singing, that made it a love song in all but the bruises.”>>And as reported in the New York Times, “Mr Reed has gathered a starry group of friends to help turn Berlin into a semitheatrical, multimedia performance. Julian Schnabel has created sets and will be filming the show, and Mr Schnabel’s daughter, Lola, has shot film scenes with the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, which will be projected onto the stage. Bob Ezrin, who produced the original album, will be doing musical direction with Hal Willner. The indie darling Antony [of Antony & The Johnsons] will appear with a children’s choir and will also sing backup with Sharon Jones, queen of the local retro-soul scene.”>>For those into trivial pursuit, the show even incorporated the “lost minute” instrumental interlude heard on the cassette and eight-track tapes!>>Thanks to upload for sharing the tracks. Also note that while this audience recording is generally excellent, the volume is slightly low.>>Click on the highlighted tracks to download the MP3s (these are high quality, stereo MP3s – sample rate of 192 kibit/s). As far as we can ascertain, these tracks have never been officially released. >>>Track 01 introduction (2.3MB) >Track 02 Sad Song overture (2.4MB) >Track 03 Berlin (3.5MB) >Track 04 Lady Day (5.7MB) >Track 05 Men Of Good Fortune (8.2MB) >Track 06 Caroline Says (I) (5.2MB) >Track 07 How Do You Think It Feels? (5.5MB) >Track 08 Oh, Jim (10.0MB) >Track 09 Caroline Says (II) (7.9MB) >Track 10 The Kids (10.9MB) >Track 11 The Bed (7.6MB) >Track 12 Sad Song (10.5MB) > encore >Track 13 encore introduction (2.0MB) >Track 14 Sweet Jane (8.5MB) >Track 15 Candy Says (7.0MB) >Track 16 Rock Minuet (8.2MB) >>>Other musicians:>Rob Wasserman – bass>Fernando Saunders – bass>Steve Hunter – guitar>Tony “Thunder” Smith – drums>Sharon Jones – vocals>Steve Bernstein – trumpet>Jane Scarpantoni – cello>Hal Willner – producer>Bob Ezrin – conductor
Madeline, Excellent analysis, as always. But I wouldn’t say “everyone hated” it upon release. Yes, coming after the commercial breakthrough of Transformer and its three iconic tracks that will outlast time, Berlin was a far more ambitious endeavor. I — and fans like Julian Schnabel — immediately loved it. For me I was still in high school when I bought the 99 cent cutout! probably after Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal put Lou back on track for a wider audience. Even though I was a dumb kid, I recognized Berlin was art, reflected by the soundscape created by the narrative and Ezrin’s production, and the 12” x 12” booklet insert with theatrical photos and lyrics. I was at one of the St. Ann’s 2006 performances and I am so glad Lou was able to give Berlin a sprucing up in a live setting.
It was great seeing you at BeatleFest and good luck with your Yoko book!
OK I should’ve meant that to read everyone BUT US hated it!
it’s still one of my favorite albums of all time.
It was great seeing you too! Keep in touch!
I was 16, having been introduced to Lou and VU by my best friend’s older sister who was a hippy. I owe her a debt to the artist she introduced me to. I bought Berlin expecting something different, disappointed at first, kept listening to it despite the complaints of my friends. As Larry mentioned being a depressive 16 year old I recognized it as art and the strident heart felt singing of Lou, I ended up in so many arguments about this album. So glad it was treated as it should be only a few short years before his death.