Revisiting Berlin: Lou Reed Reinhabits His Berlin Song Cycle

The Berlin Wall


World Premier of “Berlin” at St. Anne’s Warehouse, NYC

Performance of “Berlin” at Australia’s 2006 Sydney Festival

Lou Reed: Berlin, 1973

In 1972, Lou Reed released his first hit album, the top-thirty glitter gem Transformer. Reed’s next record, 1973’s Berlin, nearly killed his career. A ten-song short story charting a downward spiral from innocent bliss to suicidal hopelessness, Berlin was the graphic underside of glam-rock, a tour of the mess that’s left when the pills wear off and the sparkles fade, sung by Reed in his drop-dead monotone against a full army of top session players, strings and choristers.

Berlin was unrepentant in its tragic detail and theatrical ambition. And Reed paid dearly for his nerve, in near-zero sales and a blizzard of bad reviews. The one thing no one wrote about, or even seemed to notice, was the simple magnificence and, considering the narrative, contrary pop lift of the songs on Berlin.

Tickets are going on sale this week for the European premiere concerts of Lou Reed’s 1973 landmark album Berlin. These rare European concerts will present Reed performing with a 30-piece ensemble, which includes his band, a string and horn section, and a children’s choir. The first European performance will be in Brussels on June 18th, followed performances in Holland, France, Germany, Britain and Italy.

The Berlin European concerts are being hailed as a rare insight into one of music’s greatest minds, a labour of love and an integral part of rock history. “I only do this every thirty years,” says Reed. “One time, one time only. You can tell your kids you saw Lou Reed’s Berlin.”

The European concerts follow the original electrifying world premiere of Berlin that was held at St. Anne’s Warehouse in New York City in December 2006. St. Anne’s Warehouse is the same site where Reed first performed the Andy Warhol inspired Songs For Drella (Drella is Andy Warhol) with John Cale back in 1990. Berlin made its debut with full orchestration and atmospheric stage under the direction of Julian Schnabel. The story remains both gripping and repulsive. Reed, with a poetic voice and a journalist’s eye, absent invasive moral comment, brings to life both the artificial ecstasies (alcohol, speed, reckless sex) and real-life horror (beatings, blood on the sheets).

The concert in New York City was followed by three performances at Australia’s Sydney Festival in January 2006, where the entire Berlin song cycle was performed live. Reed and his band were accompanied by a string and horn section, along with a children’s choir.

Last year, Ben Sisario published a detailed interview with Lou Reed in the New York Times. The article revisits the 1973 album Berlin, delving beneath its grim and hopeless surface, to reveal its dark riches:

“Sometimes called the most depressing album ever made, Berlin is the story of Caroline and Jim, a lowlife couple in the title city — she is promiscuous, he beats her, and they both do lots of drugs — and the tragic dissolution of their relationship. The demimonde of drugs and sadomasochism glamorized in songs by the Velvet Underground, Mr. Reed’s visionary 1960s avant-rock band, is shown with miserable consequences, as in “The Bed,” when Caroline commits suicide and Jim remains bitterly numb:

This is the place where she lay her head

When she went to bed at night …

And this is the place where she cut her wrists

That odd and fateful night

And I said oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, what a feeling

The album was made at a high point in Mr. Reed’s career. His second solo record, “Transformer,” produced by David Bowie and released in 1972, had become a glam-rock keystone, and the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” from that album, was a major hit. (It remains his only song to have reached the Top 40.) Looking to continue Mr. Reed’s commercial success, his record label enlisted Mr. Ezrin, who, though only 23, had already made several hit records with Alice Cooper.

“The expectation was that I was going to do something very commercial with him,” Mr. Ezrin said from his office in Toronto. “Sort of Alice Cooper-ish, real mainstream. In reality I had become mesmerized by the poetry and by the art of Lou. Maybe I lost sight of my mandate. Honestly I can look back and say I probably didn’t do what I was hired to do.”

Recorded in London with a group of high-profile musicians including Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce, the songs of “Berlin” are rock filtered through a Brecht-Weill sensibility, with piano at the center of arrangements for band, horns and strings. Songs like “The Bed” and “The Kids” are among the most joyless Mr. Reed has ever recorded, but also some of his most delicate and intense.

The album has a narrative that stretches over 10 songs, and Mr. Reed and Mr. Ezrin had dreams of staging it. “We were bordering on genius with this work,” Mr. Ezrin said. “We were doing things that you’re just not supposed to do with rock music.”

But the album was, as Mr. Reed puts it, “a monumental failure at the time it came out — commercially, critically, you name it.” Reviewers savaged it. A reviewer for Rolling Stone, appalled at its seediness, called it “a disaster”; one critic described the vocals as “like the heat-howl of the dying otter.” (Not all writers were so cruel, though. John Rockwell of The New York Times praised it as “one of the strongest, most original rock records in years,” and Rolling Stone took the unusual step of publishing a rebuttal to its own review, saying that “prettiness has nothing to do with art, nor does good taste, good manners or good morals.”)

Though it stalled at No. 98 on the charts and drifted in and out of print, over time “Berlin” has built a passionate cult audience. One of its most ardent fans is Mr. Schnabel, who called the album the soundtrack to his life. “This record was the embodiment of love’s dark sisters: jealousy, rage and loss,” he said. “It may be the most romantic record ever made.”

As for the title, Mr. Reed is typically blunt when asked why he chose to set the story in the once-divided city of Berlin instead of, say, New York. “I’d never been there,” he said. “It’s just a metaphor. I like division.”

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