Clip: Lou Reed stages Berlin
Revisiting a Bleak Album to Plumb Its Dark Riches
By BEN SISARIO
Published: December 13, 2006
Lou Reed refers to it with an understatement that borders on dismissal.
"It was just another one of my albums that didn't sell," he said dryly
at a West Village cafe recently.
But get him talking a little — and a little talk is all one can expect
from Lou Reed — and it becomes clear that "Berlin," his bleak,
Brechtian song cycle from 1973, which he is performing in full for the
first time at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn for four nights
beginning tomorrow, is a treasured high point in a what has been a
lifelong project of pushing at the aesthetic boundaries of rock 'n'
"It's a great album," he said. (He has also called it a masterpiece.)
"I admire it. It's trying to be real, to apply novelists' ideas and
techniques into a rock format." He mentioned William S. Burroughs,
Hubert Selby Jr., Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Chandler as literary
"But it sounds so pretentious saying that." he added. "It just sounds
too B.A. in English. Which I have. So there you go."
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 will appear with a children's choir and will also
sing backup with Sharon Jones, queen of the local retro-soul scene.
For Lou Reed fans it is a dream come true, and the concerts have long
been sold out. But Mr. Reed, now 64, said he is surprised that many
listeners remember the record at all.
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
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."
For the show at St. Ann's Warehouse, which is being co-produced with
the Sydney Festival in Australia (where "Berlin" travels next month),
Mr. Schnabel has created sets based on some of his recent paintings,
which are meant to evoke the "greenish walls" of the fleabag hotel
where Caroline lives. "Lou calls it the Berlin Wall," he said.
"Berlin" also became a life's accompaniment of a different sort for
25-year-old Lola Schnabel. "I just remember that soundtrack at the
moment my parents were getting divorced," she said. "It wasn't that
the music was disturbing; it was what was happening with the music.
But it's part of my childhood."
The album was recorded when Mr. Reed's own first marriage was
collapsing. "This kind of anger didn't come from a made-up place," Mr.
Ezrin said. "It is from deep within Lou's psyche. We've all been
through relationships where we've been disappointed by a partner and
been hurt and wanted to hurt them back."
When asked about the circumstances of its creation, Mr. Reed said, "I
After years of prodding from Susan Feldman, the artistic director of
Arts at St. Ann's, which operates St. Ann's Warehouse, to perform the
album, Mr. Reed relented once he saw how dearly it was loved by Mr.
Schnabel and other of his friends. "I just never wanted to do it," he
said. "I wasn't itching to do anything in particular. I usually just
try to do new things."
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,
"I'd never been there," he said. "It's just a metaphor. I like division."