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Lou Reed
Berlin: Live At St. Ann's Warehouse John Tatlock , October 29th, 2008 16:58

Lou Reed - Berlin Live at St. Ann's Warehouse

I first encountered the 1973 studio version of Berlin some time in the early 90s while flipping through a friend's vinyl collection. At the time, I was a big fan of Reed's previous LP, the Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Transformer, but I knew little else of his solo career. "Is this any good?" I asked. "It's brilliant, but it's fucking horrible" came the reply.

In one sense, that's the whole review wrapped up right there. It is unquestionably brilliant. And it is truly fucking horrible.

I'm plainly not going to get away with turning that in to the editor, though, so let's attempt to get to grips with what Berlin is, why Reed disowned it for a quarter of a century, and how its word-of-mouth rehabilitation led to this remarkable new live recording.

A common take on Reed is that he tends to perversely sabotage his own burgeoning popularity whenever mainstream success beckons – but a close listening to his 70s canon suggests an entirely different narrative. Arguably, it's not that Reed didn't want to make commercially successful records, but rather that he had an extremely odd take on what a commercially viable record actually was. On Transformer, he'd ran with Bowie and Ronson's Ziggy Stardust-era lush glam pop style to great effect, most notably on radio staples ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘Satellite of Love’. Conventional wisdom suggests that Reed's next move was to make Berlin a deliberately difficult record, but in reality, he hired star producer and orchestral arranger Bob Ezrin with whom he set out to outdo Bowie and Ronson at their own game; Ezrin in turn putting together a crack team of early 70s star players like Steve Winwood and Jack Bruce. There are no rough edges to the original studio recording, a glorious widescreen swirl of strings, horns and bell-like piano, and that same grandiosity is present in this live recording. Ezrin is back on board as musical director, leading a seven piece orchestral section and the Brooklyn Youth Choir. Regular Reed collaborator Antony Hegarty makes a couple of spellbinding vocal appearances, and Reed's own proto-metal guitar playing has rarely sounded as massive and strident as it does here.

So what is it that makes Berlin so "fucking horrible"? Reed has spoken in recent years of trying to create the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel, and Berlin was his first – and last, for many years – attempt to achieve this. Where Transformer was a series of snapshots of New York freaks, telling strange enough tales to have a little rock and roll edge, but never delving so deep as to really distress, Berlin is a brutally unflinching portrait of a drug-addicted couple and their sustained, and tragically successful, efforts to destroy themselves and each other.

Yes, it's a concept album, but you will search in vain for similarities to Sergeant Pepper and Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. Even Bowie's contemporaneous darker works in the form such as Diamond Dogs and Station to Station seem cartoonish compared to Berlin. And that Ezrin later applied a largely similar production style to Pink Floyd's plodding navel-gaze The Wall should not be taken as evidence that Berlin has anything in common with any of the 70s concept album roster.

It's hard to be sure exactly what American novels Reed thinks qualify as Great, but Berlin is perhaps best compared to Hubert Selby Jr's brilliantly horrific lowlife tales such as Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn. As with Selby's novels, this is a tale of people deliberately seeking a grim fate and a serious exploration of the self destructiveness at the core of clinical depression and chronic drug abuse. The coloured girls do not go "doo-de-doo" anywhere on this record. And of course, that's what went wrong, commercially speaking; with the world expecting Transformer 2, Reed didn't have a hope in hell of many people cocking a receptive ear to what he was trying to do. After a critical mauling and disappointing sales, Reed rarely played these songs live, and didn't attempt anything of this scope until 1989's New York, some sixteen years later.

Coming in the form of a series of sparsely worded vignettes, the powerful economy of the writing remains remarkable. The opening title track is a lyrically minimalist re-working of a song from Reed's eponymous first solo album, and sketches in a simplistic picture of a couple first meeting in the titular city. "It was very nice" deadpans Reed over the stark, wintry piano backing, leaving little doubt that things won't remain nice for very long.

The following two songs, ‘Lady Day’ and ‘Men of Good Fortune’ are sharp introductory portraits of the two protagonists, Caroline and Jim. Reed is a master of minute detail, and while his first verse description of Caroline dancing and singing in a bar appears to hark back to Transformer's starry eyed adoration of vampish sleaze, his second verse reference to "The hotel that she called home / it had greenish walls / and a bathroom in the hall" gives the first hint of the squalor to come. Similarly, ‘Men of Good Fortune’, sung from Jim's point of view, initially reads as a Springsteen-esque celebration of blue collar guts and determination, but rapidly reveals itself to be a disturbing trawl through a psyche defined by class envy, self-loathing and general misanthropy. "The rich son waits for his father to die / the poor just drink and cry" declares Reed / Jim, before delivering the pay off "And me, I just don't care at all". Both of these songs are backed with goose stepping metal riffs and wiry atonal soloing from Reed which must have seemed insane in 1973, but make much more sense in a post grunge, post noise-rock world.

With these initial sketches out of the way, Reed gets properly stuck in with a pair of songs exploring the two protagonists’ routine abuse of one another placed either side of one that describes the daily grind of their mutual drug addiction. ‘Caroline Says Part 1’ details Jim's increasing difficulty coping with Caroline's mockery of him, demanding "a man, not a boy" and sneering at his poverty and humble roots, while ‘How Do You Think It Feels’ explores his profound alienation while coming down from a five day amphetamine bender.

Reed deliberately plays with the misogynistic rock cliché of an emotionally straightforward man being led to despair by a capricious woman. But he neatly skewers this notion in ‘Oh, Jim’, a grim recounting of how he "Beat her black and blue and [got] it straight", leading into a roaring, terrifying chorus of "When you're looking through the eyes of hate".

At this point, Reed truly goes for the jugular, switching gears into the stately, harrowingly beautiful centrepiece of the album, ‘Caroline Says Part 2’. If there is a more distressing first verse in rock, most sane listeners will pray to never hear it. "Caroline says / as she gets up off the floor / why is it that you beat me / it isn't any fun" he intones over a plaintive acoustic guitar, audibly choking on his own lyrics some 25 years after first setting them down. The odd observation that "all her friends call her Alaska" initially goes unexplained, only for Antony Hegarty to bring his agonisingly exquisite voice to join the closing refrain "it's so cold in Alaska".

It's this constant switching of points of view and frames of reference that most makes the case for Reed as perhaps rock's most important and progressive lyricist, and most clearly illustrate that the appalled 70s critics had it wrong about Berlin. Rock is not in any way lacking in album length stares into the abyss, but they are almost always from a singular point of view, that of self-absorbed howls of (usually male) angst. However, right from his earliest songs with The Velvet Underground, Reed specialised in a more rounded reportage, and his ability to show us how truly awful his protagonists are, and yet still demand - and get - our sympathy for them is remarkable. Reed is making a serious point with Berlin, challenging the listener to continually consider and re-consider their positions on the archetypes he is presenting us, without ever offering any conclusions of his own.

After this, it's onto the album's most notorious and controversial song, ‘The Kids’. The Berlin myth states that Ezrin deliberately lied to his young son, telling him his mother had died in order to get the sound of crying down on tape. Ezrin denies this, claiming he just happened to have a tape recorder handy during a common or garden childhood tantrum. Either which way, the true horror of the song lies, once again, in Reed's words. Writing from Jim's point of view again he explores Jim's gruesome delight in Caroline's children (who as we find out later, are also his own) being take into care by social services. The implication is that it's Jim who has painted her as "not a good mother" and a "miserable rotten slut", and thus orchestrated the situation. The seemingly tender chorus "Since she lost her daughter, it's her eyes that fill with water" is turned on its head by the cruel observation that "I am much happier this way".

The live recording incorporates the recorded wails and cries of "mummy!", which are, to this reviewer at least, even more schlocky and unnecessary here than on the original album, and distract from the astuteness of the writing as much as they ever did.

The rest of Berlin stays with Jim's point of view, largely out of necessity as ‘The Bed’ describes Caroline's suicide in the same bed where "our children were conceived", and finally coming to a bleak, unresolved end in ‘Sad Song’, where Jim declares "someone else would have broken both her arms" over a psychotically triumphant rock backing.

And if you're not truly unsettled after all that., then there is something wrong with you even wronger than whatever it was that motivated Reed to put the whole grisly thing together in the first place. Almost by way of apology, Reed and Hegarty duet on a gorgeous reading of the Velvets' ‘Candy Says’, which despite being dark by any usual standards ("Candy says / I've come to hate my body") is a blessed relief after Berlin.

There are a couple of other songs; Reed's ‘The Rock Minuet’ from 2000's Ecstasy LP and the Velvets' ‘Sweet Jane’, but they are basically irrelevant bonus trackery. The odds of being able to get particularly excited about hearing some back catalogue classics is more or less nil after Berlin, and they were presumably only part of the concert to give people a few minutes to get over what they'd just experienced.

Berlin, it's safe to say, will never make it onto heavy rotation on anyone's iPod, and incendiary as it is, this performance does nothing to change that. That's really not the point of it, and it makes more sense to approach this, as Reed implored listeners in the liner notes for New York "as though it were a book or a movie". For Reed, this presumably means you should give it your full attention, and you should, but it also means that you only really need to hear it once every couple of years at very most. If you find yourself in a "Berlin mood" with any regularity, you should probably get yourself down to the doctor.

Of course, whether you find any value in what Reed is doing here has a lot to do with your disposition. For many, Berlin is ultimately far too distressing and difficult to take. The case for a work like this is that in exploring such extreme specifics, an author can uncover more general truths about the human condition. Reed achieves that here, but he does it in a relentlessly bleak style that doesn't meet the listener even close to half-way.

If you haven't heard the original album, either version is equally essential, but the sheer power of the performances in this recording and Hegarty's contributions make this the one to go for. If you already know Berlin, then you already know whether you're ready for another crawl through sewers or not. But when you are, you should probably make it these sewers.

Like I already said: it's brilliant, but it's fucking horrible.