When I heard that Lou Reed would be spending four nights in Brooklyn performing his landmark 1973 album, Berlin, in its entirety, it seemed impossible to pass up. Of course, it seemed equally impossible that it’d be any good. The only time I’d seen him perform—during a Harry Smith tribute concert at St. Ann’s in the late ‘90s—was disappointing. He was unfriendly, monotone, and closed off. In comparison to earlier acts like Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, David Johansen, DJ Spooky, and Gavin Friday, Reed, who came on near the end, was simply not that interesting.
I’ve since passed on several opportunities to see the singer, but Berlin? Thirty-three years later? A complicated tour de force, the record is one of the most emotional and devastating albums I know—one I’ve listened to countless times over the years—and it was being played live, with the original producer Bob Ezrin doing musical direction alongside Hal Willner. Yes, I was afraid that Berlin at St. Ann’s would seem a shadow of the original album, but I had to go anyway, if only to hear “The Bed” in that cavernous dark-walled space. And, of course, in case I was wrong.
Though it was more or less panned when it came out (Rolling Stone called it “a disaster”) and a huge commercial disappointment in the wake of the more upbeat, glammy Transformer, Berlin was, and is, an astonishing record. As artist Julian Schnabel—the man who directed and designed the sets for the St. Ann’s show—said, it is perhaps “the most romantic album ever made.” Lou Reed approached it like a novel, using various points of view to tell the story of two protagonists, Caroline and Jim, and the downward spiral of their romance in a still-divided Berlin. It’s not a sweet romance—they’re cruel to each other, he abuses her, she’s promiscuous, they’re both addicts, they have children who are taken away, and she eventually commits suicide. But, for all its woe, the album is infused with grand operatic feeling, and the closer, “Sad Song,” is not simply sad—it’s both bitter and hopeful.
When the lights went dark at St. Ann’s, Schnabel stood up before the crowd in front of a curtain with giant waves projected on it. He talked about how in love he was with the album and how he had designed the set because he didn’t think anyone else should, or could, do it. Then the curtain opened to reveal his work: golden and glimmering, the set had Asian figures on the walls and a strange green centerpiece, both parts of Caroline’s rundown hotel. Also adorning the stage were a choir, an orchestra, and Sharon Jones and Antony (as in Antony and the Johnsons), all there to back the performance.
As soon as Reed came out and the opening song kicked in, I knew there would be nothing flat about this performance. He was perfect, equally hard and tender, and utterly charming. This was not a muted version, but, instead, the album intensified—lush, full, and sweeping. A huge screen behind Reed projected nostalgic, haunting images (shot by Lola Schnabel): there was a beautiful woman, a child running around in wings, and countless other images from memory or dream.
As I heard the album live, I began to understand how much of a novel it really is. The listener is taken from those opening moments of rapture and hope—“it was paradise”—through every emotion, from love and broken-heartedness to failure and loss. Early on, Jim agonizes, “She treats me like I am a fool / But to me she’s still a German Queen” and, “How do you think it feels / When you’re speeding and lonely?” Caroline becomes so cold “all her friends call her Alaska,” and Jim beats her “black and blue” until she says, at a later point, with heart-wrenching, soul-numbing clarity, “You can beat me all you want to / But I don’t love you any more.”
As the story unfolded, Reed stood calm and cool, typically deadpan. But, backed by sublime strings, horns, piano, and guitar, his voice was appropriately expressive, his words delivered raw and with feeling. This is, after all, an album about pure loss, and all the grief, rage, and love accompanying it.
I began to feel chills and shivers move through me as the evening wore on (I can’t remember ever sitting through anything where I was openly weeping). The show was like a wave pulling us along. We heard children screaming as they were being taken away, experienced Caroline’s suicide in the hushed, wrenching tones of “The Bed,” and listened as the surviving Jim looked through his picture book, lamenting that “somebody else would have broken both of her arms.” It felt like we’d been through something miraculous—heaven and hell mixed together.
After Berlin came to its haunting conclusion, there was a short break. The audience could barely speak, let alone move. And then the band came back. It seemed unnecessary at first, given the gravity of what we’d just seen, but Reed’s soft performance of “Sweet Jane” was absolutely gorgeous. When he finished, Antony stepped up for a rendition of “Candy Says.” I’ve never heard anything like it: Antony sings like a ghost, or an angel. Soon Reed started singing with him, and their voices began to intertwine. To hear a voice as brittle as Reed’s against Antony’s crazy angelic croon was just… stunning. Reed closed with “Rock Minuet” from his 2000 album Ecstasy—a song which, despite its perversely nihilistic street scenes, is almost jaunty.
As we headed back outside in that forlorn part of town, the Brooklyn Bridge sparkling up ahead of us, I was wiped out, wrecked, and exhilarated. Thirty-three years after the album appeared. Amazing.
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Carolyn Turgeon’s novel Rain Village was published by Unbridled Books in November.