Lou Reed’s Berlin, originally released in 1973 after the well received Transformer, failed to deliver “Walk on the Wild Side Part II”, that is, another radio hit. Instead, Reed gave fans and critics a theatrical concept album overflowing with instrumentation and desperate debauchery. They hated it. The album documents the degradation of the relationship between the (supposedly) fictional characters Jim and Caroline due to drugs, depression and general bad parenting. Critics not named Lester Bangs roundly panned the album in the United States and it sold poorly outside Europe.
Sometimes, however, the passage of time changes minds. For one reason or another, something bad gradually becomes something good. Hey, it happened with the Velvet Underground. Maybe the world simply wasn’t ready for Berlin in 1973, but the perception of it gradually shifted over time. Today, many critics and fans consider Berlin a classic and a high point in Reed’s amazingly influential career.
Reed wants to make sure you were paying attention to that last point: Berlin is a classic and everyone who hated back in the early ’70s was wrong, wrong, wrong!
Evidence comes in the form of Berlin: Live at St. Ann’s Warehouse released on Matador. Culled from performances of the album in 2006, its release coincides with the DVD release of Lou Reed’s Berlin directed by Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly). The album and accompanying DVD feature musicians Fernando Saunders, Antony, Steve Hunter, Rob Wassermann, Rupert Christie, Sharon Jones, a seven piece orchestra, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, so like the original, there’s no lack of bombast.
However, it’s the rendering of that bombast that makes this album not as appealing as the original because it dilutes the source material. Berlin circa 1973 works primarily because it succeeds at creating an atmosphere rife with pain and frigid isolation. Although the songs are generally good, the overall mood of complete despair does more to convince than the songwriting. Warmth is the enemy on Berlin: Live. Well, warmth and the fact that this record already came out 35 years ago and a self-congratulatory live album of it is largely pointless.
Berlin as it’s performed here just doesn’t sound harrowing anymore — it simply sounds like a concert where people are enjoying themselves and yelling “Loouuuu!” between songs. The overheated production and occasional guitar wankery contribute to the mood-destroying as well.
Reed hams it up on “Oh, Jim”, declaring, “Oh, my goodness gracious!” and pleading with Steve Hunter to “Do that again!” Normally his tossed-off delivery and campy banter are well-worn assets in concert, but since he’s supposedly inhabiting a character these moments remove the atmosphere of despair in a way that’s less than satisfying.
However, there are moments where the mood of the source material matches with the performances on this live release. “The Bed” works because Lou sounds genuinely damaged while removing the last bit of air from the venue. The starkness of the music, Reed’s tragic-comic intonation, and the angelic backing vocals transport the crowd to the space where humor and horror trade punches. This is the space where its difficult to breathe, the space where the original Berlin resides in spirit. “The Bed” is a flash of Reed’s ability to captivate and the heights this entire release could have reached given different treatment.
The encore brings a “Candy Says” duet with Antony that provides the desperation, the pathos, and the depth of sorrow lacking in the majority of the previous tracks. The warmth on display here is lovely, sad and genuinely affecting.
“Sweet Jane” closes the album and stands as a reminder that Lou Reed wrote a subway full of classic songs even if people hated Berlin in 1973. People love Berlin today. Just ask Lou.