Lou Reed's Berlin (2007)
By Beppe Colli
June 15, 2007

It was at the end of last year, I think, while I was busy doing a Web search (a propos of what, I can't remember), that I happened to find this:

Arts at St. Annís and the Sydney Festival Present the world premiere of




I have to confess that my first thought upon reading this was "Oh, no! Not another one!". Of course, only a blind person would have missed the underlined bit about a "world premiere" - not to mention the "controversial" tag appended to "landmark song cycle". Wow! Thrills for all! We were also reminded that while certain songs from the album had been played live before, Berlin had never been performed in full. "Until now." Well, what could I say? Wow!

It has to be said that Lou Reed had already collaborated with Brooklyn's Arts at St. Ann's a few times starting from 1990, when it had co-commissioned and premiered the Lou Reed/John Cale work Songs for 'Drella. In 2003, Reed had performed The Raven at St. Ann's Warehouse.

Here it would be supremely banal to talk about a... well, "a washed-out has-been" would be totally out of proportion; "an artist of historic importance whose best work is definitely not in front of him" is certainly more appropriate. It would also be uncool to think about Lou Reed milking an old, obscure catalogue item for all its worth. So?

More and more, artists who have a "catalogue item" that's somehow worth of the "legendary" tag take it to the stage. After all, in case one hasn't noticed, this is the age of... no, not of nostalgia - it's the age of downloading. Of course, this doesn't really explain people's willingness to fork their hard-earned money to hear the stuff. A partial list of albums that had never been performed live before in their entirety - but which now have - goes like this: Brian Wilson did Pet Sounds and Smile!. Patti Smith did Horses. Jethro Tull did Aqualung. The (by now legendary) Stooges did Fun House. There is also room for acts with what one could call "selective appeal": Slint did Spiderland, Sonic Youth performed one album whose title at the moment totally escapes me. More will surely follow.

The nostalgia explanation is a bit too facile, even though we could easily widen the term to include the notion of nostalgia for a time one never experienced first-hand. It's more important to notice that nowadays audiences - well, people in general - increasingly look for things that possess the quality of being an "event". This is a different notion than in the past, when "event" was strongly associated with "big". Nowadays, "event" goes hand-in-hand with "unique", "special", "not to be repeated", "one time only". This has already been discussed with regards to art exhibitions, where the way the (same) pictures are presented to the public makes all the difference in the number of ticket-buyers. It goes without saying that sociologists all over the world have already investigated the matter.

Was Berlin, at the time when it was first released in 1973, such a big shock to both critics and fans as it's regularly argued? Well, I suppose it was. Then again, it depends on who you ask. It has to be said that at the time when Lou Reed released Transformer - his second solo album featuring Walk On The Wild Side, the only big hit he ever had - not many people, in Italy or elsewhere, had even ever heard of the Velvet Underground, the writing on the back cover of David Bowie's Hunky Dory near Track #4 of Side Two, Queen Bitch, ("Some V.U. White Light Returned With Thanks") being the source of much puzzlement.

In many ways, Transformer had been considered as being a "Bowie album", and so - with nothing else to compare it to - Berlin was simply seen as "an album without Bowie", but with quite a few musicians with whom those in the know when it came to all things rock were obviously quite familiar. On Hammond organ + Leslie and harmonium, Steve Winwood was a legend from Traffic (and Blind Faith). On bass, Jack Bruce was one of the giants of the instrument from Cream (!), and his solo albums. On drums, Aynsley Dunbar was widely appreciated for the challenging parts he played on many albums by Frank Zappa. Also on drums, the highly original B.J. Wilson from Procol Harum. Recorded at Morgan Studios, London.

It goes without saying that people who were expecting another Transformer were in for a surprise. But this says more about them than about Berlin, I suppose. Then, of course, there's also the matter of "taste" (whatever that means). Books on Lou Reed (my source here being the biography written by Victor Bockris) routinely report critics' reactions to his albums. Today the Web gives us easy access to the sites of many music critics, for instance the one where Robert Christgau collects his stuff - and here are some of his original ratings from his Consumer Guide Reviews (to read the full reviews readers need only to access the aforementioned source):

Transformer: B-
Berlin: C
Rock 'n' Roll Animal: A-
Sally Can't Dance: B+
Metal Machine Music: C+
Coney Island Baby: B+
The Bells: B+
Growing Up in Public: B
The Blue Mask: A
Legendary Hearts: A

The funny thing is that when writing about Berlin - in a review that by the standards of his Consumer Guide is by no means short (i.e., 161 words) - he only mentions music once: "The music is only competent".

Then, of course, there's the whole matter of what "rock" means. I've noticed that - especially after punk - when it comes to The Velvet Underground/Lou Reed many people think: Loaded/Rock 'n' Roll Animal. For them, Berlin's elaborate arrangements are obviously a very different matter.

It was about the end of 2006 when I happened to read a piece by David Fricke (a "Rolling Stone Online Exclusive", Posted Dec 15, 2006 10:45 AM) titled "Lou Reed Plays "Berlin" in Brooklyn" ("Reed's commercial disaster - and artistic masterpiece - gets live treatment for the first time"). One thing stood out like a sore thumb: "(...) But the most astonishing thing about hearing Berlin live was the greatest-hits glow of the songs. The arrangements, which sounded muted and crowded on the album's original, flimsy RCA pressing, bloomed in 3-D." Well, I don't know about "flimsy", but the original arrangements never sounded "muted and crowded" to me.

One thing that never fails to amaze me is the lack of proper attention when it comes to matters of sound and performance. I mean, I'm sure the abovementioned people (plus an orchestra, a children choir, and the usually very good Steve Bernstein on trumpet and Jane Scarpantoni on cello) did a fantastic, or at least competent, job. Still, when I think of "Berlin" as a whole I think of quite specific performances (up to, and including, the various dry/wet ratios on the vocals) which in my mind are what makes the whole thing what it is. I wonder why would I listen to something different than the Berlin album when I want to listen to "Berlin". Sure, I suppose I could go out and buy a ticket (there are five dates coming in July in Italy), just to see what the thing looks and sounds like (I won't). But coming from a time when a lot (and I really mean: a lot) of musicians had their own distinctive, personal sound on their instruments (and that's one thing one forgets at his/her own peril, though one can't really be too surprised, perhaps, in this age of machine-aided performances) does it really sound like a good idea to have a thing like this performed on stage? Is one really listening to "Berlin"? Is a sampled Hammond "just like the real thing"? Does anybody care?

The same goes for the sound of the various LPs/CDs editions of historic albums, something that I don't see mentioned anywhere anymore. (Funny how in an age when "sound" is always mentioned as being of paramount importance the real amount of attention paid to sound amounts to zilch.) Maybe when listened to as squashed sound files on one's computer (yikes!) it really doesn't make that much difference, does it?

We all know what Berlin is "about": lives on the edge, drugs, violence, and - ultimately - death. To me, at the time, it sounded pretty much like a radio drama, or a movie - just listen to the way the orchestra illuminates the scene, starting at about 24", in Sad Song: how many times have we seen - it's the end of the movie - the main character thinking about it all, while a new day is dawning? I mean, it was obvious there was a curtain, somewhere.

Funny thing, reading about cocaine being found in the Thames. Or detected in the air in Rome. One can't help but logically conclude that what was once part of the mores of the few ("happy" or otherwise), is nowadays part of everyday life. In fact, behaviours one once witnessed - for the most part - at the movies, are now as near as a remote, or an apartment wall. Which brings us to this uncomfortable question: In the age of "reality" (as in "show"), what does Berlin "mean"?

© Beppe Colli 2007

CloudsandClocks.net | June 15, 2007