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
LOU REEDíS BERLIN,
DECEMBER 14, 15,
16, 17 AT ST. ANNíS WAREHOUSE
JANUARY 18, 19,
20 IN SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
LIVE DEBUT OF REEDíS
CONTROVERSIAL 1973 LANDMARK SONG CYCLE TO FEATURE MUSICAL DIRECTION BY
BOB EZRIN AND HAL WILLNER, DIRECTION AND DESIGN BY JULIAN SCHNABEL, LIGHTING
BY JENNIFER TIPTON AND PERFORMERS INCLUDING REED, ANTONY, SHARON
JONES, RUPERT CHRISTIE, STEVE HUNTER, FERNANDO SAUNDERS, TONY SMITH, ROB
WASSERMAN AND OTHERS
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
"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
"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
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):
Rock 'n' Roll Animal:
Sally Can't Dance:
Metal Machine Music:
Coney Island Baby:
The Bells: B+
Growing Up in Public:
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
© Beppe Colli 2007
| June 15, 2007