In 1972, Lou Reed released his first hit album, the Top Thirty glitter gem Transformer. Reed’s next record, 1973’s Berlin, nearly killed his career stone dead. A ten-song short story charting a downward spiral from innocent bliss to suicidal hopelessness, Berlin was the graphic underside of glam — a tour of the mess that’s left when the pills wear off and the sparkles fade, sung by Reed in his drop-dead monotone against a full army of top session players, strings and choristers. Berlin was unrepentant in its tragic detail and theatrical ambition. And Reed paid dearly for his nerve, in near-zero sales and a blizzard of bad reviews.
The one thing no one wrote about, or even seemed to notice, was the simple magnificence and — considering the narrative — contrary pop lift of the songs on Berlin. On December 14th, thirty-three years after the album’s release, Reed opened a sold-out four-night stand at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, performing the whole of Berlin live for the first time, with full orchestration and atmospheric stage direction by Julian Schnabel. The story still thrills as it repels: the way Reed, with a poet’s ear and a reporter’s eye and no intruding moral comment, renders both artificial ecstasies (booze, speed, reckless sex) and real-life horror (beatings, blood on the sheets).
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. The German beer-hall thump of “Lady Day” became an elephant-march heartbeat with guitarist Steve Hunter, who played on the album sessions, breaking out in fits of arena-rock shriek. In “Caroline Says I,” Reed countered the flirty melody and gently buoyant score with dry vocal cool. And when he got to “Caroline Says II,” Reed offset the escalating violence and emotional collapse with a tenderness, in the music and his singing, that made it a love song in all but the bruises.
The brilliance of Reed’s writing for Berlin was the irony of combinations: the jolting cynicism of “Men of Good Fortune,” with Reed icing the discord live with his own grinding lead guitar; the perverse cheer of the chorus, after the dying, in “The Bed”; the blinding melancholy of “Sad Song,” especially when the Brooklyn Youth Chorus went into a breathtaking loop of the title chorus, soaring and diving in defiantly bright grandeur. Reed had done all of that before Berlin, with the Velvet Underground, and long after. For the encore at St. Ann’s, Reed played three songs — “Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says” (with a heartbreaking vocal by guest singer Antony) and the genteel catalog of deviance “Rock Minuet,” from the 2000 album Ecstasy — which respectively showcased his pop wiles, ballad charity and confrontational nerve.
But in Berlin, he did it all at once, in what is arguably his greatest set of songs. And at St. Ann’s, Reed did it again, the way those songs deserved to be heard. His all-star big band included bassists Rob Wasserman and Fernando Saunders, drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith, singer Sharon Jones, trumpeter Steve Bernstein and cellist Jane Scarpantoni. The show’s music producers were Hal Willner and Berlin‘s original producer/arranger Bob Ezrin, who also conducted.
The triumph, however, was all Reed’s. And too long in coming.