In 1973, as a follow up to his highly successful “Transformer” album, Lou Reed released the album “Berlin”. The ten-song concept album tells of the disintegration of a couple living in Germany. The couple, Caroline and Jim, follows a dark path that starts with drug addiction and descends into infidelity, spousal abuse, loss of children due to unfit parenting, and, ultimately, suicide. The album was a commercial flop upon release. Rock critic Lester Bangs, up until this point a huge Lou Reed supporter, called the record “a gargantuan slab of maggoty rancor that may well be the most depressed album ever made.” Reaction to the album was so negative that Reed did not perform the complete song cycle in concert for over thirty years.
And yet even when the album first came out, some critics called it a masterpiece. The record developed a cult following, and decades later Reed finally decided to perform the piece live. He first performed it in New York in 2006, and then went on a tour of Europe in 2007, playing in most major cities. The concert was captured on film by artist (and Reed’s friend) Julian Schnabel, who filmed performances at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. The critical reaction to the film has been good, and has generated new interest in the original recording.
The movie recently opened in Paris, and I went to see it. I was curious: was the song cycle truly a masterpiece or just a depressing tale accompanied by good music? I had never listened to the album. I had sort of lost touch with Lou Reed after he left the Velvet Underground. So this would be my first exposure to the work. I had no “a prioris” as the French say — no preconceived notions.
The first thing that strikes you about Lou Reed is his voice. It is not a pretty voice. It sort of quavers, dangerously close to being off-key at times, but always eventually hitting the note. His delivery is in between singing and speaking. It is not a voice for light pop ditties. It is, however, the required voice for the delivery of such songs as “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs”. The next thing you notice is Reed himself: wiry, with a muscular neck and a deadpan face. His guitar slung across his chest, wearing jeans and a tee shirt. No frills, no sentimentality. Then finally there is the poetry of his songs. The first song in the performance is entitled “Berlin” and it is almost hopeful:
In Berlin by the wall
You were five foot ten inches tall
It was very nice
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice
We get more of this minimalist verse in the song “Lady Day”