Lou Reed, St Ann's Warehouse, New York
Pure pleasure despite the pain
Thursday 21 December 2006
When Lou Reed released Berlin in 1973, he did so not as a bastion of avant-garde art but as a bona fide pop-star at the apex of his fame. His post-Velvet Underground career had started slowly with an undistinguished self-titled debut, but some quality time spent in London with David Bowie and Mick Ronson quickly resulted in the glam-classic Transformer - an album that remains a set text in rock'n'roll history to this day.
But with superstardom in his grasp, Reed's contrary nature led him to Berlin - a bleak, conceptual body of work chronicling the dysfunctional and ultimately doomed relationship shared by two characters called Jim and Caroline. She's wildly promiscuous, he physically abuses her, they are both fuelled by a destructive lust for narcotics and their downward spiral into oblivion is set against the backdrop of what was then a deeply divided city. However, the symbolism and literary sensibilities of the album were lost on many.
Sales were paltry compared with its hit-spawning predecessor and, critically, the album was greeted with confusion and consternation in many places. A raging Rolling Stone writer in particular dismissed it as a "disaster", before suggesting that some kind of physical retribution might be in order, such was the scale of Reed's faux pas.
But just like the Velvet Underground's earliest work, Berlin slipped through the cracks of broader comprehension and found an audience that was drawn to, rather than repelled by, the often graphic depictions of pain and desperation. It's exactly these kinds of people who finally coerced Reed to play the album in its entirety for the first time, complete with a stage set and back-projections intended to add a semi-theatrical dimension to the whole performance.
To do the album's lush arrangements justice, Reed is backed by a small army of musicians, including a string section, a horn section, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and original Berlin guitarist Steve Hunter.
From the outset, it's clear that the ensemble have practised meticulously for this first of four consecutive performances.
The sweeping "Lady Day" and "Men of Good Fortune" are virtually flawless, recreated with an astonishing vibrancy, with Reed also managing to sing impeccably well instead of merely resorting to the toneless drawl he so often relies on. Indeed, the onstage mood is positively jocular, and as "How Do You Think It Feels" reaches its uproarious conclusion, Reed's usual curmudgeonly demeanour is nowhere to be seen - a somewhat incongruous sight given the developing horrors beginning to surround his two protagonists.
A literal and metaphorical darkness falls as the performance enters what represents side two of Berlin (remember when albums had two sides?), and the light-hearted mood seems to disappear in an instant as Reed first captures the despair of domestic violence in "Caroline Says (II)", before "The Kids" marks the night's most harrowing moment. As Caroline has her children taken into care, the disembodied howl of infants shrieking for their mother resonates around the room during the song's contrastingly upbeat-sounding middle section, causing a number of people in the crowd to shift uncomfortably in their seats. Her suicide duly follows in "The Bed", and, in the finale of "Sad Song", Jim coldly, brutally remarks that "somebody else would have broken both of her arms" before a wave of orchestral glory brings the main performance to an oddly uplifting close.
The superfluous but enjoyable encore features a solid run through of "Sweet Jane", as well as Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons fame) stepping up from his hitherto anonymous position as a backing singer to provide a sublime co-vocal on a genteel version of "Candy Says". But it's merely the icing on quite a sizable cake. Seeing the poet of New York become the bard of Berlin is a big enough treat as it is.
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