Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse
Label: Matador Records
Thirty-five years is a long time- as it turns out, it’s also how long it takes to convince Lou Reed to put on a concert of one of his finest albums. Berlin (1973) is a strange orchestral trip through the crumbling lives of drug addicted lovers, and despite the lack of anything as catchy as “Sweet Jane” or “Walk on the Wild Side,” the delicate tragedy produced there rivals anything else in his long career. I was introduced to it years ago by a kindly employer who swapped music with me like baseball cards, determined to open me up to a world beyond Transformer and Ziggy Stardust. I’ve spent a lot of drunken nights with Berlin and more than a few memories set to an internal soundtrack, but there was always a feeling that this album was sort of a private thing, not the same Lou Reed that I heard on the radio or that popped up in Honda ads. Now, after all these years, Lou has decided to enlist an orchestra, not mention Steve Hunter, Antony Hegarty and Sharon Jones, and show us how it (and he) has aged.
The answer: they’re both the same as ever. Brutal, funny and magnificent; the sarcasm and bitterness that characterizes so much of Lou’s work is right on the sleeve here, matched only by his towering sentimentality. Opening with a smattering of applause and a brief acoustic snippet of “Sad Song,” Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse is as tragic and melodramatic as it was on first pressing, just a little less polished. After the interval radio-garble that opened the first record, Lou sets into the title track (which he once described as his “Streisand song”) with a tenderness far from the gruff statesmen image he deigns to portray on MTV and SXSW occasionally. Over moody piano notes, he muses, “Oh honey / It was paradise” and it’s clear from the very beginning that “was” is the key word. But it isn’t all weepiness and loss- there’s a deep vein of anger in the songs; a few claps and hoots after “Berlin” are swiftly cut off by the shuddering opening chords of “Lady Day,” and if this version doesn’t hold a candle to Rock n’ Roll Animal, it’s a close second.
“Men of Good Fortune” is a standout track, the whining trill of Hunter and Reed’s guitars soaring over the chorus, a muttering diatribe against wealth and upward mobility. The album truly comes alive on “Caroline Says, Pt.II”- it may be a rehash of “Stephanie Says” from the VU days, but the liquid strings and Antony’s quaver over Lou’s spoken word delivery nearly drove me to tears. A beaten woman mutters, “It isn’t any fun / Anymore” and smashes a window while making up her face- only Lou Reed will make you love that. ‘The Kids” delves into the deep nastiness of the album; if the preceding track is the anger of an abused woman, this is the snotty self-righteous of her abuser. He may be a heartless drunk, but she’s “a miserable rotten slut” and they’re taking her children away. And just when you think it’s as bad as it can get, we hear the echoes of the kids themselves, childish wails over incongruously sophisticated flutes and cello.
To me, “The Bed” has always been the heart of the album- I can only listen to it at certain times, when I’m prepared for the incomparably yearning refrain “Oh, oh, oh / What a feeling” of a man faced with the home he shared with his dead lover. Reed doesn’t have the vocal cords he once did to describe the brightly candlelight room, but if you were listening with me, my eyes wouldn’t be dry.
Finally, “Sad Song,” the strangely uplifting dismissal of all that came before, benefits most from the orchestra. The fluttering sound of a flute begins, followed softly by piano and then strings, suddenly overcome by guitars and drums, as Lou’s narrator declares he’s “Going to stop / Wasting all my time.” Has it all been a waste of time? After this, where could the narrator go, what could he do? It’s a fitting end for an album that thrives in the shadowy places. A few encores follow, a rendition of “Candy Says” on which Lou wisely lets Antony take the lion’s share of the lyrics and a sleepy “Rock Minuet.” Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse closes with the immortal “Sweet Jane,” but even the joyous four chords of that song can’t erase everything that came before.
Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse can’t hope to rise to the majesty of its original incarnation and doesn’t attempt to. It’s not a replacement recording or a revision, it’s an affirmation of its greatness. It won’t ever displace Berlin on my playlist, but it does no shame to it either. Reed’s outlived peers and enemies- Berlin will outlive him.
by Nathan Kamal