Berlin Reconstruction


Left: Lou Reed onstage. Right: Antony and Lou Reed. (Photos: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Lou Reed’s epigraph billed his four-night St. Ann’s Warehouse residency and first-ever live performance of the entire Berlin album as “an evening to press between the crumbling leaves of Fall,” a claim only made more self-regarding by the insistent media flogging (“Sometimes called the most depressing album ever made,” quoth Ben Sisario in the New York Times) surrounding the event. The will-call line was heavy on formalwear, Times Arts sections tucked into overcoat pockets, graying ponytails, cigarette smoke drifting over ubiquitous war stories—even hearing aids. Some formulated their own pull quotes, evidently inspired: “This is a very, very special event”; “Only two or three people I go out for these days.” I preferred Julian Schnabel’s take (outfit, too: unruly beard, red and black lumberjack top), which came by way of the show’s introduction: “I wrote this one on my bathroom floor.”

This was the kind of overblown piety, Schnabel excepted, that froze press out and had us begging just to lay out a steep $67.50. Getting off the train, DUMBO looked surreal—lit-up trees, throngs of people, glassed-in condos, the river reflecting on an unseasonably warm night—and it was hard not to draw the parallel between the rehabbed underside of the Brooklyn Bridge and the rehabbed society pull of Lou Reed, ca. 2006. Inside St. Ann’s, his success regime was in full effect: signed posters for ninety dollars a pop, CDs for twenty, and T-shirts for thirty.

On an otherwise excruciatingly literal night—the album was “depressing,” therefore the audience would remain still and somber throughout; when the Brooklyn Youth Chorus chorused, “No, no, no!” they would also shake their heads, no, no, no—the only break in the mood was Schnabel’s set, a perplexing creation of Japanese screens in pale orange, yellow, and cream, set off by a fifteen-foot couch hanging vertically from the ceiling. Reed riffed on the otherwise inviolate solemnity, capping an extended guitar rave with a resigned shrug: “Oh, back into the land of depression now.”

Behind him, Lola Schnabel’s video matched Berlin’s song-cycle narrative shot for shot: kids in song were kids on-screen, alleys were alleys, Alaska was Alaska. Reed was center stage in jeans, gingerly holding his guitar; beside him, local soul goddess Sharon Jones sported a brilliant red cocktail dress; and off to the left, downtown muse-to-the-stars Antony sat quietly in black. Best dressed was original Berlin producer Bob Ezrin (other credits: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Kiss’s Destroyer), who conducted the musicians while sporting a pale blue jacket with BERLIN emblazoned in white on the back.

We had skipped cozy holiday parties and the last sane Sunday of the year to see something momentous, and eventually Reed took note. Now thirty-three years old, Berlin felt new once again. Reed sounded like he was auditioning for his own ancient musical—tentative, feeling it out—and as the choir dopplered from a drawn-out “What a feeling” toward the buoyant closer, “Sad Song,” you could sense the crowd begin to hold its breath.

Forward then, through the album's finale, the encore (“Sweet Jane,” “Candy Says,” “Rock Minuet”), and Reed’s last dedication to Laurie Anderson: “She continues to teach me every day about the purity of music and life.” On the way out, Ezrin was soaked but exhilarated, exclaiming, “It was so much fun—I sweated my ass off.” Though he too called Berlin “music to cut your wrists by,” nothing but weary smiles lined the path to the door.

Zach Baron