An Essay On Lou Reed’s CD – Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse

video inside post On September 1, 1973 Lou Reed unveiled an amazing new band at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, the debut of material from the album Berlin along with nuggets that the singer/songwriter established in The Velvet Underground. To this day it remains one of my all-time favorite concerts up there with The Rolling Stones 1972 Boston Garden show with Stevie Wonder (famous for former Mayor Kevin White’s “My City’s In Flames”)

speech), Queen at the Music Hall (and I was never a big fan of the band, it was just a great night), The Doors on the Boston Common in 1972 without Jim Morrison, Fleetwood Mac/Savoy Brown on the Boston Common, also in 1972, and a handful of others. But Lou’s 9/1/73 show still rates as numero uno in my book, for presentation, drama, craftsmanship and sheer rock and roll energy.

That those vintage shows occurred before rock music became so very corporate, and that the artists were at the peak of their powers, is something to be considered when reviewing reinvention recorded 33 years later. The music of Berlin as unveiled at Tanglewood was pure perfection – it was a warm summer’s night in the open air, a long drive out to Lenox, and Lou Reed in evolution, the transition as he was morphing out of the “Transformer” into his Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal phase.

Less than four months later the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal album would be initiated from concerts taped December 21, 1973 at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music in New York, and Lou was already growing tired of the concept come December. A Boston Phoenix review of the 1974 album asked “Vegetable, Mineral or Animal?” (though not necessarily in that order) in regards to Lou’s performance. It was sad, but true, the majesty of Lenox was not captured when the singer refused to stand up to the microphone to sing his songs on time, at this pivotal point in his career. We caught shows in Rhode Island and Boston just before the New York taping, and with engineer extraordinaire Stuart “Dinky” Dawson capturing the concerts for all time on his stereo soundboard cassettes, one can hear many of the shows of the extraordinary group up on Wolfsgang’s Vault and hear Lou as he performed on different nights – it truly is a study in rock and roll psychology.

The essence of the Berlin album is the first draft itself, the lp released on RCA records. Why the need for Berlin redux? Well, this better-late-than-never affair – Lou Reed Berlin: Live At St. Anne’s Warehouse, is actually the answer to that question – what if Janis Joplin had lived to record another day? What if John Lennon was directing “Instant Karma” on film rather than the myriad tributes to John Lennon which is all we can look forward to. That this is an important addition to the magical myth that is the post-Velvet Underground career of Lou Reed means that it succeeds in adding to, not subtracting from, and has brought long-awaited new attention to the long lost artistic leap that few understood.

Recorded both five and six days before the 33rd anniversary of the Howard Stein concerts (there were two shows recorded in New York on December 21,1973 resulting in Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Lou Reed Live, and a latter-day CD, Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal with 2 bonus tracks), there’s no doubt this is a beautiful and satisfying work, and a focus on an early album of Lou Reed’s that, despite its flaws, was pure elegant decadence. Berlin was the follow-up to the successful “Transformer” and was highly uncommercial.
Perhaps because Reed didn’t have the corporate machine a Rolling Stones and a Who had behind them, generating strength from their hit records and sold-out concerts, Berlin never got the opportunity afforded a rock opera like “Tommy”. And as depressing as Tommy could be, Berlin was intentionally much more so, a composite of the wreckage caused by substance abuse. A “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” epic described as a “film for the ear”. The flaw in Berlin is that, unlike the song/poem “Heroin”, Berlin was not as cohesive or focused. Of course it’s a perfect reflection of drug addicts and substance abusers, kind of like living only the dark episodes from the tv show “Quantum Leap” and finding yourself going from one morbid scene to another. The destruction of Lou’s most pop composition, “Berlin” – a somewhat different or more refined melody found on the self-titled Lou Reed album, his first official solo disc – set the tone. Now “Berlin”, the song, was one of the great moments of his live album “Take No Prisoners”, but on this after-hours “film for the ear”, it is an introspective folly of a fellow who found himself caught in the whirlwind of drug craziness. On that level Berlin was focused, raw and unrefined, a nice escape clause if the artist chose to keep things vague.

Reed had his glorious legacy but no high-powered push to at least bring this to a moderate audience – it remained a cult classic which, along with Janis Joplin’s I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama and Andy Pratt’s second disc, remains an epic adventure of self-induced manic depressive exploitation. And with those 3 discs making up the “master trilogy of despair” from the 60s and early 70s, Berlin gets the award for being the one filled with the most despair. Joplin and Pratt find their moments of triumph and resolution from their “kozmic blues”, while Reed just descends into the depths – hopeless, rats caught in a maze banging their heads against the wall, questioning the insanity where Andy Pratt embraces it.

There’s a beautiful sixteen page booklet that accompanies the Matador audio release (as opposed to the Julian Schnabel directed DVD which will be covered in a second review) and as Susan Feldman, creative director of St. Anne’s Warehouse, so succinctly puts it, the disc focuses on “Caroline’s self-destruction.” Why “Sweet Jane” is added to the disc is the question. “Sweet Jane” was the hit-single-that-never-was, a fragment of what could have been for The Velvet Underground, and what could have been if Lou didn’t let Alice Cooper scoop up his band. Reed’s escape from The Velvet Underground cost him superstardom, and his retreat from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal persona was equally a bad business decision, hindsight being 20/20. Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner were as potent a duo as Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and the four make-up the “Golden Era” of both The Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, that period when the recordings were beyond magical (though Dick and Steve didn’t play on all Lou’s recordings from that era, they personified the artist at that point in time, whether he liked it or not).

That’s the price of having a hit record, a trademark that the public identifies you with. Could you parade out a roady onstage in a foreign land pretending to be Lou, a la Lassie, the doggy that was actually many doggies on the famous old TV show? Could anyone with a monotone do Lou Reed to a mass audience that will buy a ticket to a concert by a fictional band like The Archies or – in 2009 – go see a band called The Marvelettes when all the gals in the band weren’t even born when the original group sang the original hits? That’s the quandary that the Berlin project finds itself in, and with Bob Ezrin back producing, and Steve Hunter back on guitar, the concept almost comes full circle.  It is the real Lou Reed, but he has changed. He’s the college professor studying the Berlin album rather than the young rock & roll artist struggling with his own demons.  It’s the painter coming out of his painting to paint it again more than three decades later.

Lou Reed’s charm is that he is such an original artist. “Sad Song” has its quasi “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack music opening it up, 33 years later Lou does it justice despite the fact that on most of the material he resorts to his “I just don’t care at all” ennui.  That’s not a slight as much as an observation, Lou Reed’s vocals on the Velvet Underground reunion disc distracted, he had changed his style leaving the original works for his impersonators and admirers to reproduce, beyond what David Bowie and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek decided to embrace. That latter day Lou is what you have on the new Berlin, compare it to the original work to hear the distinct differences.

There’s real drama in this “Sad Song” and the melody and angst come through, this is what we loved about Lou Reed and this is what Lou abandoned when he gave us Growing Up In Public and “Egg Cream”. This “Sad Song” adds to the legend…and thirty three years after the original Berlin tour it reminds us why we’re so captivated by Reed’s work. It’s The Velvet Underground presenting their “Tommy”.  A review of the DVD to follow.  And by the way, is that lost minute of music from the original Berlin found on the 8 track still up on the internet to hear?

(C)2009 From the forthcoming book: A Study of Lou Reed’s Berlin and Rock & Roll Animal Albums by Joe Viglione