Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008

Lou Reed's Berlin

By David Luhrssen
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Lou Reed’s recording career has been patchy over the past 30 years. But in the 1960s he led the most important rock band that never sold many records during their time together, the Velvet Underground. Going solo in the ‘70s, he was one of the most unpredictable recording artists of his era.

His greatest album may have been Berlin (1973), an exultant and harrowing poetic story record (“concept album” in the parlance of the time) about a doomed woman and her children, living at the edge in a half metaphorical Berlin—a seemingly doomed and still divided city whose history cast a long shadow across the 20th century.

Like his albums with the Velvets, Berlin sold few copies upon its release but made an indelible impression on anyone who listened to it. Julian Schnabel, the overrated art star of the ‘80s-cum-overrated filmmaker of the ‘00s, was similarly moved. He directed a 2006 performance of Berlin by Lou Reed and band at St. Anne’s Warehouse, Brooklyn. The resulting movie, simply called Berlin, is out on DVD.

Not surprisingly, Schnabel inserts himself: first thing we see is his schluby visage introducing Reed. Well, credit him at least for good taste in music. If any one album deserves its own concert movie, it’s Berlin.

Reed is stolid and fit throughout the performance, a serious figure on stage with the demeanor of a moonlighting creative writing professor. And make no bones: Berlin represents one of the peaks in rock songwriting, exploring a range of emotions, many of them intensely painful yet not without a hopeful light flickering dimly at the end of life’s dark tunnel.

Schnabel indulges himself in whirly blur visualizations of the lyrics but doesn’t entirely detract from the concert and subtracts nothing from the power of the music, which has endured better than most concept albums from the period.

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