This new exposure of old wounds represents the audio portion of the 2006 performances of Lou Reed’s 1973 studio recording. Directed by Julian Schnabel and featuring the artist’s interpretive visualizations, the movie was in theaters last year and will be released on DVD imminently. The music was performed by Lou’s longstanding accomplices, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony “Thunder” Smith, abetted by Steve Hunter, guitarist on the original recording, bassist Rob Wasserman, pianist Rupert Christie and vocalist Sharon Jones in addition to a seven piece orchestra and a choir.
The survivors bringing us this “show,” this “performance,” hit us with all they’ve got straight between the soul and heart. We’re left with the possibility that beyond desire, despair, debasement, degradation and disgust there isn’t only pathos. Maybe there’s some sort of music. Perhaps Lou is reminding us that the best way to see the light is when you peer at it from the dark.
The sound of this live recording is alarmingly and disarmingly close and dry. On the surface it’s almost needlessly blasé and might create a strange distancing in the listener. Yet, once the cold is allowed to thaw a claustrophobic, hermetic and hypnotic nature comes to the fore. Lou is never anywhere but right on top of the mic and right on top of us, taking control of a strangling intimacy. Guitars grind and fight, drums pound out warnings and basses make whale songs. Lead vocals speak frankly and the choir gently chides. It’s almost too much sensation and feeling.
The latter day Reed’s somewhat willful but unavoidably primitive modern vocal style, flat in tone and affect, merely strafes by traces of melody and vibrato. Like Townes van Zandt, the singing turns to talk when there’s something more to be said. His unavoidably modern primitive guitar sharing a conversation, a friendly ultimate fight with Steve Hunter struggling to bring back vernacular erudition, the light from the city street: Detroit, via NYC, via post-“good war” Germany.
The two basses: electric fretless and electrified standup—covering the entire pallet of mourning and elision, yet leaving something out—love, comfort, safety, connection. Wasserman moans while Saunders gulps and hiccups, both drunk with knowledge. Together they create a litany of doleful instrumental sadness from New Orleans to the shtetl. The tones are low and call out to life with death’s song. Thunder’s drumming is overwrought, over the top, and entirely perfect: Like a migraine, like a racing heart, the thumping anger and anxiety are unrelenting, until they relent.
The original Berlin recording from 1973 always felt titanic to me. In fact, it felt like the Titanic: garish and grandiose, plodding and malevolent. But the real genius was in the way the music, whether sweetly harmonic chamber pop, rollicking glam rock, or oppressive yet lyrical heavy mental, mixed in the test tube with the stunningly stark and simple words and got straight to the point like a hypodermic to the heart. From any viewpoint, any milieu, any outlook, these songs remain inescapable. But, thirty-five years ago, after the minor Pop triumph of Transformer’s guidebook to teary but cheery urbane debauchery and colorful characters, much of the Rock Nation couldn’t or wouldn’t open the big black book of Berlin. Perhaps they thought it was another lugubrious Rock Opera. But with the advantage of time served it has become obvious that the totality of Berlin is in fact a koan about a story about a poem. It’s a “Sad Song” sung sweetly, telling of small people in a big world. It’s a weighty tablet, wisdom worn, each track an inscription meant to frighten, or inspire, or pay tribute, but most likely to simply acknowledge.
Documenting skels fighting, fucking, crying and dying and keeping it in the realm of entertainment is not easy but somehow he’s pulled it off, again. Over the course of the new recording we feel every itch and fry of the weeklong speed binge. Perhaps we can find solace in identifying with any of the characters Lou has brought us in his career. Or we can simply be glad we’re not them. But we’re lucky they’re still haunting us, as they remain our black mirror. This soundtrack is an update of a timeless ache. Whether it’s Jane and Jim, or Jim and Caroline—the mere presence of the voices of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus remind that sometimes life is not just to die. [Matador]
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