Discounting the spit-in-your face perversity of "Metal Machine Music," the infamous double album consisting of nothing but grating, nerve-wracking feedback, "Berlin" is the most difficult album of Lou Reed's long and difficult career. Looking back on the 1973 concept effort during his keynote address at last year's South by Southwest Music Conference, he summed up the themes as "jealousy, peaks of jealousy, and... [how] that attachment to another person turns into physical abuse because you love them so much," and he peevishly noted that it was universally panned upon its release.
That was not entirely true: The late great Lester Bangs called it "the bastard progeny of a drunken flaccid tumble between Tennessee Williams and Hubert (Last Exit from Brooklyn) Selby, Jr.," and he intended that as the highest of compliments. But in defense of the critics who did diss "Berlin" when it arrived as the follow-up to and antithesis of "Transformer," the most accessible and best-charting release of Reed's career, the complicated tale of a co-dependent, dysfunctional and self-destructive couple addicted to speed and sex not only was difficult listening on an emotional level--with its recurring refrain of "They're taking her children away" paired with the haunting sound of a bawling infant, "The Kids" alone can make the most chipper candy striper reach for the anti-depressives--but it also was an overwrought sonic mess, produced with a comically heavy hand and maximum progressive-rock bombast by Bob Ezrin.
(Recruited at the time for his work with Alice Cooper, Ezrin would go on to make "Destroyer" with Kiss and "The Wall" with Pink Floyd. Both of the latter have their over-the-top attributes, but like most of the other albums he's produced, they are worlds away from any understanding of or sympathy with Reed's gutter-punk aesthetic.)
Now, Reed has remade his least-appreciated masterpiece, in Julian Schnabel's concert film "Lou Reed's Berlin" (now available on DVD) and, even better, in the new live album "Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse" (and that's better in the sense that listening without seeing images of ol' granite-faced Lou or an actress portraying the doomed Caroline only helps listeners to conjure even more poignant and horrifying images in their heads). The intense emotions of "Berlin" still are every bit as challenging as they were 35 years ago--it's astounding to think that three and a half decades of rockers have been unable to top Reed when it comes to chronicling bottoming out--but the biggest service this 2006 concert recording offers is that the band, the seven-piece orchestra and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus--all conducted by veteran Reed sideman Steve Hunter--are finally placed in their proper perspective to the songwriter's deadpan vocals. Oddly enough, Ezrin and Reed pal Hal Willner both are listed as producers, but the way this large ensemble is captured with pristine simplicity is pure Willner, and it makes the contrast between the lush sounds and beautiful melodies and the dark themes and harrowing lyrics all the more effective.
As an encore, welcome renditions of the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" (as a duet with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons) and the far more recent "Rock Minuet" (from the 2000 album "Ecstasy") illustrate how elements of both the subject matter and the sound of "Berlin" have always been present in Reed's work. And it all adds up to finally making one of the biggest flops of the artist's career a major winner.