I’ve mentioned here previously the time in 1979 I went to see Lou Reed at what was then still known as the Hammersmith Odeon when he reacted testily to requests from the crowd to play their favourite numbers by announcing that he would under no circumstances be playing anything else that night apart from his new album, The Bells, so there would, he repeated emphatically, no “Heroin”, “Sweet Jane”, “Walk On The Wild Side” or any of the other numbers so many people had obviously come to hear him perform.
If anybody didn’t like this, he said, they could fuck off – which a large section of the increasingly disgruntled crowd did, what seemed like at least half the audience walking out in angry disgust, nosily vacating the premises in a collective huff that was quite hilarious.
Lou waited until the very last of this disenchanted sullen mob had moodily departed and then with glorious perversity launched into what you’d probably call a greatest hits set that included with predictable cussedness a sublime version of “Heroin”.
What you wondered turning up last Sunday, nearly 30 years later, might Lou have in store for us tonight. Since we had turned up to hear Lou play, as advertised, his 1973 song-cycle Berlin in its spectacularly maggoty entirety, might he similarly decide to thwart his audience’s feverish expectations by playing the whole of a completely different album -Transformer, perhaps, or Coney Island Baby.
In the event, Lou played, exactly as promised, the version of Berlin that he and producer Bob Ezrin had intended all those years ago for release – until their original vision was compromised by a thoroughly rattled RCA, who demanded Ezrin cut what had been recorded as a double album down to a single disc.
I remember drinking with Lou in a hotel bar in Stockholm in 1977 and listening to him for more than an hour bitterly denounce what had happened to the record he’d always thought of as his defining masterpiece, the savage dismissal of it by critics and an ensuing public indifference to the album that left him heartbroken and angry. “After that,” he said, “the shutters came down. I didn’t give a fuck about anything or anyone.”
Nigh on 25 years after it came out, Berlin is most commonly regarded as the masterpiece Lou always thought it was, and it might be difficult now to appreciate fully why at the time it caused such a stir.
These many years on, however, it remains a frightening, grim and wholly sad epic about love and violence, drugs and suicide – and as performed tonight with a red-hot band of Lou regulars, plus original Berlin and Rock’N’Roll Animal guitarist Steve Hunter, augmented by members of the New London Choir and the London Metropolitan Orchestra, it’s a signal moment in Lou’s career, a triumphant vindication of his original intentions.
I don’t think I’ve seen him this good since – oh, at least, the 1978 Street Hassle tour. From the choir’s ghostly intro, anticipating the final refrains of the climactic “Sad Song”, the mood of the evening is grimly etched, the sense of ominous foreboding that builds through “Berlin”, “Lady Day” and “Men Of Good Fortune” reaching an early eerie peak with “Caroline Says” and “How Do You Think It Feels?”, things getting darker in a hurry with “Oh Jim” and “Caroline Says II”, an accumulation of unspoken woe, Lou and Hunter’s guitars combining brilliantly here to give voice to things words can’t say.
The heart-wrenching centrepieces of the performance, however, are the harrowing “The Kids” and the jaw-droppingly moving “The Bed”, a thing of spectral beauty and hushed terror, which gives way eventually to the grand agonised climax of “Sad Song”, featuring the overwhelming combined weight of band, choir and orchestra, with Hunter’s guitar driving through the elegant turmoil like muted lightning, Lou imperious at its epic centre as the song goes on and on and the apparently endless refrain of grief and calamity and endless writhing sadness reaches a final moment of cathartic wounded splendour. Amazing.
After a brief interlude, the whole ensemble returns for the welcome relief of wholly buoyant encores of timeless crowd-pleasers “Sweet Jane” – fantastically, the Rock’N’Roll Animal version, albeit with an abbreviated version of Hunter’s famous guitar intro – a storming “Satellite Of Love”, with lead vocals from bassist Fernando Saunders and a wittily delivered “Walk On The Wild Side”.
Tremendous, unforgettable stuff and a sensational reminder of Lou’s enduring genius. No wonder by the end, we were treated to the rare sight of the famous curmudgeon smiling broadly in his moment of victory.
Lou Reed played:
Men Of Good Fortune
How Do You Think It feels
Caroline Says II
Satellite Of Love
Walk On The Wild Side