Back in 1996, the last time I saw Lou Reed, I remember making a mental note at the end of the show, to remember to never go and see him again. It wasn’t so much his legendary tetchiness, although that was well to the fore, as a glowering Lou shot irritated, grouchy-headmaster daggers at the band around him while they played, and maintained a stony silence between songs, cracked only for a brief tirade about something a journalist had said to annoy him earlier.
(Possibly, “Hello.”) When you go see Lou Reed, goodtime Vegas showbiz banter isn’t necessarily the first thing you’re looking for. No, it was more the sheer, crushing predictability of a Lou Reed concert by then: the smattering of songs from The New Record, the obvious back catalogue gems, all served up in a competent, but dimensionless, emotionless, professional rock manner that would serve as a working definition of “perfunctory.”
A dozen years later, waiting for the show to begin, I’m struck by the irony: I swore off live Lou because I felt I knew pretty much exactly what it was going to be like; but here I am, going to see him again, and prickling with excitement because I know exactly what’s coming: Berlin, his odd, raddled 1973 magnum opus of doomed love, drugs, depression, violence and suicide, in its entirety and in order.
He’s been doing these Berlin shows since the end of 2006, but you still have to pinch yourself to check it’s really happening. It’s Lou fu cking Reed doing fu cking Berlin. With a fu cking string and brass section. And a fu cking children’s choir. Who would have ever thought we would see that?
Reed has played whole LPs in concert before – New York and Magic and Loss were both toured in this manner on release – but when he did it, it had nothing to do with the recent vogue for the “classic album” gig that has seen everyone from Brian Wilson to Sonic Youth, Patti Smith to Public Enemy dusting off track-by-track recreations of past glories. On the contrary, it was a stubborn refusal to be pinned down by the past, regardless of how loudly the audience cried for “Heroin”.
Nostalgia, you sense, has never been something that has much bothered Reed. (Certainly, there was little in evidence on his other most recent “live album” show, 2002’s insane reworking of Metal Machine Music with demented German avant gardist chamber group Zeitkratzer.) Revisiting Berlin, though, is a different case. Famously, it’s the record about grime and suicide that was seen as a grimy, suicidal thing to release, that was written off by the critics and the industry when it first appeared, but then cherished by a hardcore of fans and perpetually rediscovered, until it emerged from the underground reborn as a unique, defining classic.
When I heard a recording of the first Berlin show he performed in New York in 2006, I heard something I hadn’t expected. Reed, feeling his way back into the record, sounded more engaged and yet more uncertain than he had in years, singing with an intense focus that, at first, had a thrilling air of trepidation, as though he was unsure he could pull this thing off, then gradually gaining more and more confidence and power, electrifying himself. By the end, it was surging, and the crackling vibe was unmistakable. This wasn’t nostalgia. This was the delicious sound of Lou Reed stepping back, basking in it, and saying, “That’s right, you fu ckers. I was right all along. Again.”
When he appears on stage in Edinburgh, however, I’m worried that, having played Berlin so often by now, he might have slipped back into his bad old disengaged groove. A few doomy seconds into the opening “Berlin” itself, though, as he very carefully whispers out the first words, that fear has abated. By the time he and the massed ensemble – 27 of them in all – have pinned our ears back with a thunderously loud swagger into the debauched “Lady Day,” it’s been literally blown away.
Maybe you just need to surround him with 26 other people all determined to enjoy playing – original Berlin guitarist Steve Hunter being only the most obvious, clearly relishing every note of his soaring, sinuous solos – but I just can’t remember seeing Reed looking as loose and (whisper it) happy as this, not even on the optimistic opening night of the fated Velvet Underground reunion. Little ticks and grimaces always animate his face as he chugs out rhythms and pulls skronky notes on his guitar but, tonight, a lot of them look like smiles.
It’s a gloriously contrary evening. Perversity is the key. So here are all these bright, fresh-faced young children in the choir, swaying merrily while they sing like angels about domestic abuse, turning tricks, drugs, bloody wrists. (If there’s one disappointment during the main set, it’s that Lou doesn’t suddenly turn nasty on them to make them cry during “The Kids,” relying on tapes of children wailing instead.)
The themes of the Berlin song-cycle are wretched and melancholy, and the whole thing, especially tonight, coming at you in living colour and widescreen like it never did on record, is cathartically moving. Experienced live like this, you really appreciate how Berlin moves from crunching ugliness into the most upliftingly sad and beautiful music Reed has written in his post-Velvets career. As the band do that descending, twinkling lead into “Men of Good Fortune” and Reed gently begins its I’m-sorry-for-myself-and-you-and-the-whole-damned-world lyric, I actually find myself choking down a tear.
Beneath it all, though, beneath all these big songs about small disconnection, isolation and bad times, there’s this current of joy and communication as the band dig into how good it sounds. “How Do You Think It Feels,” the horn section lewd and horny, turns into an extended, blasting jam session, Reed trading riffs with Hunter, nodding for the saxophonist to blow a chorus or two.
By the end, as the children’s choir do that slow, spectral, screaming, haunting melt from “The Bed,” into “Sad Song,” the sound is simply, hair-rasingly immense. On “Sad Song”’s closing refrain, when everything – the battered rock band, the string section, the brass, the kids – is finally locked together and going at once, it gets so damnably big and glorious it’s as if they don’t want to let it go. And so they don’t, hitting it out over and over and over again until you think, almost hope, it won’t actually end.
It does, of course, and there is a reflexive standing ovation as we get to let out all the stuff the show has been penting up in us.
The perversity continues during the brief encore. Armed with this mini orchestra and choir, Reed launches into a quite stunning recreation of Transfomer’s “Satellite of Love.” With the kids replicating Bowie’s bong-bong-bong harmonies and the strings sawing away, it’s absolutely, scalp-tinglingly perfect – and so, of course, he frustrates the hell out of it by keeping his mouth shut and having his long-term bassist Fernando Saunders sing most of it. Same deal on “Rock and Roll,” for which Lou, busy getting off on digging into his potentially endless, driving, chugging riff with Hunter, hands singing duties over to his backing vocalist who, quite astonishingly, doesn’t actually know the words, leading to the once unimaginable spectacle of Reed happily whispering prompts in her ear, where once it would have been death promises.
Weird as it is it see him so cheerful, there are signs here of Reed being content to slip back into old ways. The potential possibilities of this band are endless, and go far beyond a cabaret “Rock and Roll.” I can’t help imagining how thrilling it would have been to hear him pull out something like the version of “Lisa Says” that exists on the intimate old Velvets End Cole Avenue bootleg, on which he’s joined by a perfectly raggedly impromptu massed choir. He ends, though, practically solo, the strings fading to a respectful distance in the far background, as he picks out his most recent song, “Power of the Heart,” a slow, exhausted, acoustic love song that turns in on itself in oneiric circles until it just has nowhere left to go. It’s a muted, “mature” and slightly maddening way to end. But that’s Lou Reed. And for a long while tonight, it was a privilege to see him. Oh, honey, it was paradise.
Men of Good Fortune
How Do You Think It Feels?
Caroline Says II
Satellite of Love
Rock and Roll
The Power of the Heart