In case you hadn’t noticed, Lou Reed has been working rather doggedly to solidify his standing as a solo elder statesmen of rock ‘n’ roll, feverishly recontextualizing his earlier and fairly inconsistent solo work to exemplify what missunderstood masterpieces they are (or he takes them to be). And it would smack of depressing overcompensation and desperation for adulation if it weren’t for the fact that he’s not entirely incorrect in doing so.
The live double-disc from 2004, Animal Serenade, lent a harrowing and classicist dignity to 30 years’ worth of solo material (along with some Velvets classics, natch). The rerelease in 2005 of a remastered Coney Island Baby (1975) reminded us that Reed was capable of not just replicating but equaling the warmth and empathy of the Velvets’ Loaded. And in 2007 he worked with the German music ensemble Zeitkratzer to recast the nerve-numbed static roar of Metal Machine Music with a classical orchestra. All were done, presumably, to show us that however heroin-shocked his body was and his popular legacy might be, when it come to what matters — the songs — he is unimpeachable. (Let’s all just pretend Sally Can’t Dance never happened, OK?)
Berlin: Live At St. Anns Warehouse is no different. Thirty-five years ago Berlin was Lou Reed’s orchestral rock-opera studio LP, complete with shuddering walls of kitchen-sink sound produced by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile). It was a commercial and financial failure. What got lost in the record’s cacophonic crash was, again, what mattered — the songs — and in Berlin: Live, stripped of Reed and Ezrin’s overproduction, the bleakly radiant song cycle about doomed junkie love is allowed to flourish.
The sublime, soul-scarred and string-haunted ballad “Caroline Says, Part II” shines with a voice-cracked beauty. The slow, rolling grooves of the guitar-crushed “How Do You Think it Feels” reminds listeners that this is the same brain behind the brilliant The Blue Mask (1982) and Street Hassle (1978). The electric “Lady Day” jaunts with a paradoxically tender ferocity.
So, yes, Lou, we get it: Berlin’s another classic we wrote off as smack-shucked swill. Now, could you please remind of how special Street Hassle and The Bells are (with bonus tracks, perhaps)?