During my youth I decided that one day in decrepit middle age I would aim to become one of three people: Mother Teresa, Fyodor Dostoevski or Lou Reed. Then I grew up and got real — the first two were impossibly lofty, but Reed was a goal to strive for. With his public moods that fluctuated between bad and rotten, his seemingly permanent bad hair-and-jeans-days, his weird but fascinating sunglasses that look like Salvation Army discards reworked by West Village artists, that whole Schlitz-drenched, nicotine-stained, f**k-off-I’m-busy-doing-nothing attitude that adorned his whole being like an ancient leather jacket or a dirty diamond ring — how did one get to such a state of chic and was there a road map somewhere?
And then I saw “Lou Reed’s Berlin” and finally realized, with the true and accurate perception of an adult, that Lou Reed is totally beyond my aspirations. Sob. It’s not just the obvious stuff like he’s a living legend, but also the way he holds a guitar (so it looks as though he’s gently yanking on someone’s hair as she entwines herself around his torso), the terrifically dissipated air that can only be achieved after decades of hard drinking, hard smoking, hard sex with men, women and transvestites, firing Nico from the Velvet Underground, hanging out with David Bowie, et al. Talk about the hopelessly unattainable.
“Lou Reed’s Berlin,” half straightforward music documentary and half rock ‘n’ roll trance, is here to say that though the tides will flow, the winds will change and the whole globe may quit smoking, Lou Reed — at 66 — will remain the boozy, tar-infested monster of old Brooklyn cool.
Reed’s album “Berlin” was released in 1973 on the heels of the howling commercial success of “Transformer,” which put Reed’s solo, post-Velvet Underground name on the map in blazing neon. “Berlin,” however, was a flop any way you sliced it: The public hated it, the critics tore it to shreds, and Reed more or less took the album and buried it in a shallow grave, sans flowers — for the next 33 years. Then, in 2006, at a Brooklyn warehouse called St. Ann, Reed literally took a shovel to the tomb and performed the Berlin songs over the course of five days. On stage, he reunited with guitarist Steve Hunter, who played on the original album, and performed with singers Antony Hegarty, Sharon Jones and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The stage design was the work of painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), who went in with a crew including the excellent and revered documentary cinematographer Ellen Kuras and turned the monumental five days into a film. The result is a tribute to Reed and Schnabel’s interpretations of “Berlin” that includes brief but memorable appearances by French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, whose images alternate with or are superimposed on the performing Reed.
Since the release of the film, critics in the United States and Europe are hailing “Berlin” as a masterpiece. At the time of its release, the album was lambasted as being too private, with Reed projecting his personal tragedies into self-indulgent and sentimental songs.
Listening to him now, the album comes across as a tightly constructed and masterful piece of storytelling — the tale of two drug addicts, Jim and Caroline (represented in the movie by Seigner), joined initially in the manic euphoria of substance-enhanced love (the opening of “Berlin” is a slurred, noisy celebration of Jim and Caroline becoming a couple, but is tinged with undertones of gloom), and then in the inevitable downward spiral punctuated by betrayal and abuse. In a later song called “The Kids,” a “miserable slut mother” has her children taken away and the track has repeated voice-overs from a little boy calling for mommy. Sad and strong and utterly anti-PC, the experience has the bitter aftertaste of unfiltered cigarettes, smoked after one too many drinks at two in the morning.