The rock 'n' roll icon wows the Waterfront Hall by bringing the masterful Berlin song-cycle to Belfast
Written in 1973, Lou Reed’s third solo album Berlin initially came as a shock to the system. Gone were the jaunty glam-rock crowd pleasers of the preceding Transformer album. Instead, Reed had gone concept-orchestral. The critics, as well as an adoring fan base, were not in the mood for the intellectual comedown.
The plan was to tour the album, playing it in its entirety as a fully-fledged live song cycle – but the demand was not forthcoming. For the first time the prophet of the New York art rock scene had taken a critical hit. Reed was forced, against his will, to shelve his Berlin dream.
Subsequently, Reed would show his contempt for the fickle press by delving into the freak scene, further confounding expectations by cropping his hair, openly adopting fascist symbolism and releasing an album, Metal Machine Music, of extreme audio weirdness. If the establishment wanted a walk on the wild side, they would have one.
35 years later, with his legendary status secured, a rejuvenated Reed was ready to take his most ambitious work on the road, initially performing Berlin in full at St Anne’s Cathedral, New York in December 2007. Tonight in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, it’s plain for all to see that Reed has made his peace with his public. He rewards his Irish followers for their loyalty with a performance of astonishing tenderness and intimacy.
With a brass and string section and the London Children’s Choir assembled downstage, Reed makes his way towards the mic as fast as his 66-year old limbs will take him. Which is to say, not very quickly. His seven-strong band manoeuvre into place as the audience settles in for the night. The all-in-one Japanese-styled fabric backdrop recalls relaxed evenings in hashish smoke-filled living rooms. It’s deceptive. Designer Julian Schnabel is on the same illusory wavelength as Reed.
The ten songs that make up Berlin tell the tragic tale of two messed-up lovers, Caroline the drug-fuelled prostitute and the equally decadent and ultimately violent Jim, who struggle to reach the light at the end of the tunnel amidst a sea of lowlife tricks, easy drugs and wells of deep depression.
The opening title track, sang in the first-person from Jim’s perspective, sets the scene:
In Berlin, by the wall,
You were five foot ten inches tall.
It was very nice,
Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice.
We were in a small café,
You could hear the guitars play.
It was very nice,
It was paradise.
It’s vintage Reed, simple yet insightful, the lyrical equivalent of Hemingway, perhaps. Berlin unfolds with a score of emotive chord progressions and delicate acoustics – no wonder the hyper-sensual 70s could not face up to the music. At times, it’s almost too real to bear.
On ‘Caroline Says (I)’, Jim’s heart begins to break: ‘The things she does, the things she says/People shouldn’t treat others that way/But at first I thought I could take it all.' The Rocky Horror Picture Show Berlin is not.
A projected film by Caroline and Emmanuelle Seigner compliments Reed’s lyrics and music to arty perfection, and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the gritty, inescapable predicament in which the ill-fated heroine finds herself trapped.
A recurring cinematic segment in which a threateningly muscular 'trick' forcibly confines Caroline to her crusty bed hints at the disaster that is to come. And with the penultimate ‘The Bed’, Reed shows himself to be a lyricist who was, circa 1973, at the height of his poetic powers. ‘This is the place where we used to live/I paid for it with love and blood… And this is the room where she took the razor/and cut her wrists on that strange and fateful night.'
The children’s choir, conducted by arranger and pianist Allan Mcmillan, is used sparingly but to devastating effect during the 80-odd minute show. It’s already past their respective bedtimes, but there’s no way the 15 young angels are going to miss this show. It’s safe to assume that they’ll never sing anything like the ghostly climax to ‘The Bed’ again. Oh, what a feelin'.
Throughout the performance, Reed inevitably shows his age. Never an extroverted frontman in the David Bowie or Iggy Pop vein, it appears at times that the aging songwriter might doze off where he stands. But with session masters Steve Hunter on guitar and Fernando Saunders on bass to prop him up, Reed gets into the swing of things, unapologetically stamping down on his guitar pedals, roundhousing a few power chords and bursting eardrums left, right and centre.
When the cycle finishes, Reed takes the time to credit almost every member of the Berlin team by name. Original producer Bob Ezrin comes out for a hug, Reed takes a bow, and at his laid-back cue the musicians exit, stage right.
Many would have been satisfied if Lou Reed had decided to leave it at that and make his way to the Europa Hotel for a cup of green tea and a snooze by the fire. He doesn’t have to afford Belfast the honour of a revamped ‘Satellite of Love’ and a breathtakingly beautiful ‘The Power of the Heart’, but he does, and we thank him for it.
When the house lights go up, the audience make their way towards the exits in an orderly fashion, quiet and thoughtful, ruminating upon the fact that they’ve all just witnessed one of the masterpieces of highbrow rock 'n' roll. Tonight we’ve heard the unmistakable voice and laid our eyes upon the gnarled features of a living legend.