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February 9th, 2007

BROOKLYN TO BERLIN, ONLY $65 AND YOUR SOUL, PLEASE.

by Fred Giacinto

lou_reelsmall.jpgMore than 3 decades ago a legend unleashed a misunderstood concept album on the world. Its recent reinvention as a staged performance insured its legacy as a masterpiece.

For four nights, this December past, at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, a first in thirty years happened. Berlin, the follow up to his chart-topping Transformer, Lou Reed’s inspirational, controversial album was performed, track for track, live. And it proved to be as powerful and barrier-breaking a live performance as Berlin’s overlooked 1973 studio production.

Mr. Reed is no stranger to St. Ann’s; he has teamed up with The Warehouse before: Songs for Drella, a Lou Reed and former Velvet, John Cale collaboration premiered in 1990. In 2003, Reed performed his then current album, The Raven. And last year, he was a guest performer in Arts at St. Ann’s 25th anniversary benefit concert for Roy Nathanson’s acclaimed concept album, Fire at Keaton’s Bar and Grill.

Using the stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse as his platform for such a pivotal turn in a rock and roll performance stands clear. The venue is a cutting-edge live music theater setting which has highlighted works by vital performers including Deborah Harry, Elvis Costello, and David Byrne, Al Pacino, along with, Marisa Tomei, Dianne Wiest, and David Strathairn performed a reading of Salome before this production’s Broadway revival. So, the Warehouse is no stranger to hosting real gems.

Artistic Director Susan Feldman enthusiastically welcomed Reed back for the world premiere of Berlin. She has wanted to produce Berlin for some time. Feldman says, “It’s been gratifying to engage Lou and some of his closest collaborators: Bob Ezrin, Julian Schnabel, and Hal Willner in what’s sure to be a labor of love and an important part of rock history.”

Having Musical Director Bob Ezrin–the producer of Berlin–join Lou Reed’s celebration made perfect sense; who better than an original collaborator to execute and participate in the realization of such a significant effort from all parts concerned? No mistakes were made when it came to authenticating this project from a studio concept to a live show.

The concert director, famed artist, designer, and long time friend of Reed, Julian Schnabel, a painter known for his vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes, as well as, the filmmaker of Basquiat and Before Night Falls, illustrated the right combination of art, aesthetics and theatrics to the St. Ann’s spectacle.

Antony Hegarty, of Antony and The Johnsons, accented the vocal fringe by effecting a choir of voices which perfected the ambient nature of Berlin. Antony’s multi-octave range, along with the vocals of The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, paired with the complex layers of Reed’s musical and poetic achievement proved to be a perfect lyrical symbiosis. Perhaps no one else could have put forth such an impressive and astonishingly ironic and angelic display.

Record producer Hal Willner has been music director for many of the multi-artist concerts at St. Ann’s. Willner’s most recent works include the (Reed inspired) Leonard Cohen tribute concert, I’m Your Man, which is now a theatrically released documentary film and an album on Verve Forecast, and the compilation album, Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys.

The lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, who is acclaimed for her innovative work with The Wooster Group, amongst others, applied her expertise to the show.

For the live performances, Reed, together with friends and collaborators such as singer Sharon Jones, keyboardist Rupert Christie. guitarist Steve Hunter, bassists Fernando Saunders and Rob Wasserman, and drummer Tony Smith created a union of more than able musicians. The brass and strings were contracted by Hal Willner, with Steve Bernstein and Jane Scarpantoni. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus’ very own children’s choir rounded out the show–all in all a perfect combination for a well thought-out dramatic presentation.

Berlin stands–still today. All the issues and obstacles that plagued a secluded, or excluded, community in Reed’s epic, psycho-poetic mission, today has more significance. Spousal abuse, divorce, addiction and despairing people at extreme odds with their environment, and one another, itinerant drifters who attempt to validate their own, sometimes sobering, foibles is now, more than ever, media-relevant. Presently, these misfortunes are more entrenched in mainstream society, for good or bad, mainly because of the broad media that subsists in our common existence. There is no escaping it. Did Lou Reed corner a market, or was he prophetic in his objective to get his word, his struggle, out and heard? He might say he doesn’t care if what he has to say falls on accepting ears or not; he is an artist with his own inspired expressions that need to be fostered–or simply, it is a profuse amount of personal journal entries exploited. Whatever the reason or cause, Berlin earns its place in the very accessible rock and roll archives.

Clearly, Reed does not write for the majority, he writes about things that hurt, about things that people keep secret. Berlin is a brave step taken by a brave artist whose work escapes deep within his own core. Quite possibly–or not–Reed endeavored into this project to heal personal wounds; who is to say. Regardless, this record stands alone; for some, it fills a gap, for others, it is glossed over and dismissed as an overindulgent masturbatory musical ruse, second only to Reed’s unlistenable, Metal Machine�Music. The masses did not want to hear Berlin on the radio–not that there was an obvious single–but it has been an inspiration for many artists that followed. It has inspired those devotees who get it, those who embrace and reveel in Reed’s message.

Much like his early mentor Andy Warhol, Lou Reed has deliberately created “Lou Reed.” Through his rock-poetic instincts, and radical musicianship, he has proven that rock and roll has no limits.

Because St. Ann’s Warehouse hosted this essential work, it has proved that time either does, stand still, or Reed’s foretelling of personal, significant obstacles has finally been recognized and accepted by a select, but broader audience; I think we all lean more towards the latter reasoning, or, we all should.

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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