Berlin, Spain

By Jone Karres Azurmendi

julian-schnabel-lou-reed.jpgLou Reed and Julian Schnabel

Lou Reed’s legendary album is finally performed and filmed by Julian Schnabel


Lou Reed recorded the album Berlin in 1973. It was a commercial failure. Over the next 33 years, he never played from the album live. Then, for five nights in December 2006, at St. Ann's Warehouse Brooklyn, he finally performed his masterwork about love's dark sisters; jealousy, rage and loss. He was accompanied by around 30 musicians, including the original guitarist on the LP, Steve Hunter, and guests like the singer, Antony (from Antony and the Johnsons). Julian Schnabel filmed the event, which has continued throughout the summer in the shape of a European tour.

Jone Karres Azurmendi: What does it mean for you to dig out out this record 33 years later and perform it live? What drew you to do it and how was the whole process?

Lou Reed: We did this for fun and pleasure. We wanted to stage Berlin ever since it was recorded, but the opportunity didn’t present itself, to say the least. And all this time later, a friend of mine named Susan Feldman, the artistic director at St. Ann´s Warehouse in Brooklyn, she’d wanted me to do it for a long time – she was the one who originally had me and John Cale do Songs for Drella, about Andy Warhol (Drella for Dracula and Cinderella). And one day she said, “why don´t you do Berlin?” She says it every year. And I said, “sure”. Then I talked to Julian, because he had always wanted to make a movie of it. I asked him if he would do the sets. He said yes and also wanted to direct it. So he did. And then he said, “we should make this into a movie”. We had always wanted to make a movie, and we still hadn’t done one, so we did. It was Julian getting all these people together. And we got Bob Ezrin, who produced the original album and did the arrangements, and Steve Hunter, the original guitar player. And off we went.

JKA: People’s tastes change after a while. Berlin wasn’t very successful when it came out 1973. Might that change now?

LR: I have personally always loved this album. I am not sure that people got to hear it then.

JKA: When you played these songs thirty years later, did you change anything? And how did you feel about playing them now? The lyrics seem still to be very relevant.

LR: One thing that is different is that I am playing guitar on this, so there is more electric guitar. It is heavier rock. And I tried very hard to use words that were not out of date, so language is not really a problem. The language is still ok for now – there are a couple of sport expressions... some people from other countries say, “What do you mean, what is that?” That is a problem. For instance in the song The Kids I say, “...and I am the waterboy”. Now, I understand other people don’t know what waterboy means. In the States the waterboy is the guy bringing the water to the baseball players. But he is not a player, he just brings the water. That’s it. Besides, the rest is very easy to understand. No mystery to that language; you don´t need a dictionary to listen to Berlin.

And on the other side of the coin, the subject matter is classic: jealousy. Everybody know what it is to be jealous, right? Now the extreme case of this is Othello. Look what he did to Desdemona. Not to draw comparison, but my guy only talks about breaking her arm. He only talks.

JKA: It has been said that Berlin is your darkest album so far. Now that you have looked at it again...

LR: It’s been said by other people, but I don’t grade them myself. I go song by song (long thinking pause...). By the way, some people tell me Berlin makes them feel better. I think everybody has experienced jealousy and if you listen to Mack the Knife and Pirate Jenny, she sings that song. I always get chills listening to this song. If you think this is a dark song, or if you gain something listening to other people describe something that you feel also, I would think that is a good thing.

JKA: Playing live you certainly transmit vibrations in a very immediate way. How would you describe watching yourself playing in the movie? What is the difference from your own perception of it?

JKA: Some people think that you are the new Edgar Allan Poe.

LR: Who? (laughs). Well, I did an album about him, The Raven, based on a play I did together with Robert Wilson, which was rewriting Poe. Making it contemporary. I love Poe.

JKA: And what about saying that you are the ‘new’ Edgar Allan Poe?

LR: That would be beyond flattery. I would never say that about myself, but it is very, very flattering, so thank you!

LR: Playing live, that really is vibrations, no kidding. It really captures it. I can’t relate to myself particularly but I can relate to the whole thing, an astonishing representation of what went on. The people, from Julian to Alan, all the musicians, that is one complete thing and the movie really has it. I have never seen anything as powerful as this in a musical format. I am saying it about my own thing, but this is a killer. No joke, it is astonishing the way the images and the lights work with the music. Julian takes digital and the best parts of analogue. The visual and oral experience is staggering. It is not a normal concert. There is nothing static about it.

lou-reed-julian-schnabel.jpgLou Reed and Julian Schnabel

JKA: It must have been emotional after so many years...

LR: Music is always emotional. I have never done any music that is not emotional. I have an album out now of meditation music, Hudson River Wind Meditation, and that’s about as calm as I get. The basic idea behind every song I have written in my whole life is about an emotion. You know, when I was in college, I studied writing about conflict – Paradise Lost as opposed to Paradise Regained – so the conflict is more dramatic. And songs... where you have got something so short and you simulate a metaphor, so it helps you visualise it really quickly, for me, from my point of view, emotionally does something.

JKA: Some people think that you are the new Edgar Allan Poe.

LR: Who? (laughs). Well, I did an album about him, The Raven, based on a play I did together with Robert Wilson, which was rewriting Poe. Making it contemporary. I love Poe.

JKA: And what about saying that you are the ‘new’ Edgar Allan Poe?

LR: That would be beyond flattery. I would never say that about myself, but it is very, very flattering, so thank you!


Julian Schnabel on Berlin:


When Lou Reed brought out the album Berlin 33 years ago, it was one of my favourite records in the first place. He never performed this album again, but it is never too late. Some things in art never get old. I think it is a testament to the quality of the record. There are parts he played that were a real celebration. Even if the subject matter is tragic, essentially the work itself is optimistic. It is life affirmative. This is something to remember.

We went to St. Ann’s Warehouse and asked the lady how big her budget was for the art in the film. She said 16,000 dollars. That was enough to get the candies, so I said, “I work for free”, and other people worked for free. To do the set, I painted the walls, took the couch from my home into the studio, asked Lou to come over and I said, “that’s your set”. He said it was perfect. “That’s it, that’s the Berlin wall.” I had Ellen Kuras, who is great with the camera, and four other cameras, but I didn’t want to have cranes on stage at all. I was able to invite the people to the show on Saturday. So I told them, “there are going to be cameras on the stage, so enjoy the show.” I tried to be as close as possible to Lou and support him, because he had supported me when I was young.

I don’t really know how to classify this film. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a concert film either. I think it’s a hybrid.


Jone Karres Azurmendi is a writer and critic based in San Sebastian. See also MAKERS: Without a Mask: Liv Ullmann.

The album Berlin is available on the RCA label. It is hoped the film will be seen in the UK sometime in the next 33 years.

Images of Lou Reed and Julian Schnabel by Ingrid Karres.