What a beautiful and strange album Lou Reed gave us with Berlin, with its haunted and melancholic lyrics about a relationship being dragged down into the depths of despair, with a little bit of heroin and a little bit of suicide and a little bit of loathing and a section where the main character’s children are taken away by social workers. And yet this tragic record achieved an intense, crystalline grace with the weight of its orchestral accompaniment, its choir of young voices and lyrics containing the specificity of romantic detail one remembers in the haze of reminiscence.
“In Berlin by the wall/You were five foot 10 inches tall/It was very nice.” So begins the first song, and there’s an affectionate charm to it in spite of the disaffectedness of Reed’s drawl. Or maybe it’s because his slightly reedy voice seemed as sincere as an ironist can get, considering the stark terror the ironic and the hip have of being sentimental. “And me, I just don’t care at all,” Reed mutters in a song about the rich and the poor, but when it comes to a love song about a girl in a cafe, he was good about describing his broken heart. On his previous album, “Satellite of Love” was perhaps the most poignant song conceived about sexual jealousy, so even when it was a sweet sounding tune, Reed bristled about making it too nice.
That’s what makes Reed’s music engaging to listen to on an album, in that disassociated state where the relationship exists only between the listener and the lyrics. But when we have the performer on stage, singing into a microphone, the effect can be somewhat unpleasant. Case in point: Lou Reed’s Berlin, a documentary of his December 2006 performance at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. The music is no less haunting, and as Reed has aged he’s grown even more removed from showy emotions. It’s nice to have a performer doing haunting and emotional songs in a disaffected way because it forces the listener to cross the distance and feel things for themselves, but when Reed is shown on screen it’s like observing an ancient slab of granite. His eyes are expressive and deep, and he’s in damned good shape for a 66-year-old, all lean and wiry muscles, but he’s remote and cool.
When Julian Schnabel’s cameras simply revere him, dipping up and down and left and right in an attempt to catch nuances, it telegraphs him as a Great American Independent Artist. The rough, jittery handheld camera is shorthand for “integrity” and the lingering on Reed, and the swishing back to him in an attempt to capture moments, is shorthand for “moments gleaned from a monumental poet.” It makes one feel a little jerked around when you’re trying to just, plain and simple, watch the concert, but it’s not the only frustration. Schnabel also created the sets, which are dank and busy and ornamental and also seem to reinforce the idea of age and experience and dank lugubrious weightiness. There are also accompanying filmed sequences projected on the wall (directed by Lola Schnabel, Julian’s daughter) that visualize the album character Caroline (acted by Emmanuelle Seigner) smoking cigarettes, venturing through European rooms, staircases and alleyways with distressed walls, and gazing forlornly or kittenishly at the camera, depending on the mood of the particular song Reed is singing.
At times, I wanted to close my eyes to divert myself from the sea of images, since listening to music is a personal experience worth cherishing. Some concert documentaries give one an impression of watching a show, and experiencing the performance in a secondhand way but still enjoying the vicarious experience. Others, such as Lou Reed’s Berlin, seem like the movie experience gets in its own way. There’s a busyness that acts as an irritant, and that’s not how you want to feel, particularly given the intimacy of this particular album, when you come back to that painful lyric, “And me, I just don’t care at all.”