“Lou Reed’s Berlin is a disaster, taking the listener into a distorted and degenerate demimonde of paranoia, schizophrenia, degradation, pill-induced violence and suicide,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Stephen Davis in 1973, adding that “there are certain records that are so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrate them.” Could this “last shot at a once-promising career,” as Davis described it, really have come from the onetime leader of as influential a band as the Velvet Underground — from the man who could, just three years earlier, have written a song like “Sweet Jane”?
Yet Lou Reed survived Berlin’s drubbing, and indeed spent the next forty years fulfilling his promise, to the very end drawing the occasional round of pans (most resoundingly for Lulu, his 2011 collaboration with Metallica) that verified his artistic vitality. By the 21st century, critical opinion had come around on Berlin, and in 2003 even Rolling Stone put it on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Three years later, Reed took the then-33-year-old rock-opera album on tour, playing it live with a 30-piece band and twelve choristers. Painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel designed the tour and shot a documentary of five nights of its performances in Brooklyn, releasing it in 2008 as Lou Reed Berlin.
In the clip above, you can see the very last song of the show, played during the film’s closing credits. It isn’t “Sad Song,” which draws the curtain over Berlin, but the last of a three-part encore that ends with none other than “Sweet Jane.” Having first appeared on the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded (#110 on the Rolling Stone list to Berlin’s #344), the song became a favorite in Reed’s live performances in the decades thereafter, an evocation of a particular creative era in a career that encompassed so many. “Goodbye, Lou,” Davis said to Reed at the end of his Berlin review, but for that album, and even more so for the man who made it, the show had only just begun.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.