An interview with Lou Reed about Berlin
Talking to Lou Reed is like trying to communicate with a doorstop. The kind of thing you inevitably stub your toe on. Reed is, of course, notoriously difficult: testy, abrupt, contemptuous of journalists and prone, at best, to dead weight answers that refuse anything akin to conversation. Management demand to see all likely questions before the interview, ‘control’ is the dominant theme once we are actually talking. With a new stage production of his 1973 record Berlin due at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York (December 14-17) and the Sydney Festival in Australia (January 18-20), it was all the more pleasurable to be warned by Reed’s personal assistant just prior to our phone chat that it would be wise to avoid questions about his past. A little difficult, I tried to explain, when we’re supposed to discussing a show based on a 33-year-old recording. The PA sighed as if to tell me ‘don’t say I didn’t warn you’. As for Reed, he would convey a lot by his tone of voice too. Just before we began there was some noise in the background, then the PA said in a rising cry usually reserved for freak waves about to hit a boat, “Here heeeee comes!”
I wanted to ask the obvious question - why return to Berlin now?
'You know, it’s the one question I get asked. Susan Feldman, who runs St Ann’s Warehouse [an arts space in New York] - John Cale and I did Songs for Drella there - always wanted me to do this. I just said, “Yes. Why not? It might be fun.”'
When Berlin came out it in 1973 it got a lot of antagonism for being ‘the saddest record ever made’, for being an ugly record, so I wondered if you if you wanted-
'You mean from critics? Why would I pay attention to that?'
Returning to Berlin now, I thought there may have been a desire, somehow, to be more emphatic about the beautiful side of it in terms of the music and-
'Well it’s [the beauty] always been there. I can’t control what critics say. And I have no interest in it either.'
What about the team around Berlin this time? The influence of people like Julian Schnabel (direction and stage design) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting)? Is there anything-
'Bob Ezrin, the original producer [of the record Berlin], is arranging, and Steve Hunter, the original guitar player is playing. Steve Bernstein has put together the band. I just worked with Steve on a tour where we all did Leonard Cohen songs in Dublin – that was interesting, by the way. And Hal Willner, who I’ve worked with forever - he did The Raven and Ecstasy with me - he’s involved as a music director, him and Ezrin and Steve [Bernstein]. Julian [Schnabel] is doing the sets and directing, and his daughter is doing visuals…'
I’m just interested if you can see any shift in the flavour of what you’re doing because of that team now compared to the original team on the record?
'It’s a similar team. Bob produced and arranged it, Steve [Hunter] played on it.'
How about something like the way Andy Warhol suggested you follow Albert Speers way of lighting Hitler-
'What, what, what, what, what?'
I read when you first toured in the wake of Berlin, Warhol advised you to use Albert Speers lighting techniques – the way Speers lit Hitler – extreme black and white contrasts, extreme spotlighting on you, etcetera. I wondered whether that might have affect what Jennifer Tipton might do?
'Err, wow! That’s an amazing statement. Who knows if that’s true? But it’s certainly not being told to Jennifer Tipton. She’s really accomplished person with the Wooster Group.'
Okay, so you never heard that comment before about the Speers lighting?
'Well I may have, but I certainly haven’t remembered it. You don’t find it funny that you’re asking me, thirty years after the fact - just because you read it somewhere - whether I remember if Andy Warhol said that I should use the same lighting as Albert Speers did? You don’t find that strange?'
No. I don’t find it unusual you don’t remember.
'You do. And that’s what you came up with to ask me about. That’s very funny.'
It’s good to keep you amused. But I was more interested in what Jennifer Tipton and Julian Schnabel might be doing now, beyond the fact they’re simply doing it.
'Well, you’d have to ask them.'
So you’re basically not taking an interest in the staging and lighting?
'(Pause) I pick people that I really love. Like on the records I make, I pick musicians that I like, and I don’t try to change them. I don’t get someone to do something they can’t do - it’s that I like what they do in the first place. I went over a bunch of the sets with Julian, and they’re pretty amazing – actually, it’s staggering.'
Are you able to describe it at all or-
'No. But we’re going to film it.'
What about your musical team? I know you said it was pretty much the same-
'We’re following the original arrangements. I loved them then, and I love them now. I thought Bob [Ezrin] did an amazing job.'
Why does thematic story-telling interest you so much? Obviously you’ve had Songs for Drella and more recently The Raven and-
'I’m interested in writing. Writing married to rock. I’m pretty simple. No big mystery in me. Truly.'
I ask because-
'I mean it’s like saying “Gee, A Streetcar Named Desire is a very depressing play” or “Wow! Hamlet is a depressing play.” Yeah?... You know, [rock ‘n’ roll] recordings are thought of at such a low level. Like “Wow! What’s that doing on a record?” It’s really odd.'
You referred to Hamlet in relation to Berlin when it first came out, and you just mentioned it again then. Why does that link attract you so much? You also used the phrase ‘Hamlet of electricity’ back in 1973 as something you wanted to aspire to.
'I just mentioned it because people think Berlin is depressing just as Hamlet is depressing. I’ll ask you, is Hamlet depressing?'
No, Hamlet is probably my favourite Shakespeare play.
'But everybody dies at the end. What do you think?'
Well one of the things that always interested me about Hamlet was the question of whether he’s neutered and procrastinating, or if he’s driving everything [towards tragedy]. I tend to think he’s driving everything.
'My teacher [the famed American poet and short story writer] Delmore Schwartz said, “One way to think about Hamlet is that he’s drunk.”'
'He was joking.'
Well I make a bridge back to Berlin because of the self-destructive themes that have characterised your music. Why that interests you so much, and what you were trying to explore in Berlin - then and now?
'First of all, I don’t think what you said is true. You’re just picking isolated things, for whatever reason. It’s a real potpourri that I do. Song for song, note for note, idea for idea, attitude for attitude, I like to think I have a broader palette than what you said.'
I don’t think I was saying it was the only thing you do, but it’s definitely a theme – sadism, annihilation, loss. Archetypal stuff really – but, focusing on Berlin-
'What about love?'
Love too, yeah. Love is very strong in your work.
'Love, friendship, survival, transcendence, spirituality – what about all of that?'
Yeah true. But what about in terms of the things you were trying to develop with Berlin in particular? Like this talk of wanting to bring Hamlet to music-
'It’s called ‘writing’. And the object is to make a reality with lyrics and music that someone can respond to and relate to. I wanted to tell a story. And I put it in Berlin because it was a divided city and I thought it was a great metaphor.'
That’s interesting because obviously you’ve been associated with New-
'I hadn’t been to Berlin [back then], you know.'
It definitely seems like a state of mind on the record.
'Yeah, well, ‘the Wall’. Of course the Wall is not there now.'
I thought the whole divided city theme wasn’t just a way of looking at a relationship - but clearly, because you’re the writer, it was also a matter of looking at yourself.
'I don’t know. Writing is writing. I never understood it, so if you do, you’re ahead of me.'
Listening to Berlin, I felt you were exploring issues to do-
With everybody, yes, and you can’t avoid yourself in these things, I mean-
'Everybody and everything is writing.'
Okay Mr Reed, thank you.
- Interview by Mark Mordue
When Berlin first appeared in 1973 it was criticised for its depressing subject matter and described as “the saddest record ever made”. After the glam rock success of 1972’s Transformer and its hit song ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, Reed had hoped to make Berlin his masterpiece. Critical antagonism along with a mediocre commercial response all but buried the record and his mainstream career. No wonder. Berlin told the love story of two drug addicts in Berlin, using the theme of a city then divided by the Wall to explore themes of addiction, domestic violence, suicide and the destruction of family (‘They’re taking her children away”). Reed played the dark chanteuse - almost talking us through his vignettes at times – in a recording that seemed as close to Cabaret as rock ‘n’ roll. Berlin has since grown in stature to the point where it is now regarded as one of his finest recordings. It was originally produced by Bob Ezrin, then the whiz kid behind Alice Cooper’s School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies and much later Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Reed’s new stage production of Berlin brought Ezrin back to the fold as a music director, along with Hal Willner, best known for the Leonard Cohen tribute Came So Far For Beauty. It also utilised the talents of Julian Schnabel, the film director behind Basquiat and a famous painter in his own right, who worked on stage design and overall direction; and Jennifer Tipton, renowned for her lighting work with the experimental theatre company The Wooster Group. It was, in every way, a raging and incandescent success. Julian Schnabel has since turned the series of concerts that took place for Berlin at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn into a documentary, Lou Reed's Berlin. M.M.
* This story appeared in various edited versions in Rolling Stone Australia, December-January 2006-07, New York Magazine, USA December 11, 2006, and The Word, UK February 2007. None of the abbreviated versions quite caught the full affect of the unexpurgated transcript above.