Lou Reed Revisits Berlin

Movies Features Lou Reed

In Lou Reed’s New York, the people worth knowing—the ones with nobility—are jazz arrangers, maverick saxophonists, conceptual artists. Characters. These days, that’s pretty much who to mention if you don’t want the 66-year-old ?songwriter to hang up. Topics politely suggested as verboten by his publicist: his personal life, the ’60s, bisexuality.

Reed is notoriously bitchy, even when promoting his newest work. In this case, it’s Julian Schnabel’s documentary on the 2006 revival of Reed’s 1973 concept album Berlin, which employed the Wall as a metaphor for the corrupted heart; used lush arrangements for songs about drugs, abuse and prostitution; and was so mercilessly destroyed by the rock press upon its release that Reed refused to speak about it for years.

Today, though, Reed gushes about his collaborators. “Gorgeous,” he says of Schnabel’s work, which features montages filmed by the director’s daughter, Lola Schnabel.

And of longtime collaborator Hal Willner, who co-produced the Berlin revival, a delighted Reed says, “He’s a music fool—add this! Add that! Have you heard this? Have you heard that? Listen to this horn player! Listen to this cellist!” Wilner and Reed co-host New York Shuffle, a Sirius radio show, trying, in Reed’s words, to bring back “real radio programs by people who really love music.” Playlists have included Alice Coltrane, Patsy Cline and Animal Collective.

Then there’s John Zorn, the veteran downtown saxophonist whom Reed has joined in the past year for improvised duos, trios and quartets, and on occasion welcomed into his own band. “I think he’s one of the great, great saxophonists, besides being an astonishing person,” Reed says.

The two make sense as artistic soulmates considering Zorn once released an album affixed with a warning about “high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing & beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches & ringing in the ears,” and Reed was responsible for the infamous Metal Machine Music. Along with Berlin, Metal Machine is often blamed for bringing Reed’s career to a screeching halt in the mid ’70s.

Ironically, both records have been given second chances and are now considered canonical centerpieces, pure distillations of Reed’s interests in noise and storytelling. In 2002, Reed joined Zeitkratzer, a German ensemble, for a live arrangement of Reed’s Metal Machine feedback walls. And then there’s Berlin, a somber concept album of intimate gloom, waiting to be heard again—or, perhaps, for the first time.

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