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Lou Reed Papers: Berlin & Berlin Live

The Hidden Corners of the Lou Reed Papers

Lou Reed & Bob Ezrin or: Berlin Then and Now

In 1973, the Lou Reed of Glam and white face paint, of "Satellite of Love" and "Walk on the Wild Side" wrote the sordid tales of Caroline and Jim, replete with themes of drug use, prostitution, depression, domestic violence, suicide, and child welfare. A raw subject matter, he recorded them as Berlin and they were released to mixed reviews and became a commercial flop. 

The impetus behind Berlin, almost from the start, was producer Bob Ezrin. Ezrin had recently finished producing Billion Dollar Babies (1973) by another larger-than-life, hard rocking, glam rock persona - Alice Cooper, his 4th such credit in a long (and as of December 2022 still continuing) career with Cooper. The story goes that Ezrin was unimpressed with the material Reed had written after Transformer, and explained to Reed that he was good at sculpting the characters of "Walk on the Wild Side" but never fleshed them out.

In a December 2007 conversation with Lou Reed, Julian Schnabel and Hal Wilner, Bob Ezrin recounts the story:

I said, for example you have this song "Berlin" [from Lou Reed (1972)] - what happened to those two people? There they are in Berlin, by the wall, they've got Dubonnet and all of a sudden they break up, he wants to kill her... what happened?

We said "why do something like that? You wrote it - let's do that!" [and] one month later [Lou Reed] sat on my living room floor and played me ten of the most brilliant songs I'd ever heard in my life. While he was playing these songs I started to hear Kurt Weill, a cabaret-ish atmosphere.

Therefor from the out-set Bob Ezrin saw in Berlin a concept album. It wasn't until Lou Reed came back with the demo that Ezrin realized the potential for a Rock Opera. He arranged the album and hired session musicians extraordinaire from Steve Winwood and Cream's Jack Bruce to the Brecker Brothers.

Despite Ezrin and Reed's belief in the record, Berlin would not connect with critics for another 30 years. Ezrin again:

[The response] was shocking to me. I thought what we had done was earth shattering. [...] We had just come off Transformer, he had just done that great song "Walk on the Wild Side". People loved it, it resonated with them, but they missed the point! They missed the fucking point of Lou Reed.

In a 2008 conversation with Paul Morley, Lou Reed mused:

I had just done "Wild Side" so if you like "Wild Side" I'll show you the real one. They didn't like that. So much for Glam Rock, right?

Just a note from the author of this guide: Lou Reed himself would say that at this point in his life, while he had released two songs and one album called "Berlin", he had never actually been.


Lou Reed's Berlin

The album was such a flop it didn't even get much of a tour. By March of the next year less, than 6 months after he release of Berlin, RCA had already recorded and released one live album and Reed had started working on his next studio album, more or less leave Berlin in the past. However, many songs on the album, although "deep cuts" for fans, would become mainstays of Reed's live performances. "The Bed", "Men of Good Fortune", and "Berlin" would be heard on the average set of the '70s and '00s.

In the 2007 conversation, Lou Reed explains:

You write about [these topics] and you get clubbed. As though this was something you pulled out of a dead man's pocket. It's like "what did you do?"

Reed always claimed Berlin was one of his favorite albums so when it's reputation was resuscitated in the early '00s with the help of Rolling Stone Magazine and others, he and Bob Ezrin decided to make it the full blown Rock Opera they had always dreamed it was - a stage production. They brought on Julian Schnabel to design the visuals and direct the production, and friend and collaborator Hal Wilner to co-music produce with Ezrin.

In a 2008 interview with Paul Morley, Lou Reed recounts an early conversation with Julian Schnabel:

He says, "well if I do the sets, I have to direct it. I know this record better than you do." He then recited three of the lyrics.

So he did in fact know it better than me.

The Lou Reed's Berlin Tour premiered on December 14, 2006 at St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, for an initial 4 night run, and would travel mostly in Europe. This time the production had a full chorus - the kids were real. A performance film was made by Schnabel, Berlin (2007), and was recorded over the 4 nights in Brooklyn.

Hal Wilner, in the 2007 conversation with Julian Schnabel and Bob Ezrin, about the production:

Perhaps because it wasn't popular and didn't go into the mainstream and become trivialized like things tend to do, it has not lost one centimeter of it's power. I was like a kid last night listening to this go down - all the shivering, all the anger and love came back.

During the encore on the first night at St. Ann's Warehouse, Lou Reed summed up his thoughts on Berlin:

If you think it's wrong now, think of it then. Some people don't have a sense of humor. They said "it's depressing" and I said "have you seen the end of Hamlet?" They're all dead! My guy's still walking around bitching!