After the glam-rock success of 1972’s Transformer and its hit song, “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed created what he hoped would be his masterpiece, Berlin. It used the love story of two drug addicts in that then-divided city to explore themes of addiction, domestic violence, and suicide. But the critics weren’t enthusiastic (Rolling Stone: “A disaster … Good-bye, Lou”), and a mediocre commercial response all but buried the record and his mainstream career. Now Berlin’s back, with a new stage production, directed and designed by Julian Schnabel, at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Reed spoke to Mark Mordue.
I want 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—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 was attacked for being an ugly record—
You mean from critics? Why would I pay attention to that?
Why does thematic storytelling 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 and roll] recordings are thought of at such a low level. Like, “Wow! What’s that doing on a record?” It’s really odd.
But what about in terms of the things you were trying to develop with Berlin in particular?
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. I hadn’t been to Berlin, you know.
I thought the whole divided-city theme wasn’t just a way of looking at a relationship, 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.