If for some masochistic reason you wish to experience the full force of Lou Reed’s contempt, then try mentioning his concept album Berlin’s reputation as the most depressing album ever made.
There is an ominous pause. “You know, I don’t like to have to sit through interviews and hear that,” the notoriously irascible Reed finally growls. “I consider it illiterate.”
Berlin, which was made in 1973 and is being staged in a European tour starting next week, tells the story of a promiscuous junkie mother with a violent boyfriend who kills herself after her children are taken into care. It is hardly designed to put a spring in the step of the listener, even by the standards of a songwriter whose work is amply versed in nihilism and depravity. Yet Reed argues, ill-temperedly but not altogether unreasonably, that Berlin is no gloomier than many books, plays or films.
“What do you think the ending of Hamlet is?” he bristles. His laconic drawl rises pettishly. “I don’t want to have to defend myself. Why do I have to go through this? I didn’t write it for critics, I don’t read critics and I don’t want to have to respond to people I don’t read or like in the first place. How much clearer can I make it?”
Phew. Reed is a famously antagonistic interviewee whose booze- and drug-fuelled bouts with gonzo rock critics such as Lester Bangs in the 1970s are the stuff of legend. Even at the age of 66, tai chi and clean-living having long ago replaced the excesses of youth, the Velvet Underground singer maintains an almost pathological suspicion of journalists, who are assumed to be hostile, or, failing that, soft, contemptible.
In Berlin’s case, his habitually prickly air of defensiveness is sharpened by the album's decades of neglect. Greeted by savage reviews when it came out in 1973 – Rolling Stone magazine labelled it “patently offensive” and predicted it would end Reed’s career – the album flopped and plans to stage it were shelved.
Over time it acquired cult status as Reed's “lost” masterpiece and was finally performed in New York in 2006 in a lavish production featuring an orchestra and a children’s choir. The stage set was designed by the artist and film-maker Julian Schnabel, and there was an accompanying film made by Schnabel’s daughter that starred the French actress Emmanuelle Seigner.
Speaking from New York (asked for a more precise location, the gnarled godfather of underground rock offers: “Downtown. Always downtown”), he bridles at my description of the album’s rehabilitation. “Brought back to the fore,” he suggests. “Revisited. We didn’t change anything, it wasn’t brought up to date. ‘Rehabilitate’ means there was something wrong with it in the first place.”
Berlin occupies a curious point in Reed’s solo career. Between 1965 and 1970, he experienced crushing commercial failure in the Velvet Underground, one of the most important bands in rock history yet also, in their lifetime, one of the worst-selling. It was not until 1972, when he released his solo album Transformer and its hit single “Walk on the Wild Side”, that he tasted chart success.
His decision to follow Transformer with a rock opera about suicide, drug abuse and domestic violence was characteristically, magnificently obdurate. Unsurprisingly, his brief tenure as a pop star evaporated. “Did it ever,” he laughs. “Yes. It certainly did. Boy, did that put an end to that.”
The urge to create a concept album was not so eccentric, however. Reed has always been a superb narrative songwriter, recounting stories in a hard-boiled, conversational singing style. It was not much of a leap to taking a whole album to tell a story. “I’m the guy with a BA in English who’s studying drama, so it’s not far-fetched to think what I might do given half the chance. That kind of writing, but with drums and guitars. There you have it.”
Reed grew up in a middle-class Jewish household in suburban Long Island and attended Syracuse University. He identifies a short story by one of his tutors, the poet Delmore Schwartz, as a turning point in his own development as a writer. “ ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ ”, Reed says, “changed my life entirely and shaped the way I write, and everything along with it.” It taught him the virtue of simplicity. “I don’t think there’s a single polysyllabic word there. The world shook for me when I read it.”
Berlin’s lyrics recount its protagonists’ grim story in a detached, numbed fashion. Caroline and Jim are American expats in Berlin, a city Reed had never visited but whose cold war dividedness appealed to him. Caroline, the speed-freak, “should have the word ‘trouble’ on her forehead”, he explains of his characters. The vile Jim, who exults after Caroline’s death that he should have broken both her arms, is condemned mildly by Reed as “not a winner by any stretch”.
“Be careful who you throw a rock at when you're taking the higher ground,” he adds.
“I think everybody tries to do the best they can with the cards they’re dealt. That’s about as many clichés as I can put together in one sentence.” He laughs. The earlier thunderclouds have disappeared as suddenly as they formed.
As well as being rehabilitated – sorry, revisited – on stage, Berlin has been turned into a concert film by Reed’s old friend Schnabel, director of last year’s Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, who filmed the New York concert in 2006. The film opens with Schnabel telling the audience that Reed’s proud mother is in attendance; a suggestive introduction, considering the album’s theme of tragic or bad mothering. Reed is astonished into laughter by the linkage. “That’s completely invalid,” he says. “Julian did that because my mother was there … It wasn’t done for that reason, put it that way. Nice thought, though.”
The compliment is not to be mistaken as a green light to probe his tumultuous personal history. Interviews with Reed in 1973 when he was about to make Berlin depict him as pallid, puffy, whisky-sodden and remote. His marriage to his first wife was collapsing as he made the album. (He is now married to Laurie Anderson, a performance artist and musician.) It is hard to ignore autobiographical echoes in Berlin, with its themes of sexual jealousy, self-destruction and emotional breakdown. Yet Reed rejects any links between his private life and his work. “That’s right,” he says in a dangerous sing-song voice, like a Hollywood serial killer.
So does he think there is a kind of Berlin Wall separating his life from his art? “Very clever,” he allows (we are on volatile ground). “I … write. It should all be very real. And I’ve done it long enough now that I am what I am.” A gnomic pause brings the shutters down on the topic.
I mention something he said in one of those interviews in 1973. Reed initially is horrified (“You're going to ask me to comment on a so-called interview from 30 years ago?”) but the quote itself amuses him. “I would like to live to a ripe old age,” his younger self told Bangs, “and raise watermelons in Wyoming.”
“That’s not a bad goal,” he laughs. He thinks for a bit, and then updates it. “I would love to have a tai chi meditation ranch somewhere in upstate New York with a couple of Harleys and not have to charge people any money to learn it. And just put music out and hope that someone gets as much out of listening to it as I got out of making it. It’s the only thing I know how to do.”