Lou Reed is doing the keynote address for SXSW Music tomorrow morning, and I'll be liveblogging it, but this afternoon he made an unscheduled (but not unanticipated) appearance at the U.S. premiere of "Lou Reed's Berlin," a film by Julian Schnabel.
Shot over five nights at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn, "Lou Reed's Berlin" is a film of the first live performances ever of Reed's legendary 1973 conceptual album. Because Reed was one of the first alternative music artists I ever listened to, after hearing a Patti Smith bootleg of the Velvet Underground's "White Light, White Heat," and because "Berlin" in particular is an album I have loved for its music and for the time in my own life it evokes, this film was pretty much the reason I came to Austin -- that and the hope of seeing Reed perform, and hearing him speak.
So it's really no surprise that the concert the film depicts blew me away. It was brilliantly conceived and executed -- with even the somewhat-loose-on-the-lyrics Reed nailing every phrase perfectly.
Austin's Paramount Theater did full justice to the film's excellent sound, particularly the guitar solos by original "Berlin" guitarist Steve Hunter as well as Reed. There was an orchestra, conducted by original "Berlin producer" Bob Ezrin, who along with Hal Willner produced the stage show.
Fernando Saunders on bass, Tony "Thunder" Smith on drums, Rob Wasserman on stand-up bass, and keyboardist Rupert Christie were backed by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and... Antony.
Antony, of a group called Antony and the Johnsons, has what may be one of the most perfect voices I've ever heard. He caught my ear once or twice during "Berlin," but for an encore, he and Reed did a duet on "Candy Says," and his insanely beautiful and powerful falsetto knocked me flat. At the end of the song, Reed looked at him with affectionate awe, and just gestured at him and said, "Antony."
Director Julian Schnabel is an painter. He's a renowned filmmaker as well, and I thought the staging (which he designed) as well as the concert footage were amazing. As a live performance, the lighting and use of film on stage worked extremely well.
What did not work for me was the extra footage shot by filmmaker Lola Schnabel (Julian's daughter). I had an image of Caroline, Jim, and the setting of "Berlin" in my mind already, and seeing it spelled out was jarring for me.
Before the film started, Reed was escorted into the theater and seated on the aisle just three seats away from me. I'd have been surprised if he wasn't there, but he wasn't an announced guest. I admit I kept glancing at him during the film to see how he was reacting to it -- and several times caught him moving his head in time to the music.
After the film, he and producer Hal Wilner took the stage to answer questions from the audience. This is from my notes; only things in quotation marks are direct quotes.
Q: How did this project come about?
Hal Wilner: Susan Feldman first suggested it as part of the arts programs at St. Anne's in Brooklyn. It seemed so big, so unlikely -- just a dream. "But she pulled it off eventually."
Q: Please talk about how the two of you created those guitar sounds.
Lou Reed: Me and Wilner, we've been working a real long time now to get those sounds and not lose your hearing. I've known Hal since the Kurt Weil album.
Hal Wilner: I'm from the old school of production. We brought back the original producer, Bob Ezrin, along with Steve Hunter and keyboardist Rupert Christie.
Lou Reed: "Well, wouldn't that be nice?" He explained to the audience "Time Rocker" is a play he wrote with Robert Wilson. They never got to record it. "This was not supposed to be first in a series."
"Why not?" shouted someone in the audience.
Reed said he never thought it would happen, there's no money in it; that's why.
Q: Antony... what's the story there?
Lou Reed: We met through Wilner...
Hal Wilner: They were doing another play with Robert Wilson. While looking through some records for a singer, he saw one called "I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy" by Antony and the Johnsons, so he gave it to Reed with a bunch of others.
Lou Reed: He played it and after around 10 seconds, said, what an astonishing voice. And he was like 15 minutes away. "That's New York." Then he added, "Antony is 6'4". Don't screw around with him."
Q: Will you work with Robert Wilson again?
Lou Reed: "We're always threatening to."
Q: How much time did you rehearse with the youth choir?
Hal Wilner: Three time together. Other times they rehearsed with music teachers etc.
Q: How did you and Julian work together?
Lou Reed: "Julian's been in love with this album for a long time. He just understood it. There are some things you don't even have to discuss. And that's how."
Q: How did it feel to revisit the emotions of this album, which run very deep?
Lou Reed: "The main thing to me is, do the lyrics hold up?....It's about jealousy, and impotence, and the inability to communicate." He tried not to use slang venacular in case they ever had the chance to do it later.
They finished up to loud applause. I'll be back in the morning with his keynote address, and Clint will be there to shoot that, so we'll have photos. Now I'm off to see Tom Morello!