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Reed is no stranger to themes of twisted sexuality, and, like Wedekind, he is able to raise perversity to the level of art. Since the beginning of his career with The Velvet Underground, in the 1960s, he has broken all the rules of rock ’n’ roll with his unsparingly graphic depictions of sex and addiction — a tendency explained by author Steven Lee Berger as a rebellion against his middle-class Jewish upbringing. He wrote songs like “Venus in Furs” (inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s kinky novella), “Some Kinda Love” (“Like a dirty French novel / combines the absurd with the vulgar”) and “Walk on the Wild Side,” which dwelt on drug use, male prostitution and oral sex.
With his songs for “Lulu,” Reed seems to be picking up where he left off almost 40 years ago. His lyrics are notably crass, and largely unprintable in this publication. “I wish there was a strap of blood / That you could kiss away / Tie me with a scarf and jewels / Put a bloody gag to my teeth,” Reed bellows in one of the tamer verses of the song “Mistress Dread.”
At the open-air stage in Spandau, the audience howled along to Reed standards, including “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane” and “Satellite of Love,” but the “Lulu” songs were also received enthusiastically. Hearing them alongside Reed’s earlier material, and minus Metallica, the “Lulu” selections were convincingly of a piece with the musician’s body of work. Reed made a compelling argument for this continuity by playing the final tracks of “Berlin” and “Lulu” back to back. “Sad Song,” a mockingly upbeat anthem from the earlier album, inhabits a different melodic universe than “Junior Dad,” a 10-minute-long, spoken-word poem with minimal instrumental support. But they are bound together by a spirit of tender pessimism and by verbal repetition that points to a bitter, sarcastic nostalgia. The songs on “Lulu” are difficult listening — largely unmelodic, with wrenchingly vulgar lyrics — but then again, Reed has always been an iconoclast who revolts against the expectations of his listeners.
Watching Reed perform, I wondered about his impressions of this contemporary city, a place so different from the divided capital he knew nearly four decades ago. I’m curious because I sense that Reed feels an affinity with the old Berlin and a kinship with the artists incubated in a city whose reputation for creative experimentation and excellence continues to this day. Stefan Zweig, the Jewish author from Austria, once described the world from which “Lulu” emerged as a “sticky, perfumed, sultry, unhealthy atmosphere.” Present-day Berlin is less contaminated than it was during the epoch that Zweig wrote about, but it still has a unique mixture of edginess, sophistication and daring. I imagine that’s what attracted Reed to this city 40 years ago — and what brings him back today.
A.J. Goldmann writes about art and culture from Berlin. He is a regular contributor to the Forward.