Sunday, February 25, 2007
THROUGH THE YEARS, 8
25 years ago: March, 1982
Lou Reed founded The Velvet Underground and with some version of that band produced four mercurial albums from 1967-70. Then he faded away, only to be resurrected by David Bowie (in the era of rampant Ziggyness, when glam was queen) who produced Reed's comeback LP (and, for some, finest solo album) Transformer. The album was a hit as was, improbably, "Walk on the Wild Side" (which wryly referred, uncensored on Top 40 radio, to a transvestite "giving head," among other things AM hits tended not to mention in those days). Lou followed that up in 1973 with Berlin, which is for me one of the greatest "concept albums" of the '70s and one of the darkest, most unrelenting albums ever made. It established Lou as a standard unto himself. Even Pete Townshend's excellent and more sprawling Quadrophenia, released that same year, isn't as powerful in giving a sense of a complex story unfolding in brief elliptical glimpses.
The Blue Mask was in some ways Lou's second comeback album (returning to RCA after several years, and uneven albums on Arista). Rather than dwell on what happened to him in the '70s, it's better to look at how unlikely it was that anyone whose career began in the mid-60s would be producing some of their higher quality work in the early '80s. But Lou did it with this album and its follow-up. The strength of the albums is based on some of the more more varied and nuanced song writing of his career combined with a clean-edged sound composed mainly of Fernando Saunders on bass and Robert Quine on lead, with Lou himself working out a harsh but melodic rhythm guitar that gave the songs just the right gritty, poetic edge. Listen to it unaccompanied on "The Heroine," a surreal ditty that neatly plays off the title of Lou's signature tune (and in some ways theme song) "Heroin" to offer a visionary sense of sacrifice and, possibly, redemption.
The album's sense of redemption is significant due to its autobiographical shadings -- "My House," a song in honor of Delmore Schwartz, poses the doomed poet as both a mentor of Lou's for a time at Syracuse University and as a ghost come to visit the mature songwriter Lou has become (sacrificial figure redeemed). Then too there are two songs in honor of Lou's wife Sylvia that suggest the degree to which a beloved in Lou's life has exorcized some of his more self-destructive tendencies. And, lest we assume that a settled life means Lou has become boring, we have "Average Guy" as a joke on the idea of a "normal" Lou ("I'm average in everything I do / my temperature is 98.2 / I'm just an average guy") and songs like "Underneath the Bottle" to record -- quite tongue-in-cheek -- the kind of lifestyle the singer has been known for. Then there are the show-stoppers: "Waves of Fear" with its distinctive, churning, fat-bottomed bass as Lou serves up a catalogue of neuroses; "The Gun," with Lou returning to that cold, razor-like voice heard on Berlin to deliver deadpan the musings of an armed housebreaker; and "The Blue Mask" which kicks ass sonically as Lou -- always willing to flirt with the Freudian myths of what gives birth to our deepest anxieties -- literalizes castration anxiety and unmasks a sado-masochistic thrill in punishment that "Venus in Furs" had only played with for kicks.
Finally, there's "The Day John Kennedy Died" which takes its place with other songs that mused about "the hour of the assassin" that reigned in the '60s and found its later manifestations in attempts on Presidents Ford and Reagan and the killing of John Lennon in December 1980: Ray Davies' "Killer's Eyes" (1981) and Peter Gabriel's "Family Snapshot" (1980). Lou's lyrics, when at their most sensitive, sometimes drop the ball into bathos or awkwardness, but something in the earnest assertiveness of "I dreamed I was the president of these United States / I dreamed that I was young and smart and it was not a waste" registers a sadly aware conviction of some deep failure in U.S. society. Lou, in his early 20s when JFK was gunned down, perhaps found in the murder of a musical contemporary an incentive to reconstruct musically a bit of his own journey. The Blue Mask still holds up as the testament of Lou at 40, moving toward middle-age, still an original, but also a survivor.
Take the blue mask from my face / And look me in the eyes
--Lou Reed, "The Blue Mask" (1982)