How much poorer is a planet with Lou Reed no longer on it? How can we best make use of our artists when they are here and then, less happily, when they are gone? More than twenty years ago, Lou Reed released “Magic And Loss,” a concept album about dying, inspired by the deaths of the songwriter Doc Pomus and the Factory habitué Rotten Rita. It wasn’t one of his best albums, but it’s the first one I went for after I heard about his death.
“Sword of Damocles,” from that record, is a letter to a cancer patient in which Reed laments the way that radiation treatment simultaneously saves and kills. It reminisces about the various deaths that he’s witnessed (“Now I have seen lots of peoples die from car crashes or drugs / Last night on Thirty-third Street I saw a kid get hit by a bus”), remarks on the odd similarity between hospital painkillers and junkie drugs (“That mix of morphine and Dexedrine, we use it on the street / it kills the pain and keeps you up your very soul to keep”). It’s a vivid song delivered passionately, but, in the end, it’s a letdown, in part because Reed has nothing especially biting to say about death. “Sword of Damocles” is an imperfect investigation and, in that sense, was maybe the perfect song to pick.
In the day after Reed’s death, I’ve been borne along by a steady current of the songs that Reed made eternal. I started with “Candy Says,” from “The Velvet Underground,” because of its loveliness. I went on to “Underneath the Bottle,” from “The Blue Mask,” an unflinching account of alcoholism. From then, I hopped over to “Paranoia Key of E,” from “Ecstasy,” because of its unassailable central riff and playful catalog of ailments. I went back further into the Velvet Underground, of course, because that’s a beacon that’s always shining, to “Oh! Sweet Nuthin” and “Sister Ray” and “Heroin” and “I Can’t Stand It” and “Guess I’m Falling in Love.”
Then I went back to the solo work, to the social satire of “I Wanna Be Black,” the character sketch of “My Friend George,” even the deliberate perversity of “Metal Machine Music,” because maybe there were answers there. There weren’t, but that’s no reason to stop looking. I teared up for the first time at the farcical pimp-talk at the beginning of “Gimmie Some Good Times.” I was reconvinced of the power of “The Kids,” a song that I had written off long ago as overwrought because of the sound effects of shrieking babies and children. I ended up at the bitter, lovely “Temporary Thing,” and I was going to stop there, because that song seemed to say everything about how life exists mostly as a series of disappointments, and how the only mistake is to turn away from it, to fail to record life as it actually is lived.
But Reed, no longer with us, still with us, drew me back in, and I started all over again, with “Street Hassle,” the eleven-minute, three-part suite that closes side one of the 1978 album of the same name. It’s an urban melodrama about life on the fringe, filled with violence and pornography and an uncredited cameo vocal by Bruce Springsteen. The lyrics are vivid and specific, except when they’re not: throughout the first section, mostly, Reed sings, “Sha la la la,” a doo-wop platitude both emptied out and reënergized by his flat solo vocal. He uses the phrase as a substitute for lust, for romance, for orgasm, for excitement, for hope, for freedom, for everything that can’t quite be captured by language. In the second part of the song, there’s a dead woman, an overdose, and Reed’s narrator recommends to her boyfriend that he dispose of the body: “But why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet? / And just lay her out on the darkened street / And by morning she’s just another hit-and-run.” As he’s describing the scheme, there’s an aside that calls back to the song’s first movement. “Sha la la la, man, why don’t you just slip her away?” And, in that way, what is consequential becomes a matter of fact, what is dead becomes beautiful, and what is forever becomes never again.
Above: Lou Reed in 1990. Photograph courtesy of Time & Life Pictures/Getty.