Monday, March 10, 2014
Lou Reed - Magic & Loss - 1992
Funny enough, the first song I have any actual memory attached to is a Lou Reed song, the Velvet Underground's "Heroin." It must have been randomly on the car radio, which I still can't quite understand, but I remember that song being part of my life long before I remember all that much else. So when I heard the song again years later, it was like something resurrected from a past life, some skeleton in my closet I hadn't even known I'd had.
It was also weird that when Lou Reed died, I'd actually been listening to a lot of "Magic & Loss," his 1992 album, because it had been a little more than a year since someone I'd known in high school had passed away from ovarian cancer. "Magic & Loss" is very much an album about mortality, about death and, yes, even about cancer. Two of Lou Reed's friends had died from cancer in 1990, and so an album that originally been intended to be a concept piece about magicians turned into a meditation on the frailty of life, and so, for me it seemed only appropriate that I turn to it in memory of someone I once called a friend.
There was a brilliant yet rebellious girl named Tamara Minikus who was my ride to and from school for most of my junior year in high school, which would've been 1993-1994. She had a two-tone Ford Escort with a Seahawks bumper sticker and a dent in each fender. She also drove with a heavy lead foot, and yet, for as much she drove like a bat outta hell, she always seemed in complete control of the car. In early 1994, I started dating someone and instead of riding with 'Mara, I took the bus with that girl. That relationship didn't last, but 'Mara was dating someone at the time, and so she couldn't reliably give me lifts anymore. We drifted apart, but would talk now and again during senior year, at parties or hanging around the journalism classroom, or down at the theater. We were tangential to each other, but just didn't seem to connect any more. I was pretty awkward back then, and maybe still am. I'm not great at initiating contact with people. I always feel like I'm imposing just being around.
'Mara and I went on different paths in life, her going to college in Boston and me in Lincoln, NE. I hadn't seen her more than once or twice since high school (I think the last time was at Chris and Kate Wiig's wedding...) when randomly in 2009 a handful of us got together for drinks at a bar when we were all back in town for Christmas. She appeared to be on the mend at that point, and the cancer seemed to be in remission. They had taken one ovary out, and she was worried they might have to take the other, but the four of us must have sat and chatted for a few hours. It was the last time I'd see her. When she died, it was the first time I'd felt connected to someone who passed away who wasn't family, and far more senior than me. I barely knew her post high school and yet, somehow I still miss her. She was one of the first people I ever knew who told me it was okay to just be me, regardless of what anyone else thought. I never forgot that. I even gave her a mixtape at one point that had a song from "Magic & Loss" on it...
"Magic & Loss" isn't what anyone could call an "up" album, despite having a couple of upbeat songs on it. I mean, he eases you in gently, leading off with the wonderful "What's Good," which isn't that upbeat when you start to look at the lyrics, but it's certainly up-tempo and has a certain swing to it.
"Life's like a mayonnaise soda / And life's like space without room / And life's like bacon and ice cream / That's what life's like without you..." I mean, this is a song that ends with "What's good? / (Life's good) / But not fair at all..." It's not exactly what anyone could call chipper and optimistic, considering it's clearly talking about someone no longer with us, how the person gone "loved a life others throw away nightly" and that tells you everything you need to know right there. It's a song that wants to mourn, but knows it can't, and shouldn't, because that's not what the dead would want.
The next song on the album with even close to the same sort of faster rhythm is "Sword of Damocles," which is, god help us, a song about chemotherapy. How rough is that, when your more upbeat songs are tributes to the dead and odes to medicine that runs the risk of killing you? And this is Lou Reed, who was famous for writing about standing on a corner, waiting for a guy to bring drugs ("I'm Waiting For The Man"), who wrote about transexuals ("Walk On The Wild Side"), the NRA and the Native Americans ("Last Great American Whale")... this is a guy who's tackled heavy subjects before, but "Magic & Loss" is so dark and sparse, that's what makes it all so gripping.
The back half of the album takes the maudlin elements and drops more sturdy beats over them, so the weight doesn't overwhelm it, and it brings the album into a bit more rock territory, as if Lou knew that the first half would weigh heavily on the listener. Death is hard for anyone to deal with. That isn't to say the back half is entirely without weighty songs, and the narrative-driven "Harry's Circumcision" is such a bleak, weird and awkward story, it's impossible to resist, especially as Mike Rathke layers such amazing guitar work over the top of it.
"Magic & Loss" ends with the title track, a song about the last moments of life, where you're trying to figure out whether or not your life was enough. (Reed's answer - of course it was and it wasn't, but who are we to judge?) It's an album I revisit regularly, although I have to be honest and say that sometimes I try to stick to the less crushing songs, not because I don't appreciate them, but because that much of a meditation on death can be tough to take. Reed wrote a ton of unforgettable songs over his life, and "What's Good" never fails to make me smirk, just a little bit, in admiration. It's worth picking up, like most of Lou Reed's catalog. Just don't get me started on "Metal Machine Music."