LOU REED : MAGIC AND LOSS
The Wire, February 1992
by Simon Reynolds
to relate to this album you need to have been whacked around by life a
bit," says Lou Reed. "This record won't mean that much to an
eight-year-old, except you can just luxuriate in the sound, it's so
thick and defined and dimensional. But an eight-year-old won't have the
faintest idea what I'm talking about. And I'm not trying to offend
eight-year-olds," he adds, the faintest of smiles flickering across his
impassive features. "Maybe there's a very sophisticated one out there
Where New York railed against the here-and-now
specifics of Manhattan's disintegrating social fabric, Magic And Loss is
Lou Reed raging against the limits of existence, the absolutes of life
and death; it's also a glowing tribute (literally glowing, since the
playing is luminous) to two friends who died recently. One was Doc
Pomus, a songwriter friend from Reed's pre-Velvet Underground days as a
salaried songsmith. The other, "Rita", was "just a friend. Not a
celebrity, put it that way."
New York was socially engaged and
street-real: Magic And Loss is a spiritual document. ‘Power And Glory’,
for instance, trembles with a palpable feeling of revelation: "I was
captured by a larger moment/I was seized by divinity's heart breath —
gorged like a lion of experience... I wanted all of it, not some of it".
The song teems with mystical imagery of metamorphosis, rooted in the
paradoxes of terminal illness ("I saw a great man turn into a little
child") and of radiation therapy ("The same power that burned
Hiroshima/Causing three legged babies and death /Shrunk to the size of a
nickel/To help him regain his breath").
"I came to understand
that the album was about transformation," explains Reed. "Alchemy. The
purpose of alchemy wasn't to transform lead into gold, that was just one
example of the process, to be used later to transform yourself. I call
the album Magic And Loss because that experience can be taken two ways.
That's why the song ‘Power And Glory’ occurs twice, in different forms. A
whole different tempo, a whole different way of looking at the exact
same thing. The way they faced illness and death was very inspirational.
In the end, it was a magical experience. A positive experience.
Positive to have known them, positive to have watched them go through
this. When, to quote myself, 'you loved the life others throw away
nightly'. I thought they were giants."
Magic And Loss says Reed,
is "an extension of the Songs For Drella album which was an extension of
New York —.the idea of a thematically whole album. Right now, I'm not
interested in the idea of twelve or so disparate songs." Each song has a
subtitle, "like a novel, at the head of each chapter, a little phrase
explaining what it is".
The album conducts you methodically
through each stage of terminal illness and bereavement. There's the
morbid, unbidden reveries of ‘Dreamin’ ’, perhaps the most lovely song
on the record, with its braid of wavering guitar-synth and tremulous,
plangent, pure Velvets guitar. ‘Goodbye Mass’ vividly evokes the awkward
discomfort of the funeral service, Reed bemoaning the disparity between
its dour gravity and the feisty, irrepressible good humour of the
dearly departed. "You, you would have made a joke/ Isn't this something
you'd say/ Tommorrow I'm smoke".
them made jokes straight the way through," recollects Reed. "It's
unbelievable. I had said there's this great widescreen colour TV I could
get for you, and I'll hook up all the wiring for you. And they said,
Lou, this is not the time for long-term investments. Joking. I think
that's magnificent. I just think some people are giants. You may never
hear of them, but they just have this thing. They're like the sun,
they're just glowing all the time. They stay that way. When they get
hurt, they don't suddenly turn into this other thing. It would be
totally understandable. If I get a flu, I start whining!"
there's ‘Warrior King’, which documents the most confusing and
ostensibly illogical symptom of mourning, a desire for bloody revenge
that can't be slaked because it's intransitive.
singing is very mad at the elements that have attacked and killed his
friends. But there's no person to aim it at, with terminal illness. It's
like, if you could take a physical, malleable form, I'd take you in an
alley and do this, and this, and this. It's if I could, if I could...
but with death, you can't. So it's that anger that causes the song
afterwards, ‘Harry's Circumcision’, because you can't walk around with
that anger in your heart. It causes these very negative thoughts, which
is what ‘Harry's Circumcision’ is all about, taken to its natural
conclusion (attempted suicide)." According to Lou's theory, you can't
just stay in that mental state, you've got to go beyond that. Which is
what happens on the album.
"The songs are in a particular order
for a purpose, it's supposed to take you to a certain place. And that's a
really positive state. This is not a negative, down album. I'm not the
only person in the world who's experienced loss. Everybody has a brother
or sister or father or friend somewhere that died and that means they
can understand. You just have to have been alive for a little while to
experience it. It's not a mystery. It's real life giving you a real
hello, welcome to the club."
That "certain place" is reached on the
final track, ‘Magic And Loss’, a spectral sleepwalk of mystic jazz-metal
whose lyrics suggest reconciliation. It hints that Reed's even come to
believe in some kind of afterlife: there's a door up ahead, not a wall.
can call it a spiritual awakening, or whatever you like. Things look a
certain way, like you're driving directly into a wall. There's nothing
you can do about it. But no, it's a door. You just didn't see it. And a
door, obviously, can be opened. It depends how you look at things. The
song ‘Magic And Loss’ I find very uplifting It's resolving the whole
album. You don't wanna come to the end of that experience still feeling
splintered. You have to reconcile yourself to it. But hopefully, it's a
reconciliation with a lot of positive aspects to it. It's an inspiring
thing, what I witnessed. I want to be as good as them. These were the
people who were inspiring to me right the way through the last minute.
It's really sad not being able to call Doc Pomus up right to this day,
because he was like the sun. He was just one of those people that you
feel good when you're around them. You could be feeling bad, and you
visit them and they say two words and you feel good. But then, it would
have been even worse not to have known him at all. That's part of the
whole magic and loss deal."
and spiritual quandaries withal, Lou Reed spends the bulk of his time
grappling with the nitty-gritty technicalities of making records. It the
truth be known, he's a bit of a muso. Way back in his decadent days,
Reed could drive Lester Bangs up the wall by discoursing interminably
about how George Benson invented a totally clean, totally pure
amplifier. Even the unendurable din of Metal Machine Music was informed
by audiophile obsessions. The interview has hardly begun before Reed
launches into a diatribe about rock critics' cloth-eared ignorance about
"It always amazes me — and this not meant to be
offensive — how little you people hear, on a tonal level. I find the
sound on the new album awe-inspiring. There is a radiance to it, an
enormous tonal range. It's like a stereo image. It's very 3D-ish. You
can actually walk around it. It has the sonic depth to match its subject
matter. This time, I've got the tones I haven't quite been able to
before. On the sleeve of New York I wrote about the equipment we used,
and I was trying to let the people know there's a lot going into the
choices that are there. It's not as spontaneous as it seems."
explains, at considerable length, about the "incalculable hours" he and
co-producer, second guitarist Mike Rathke, spent on research,
refinement, and modification of equipment. He describes how the kind of
tape you use, the pick-ups, even the wood in the guitar can all make a
difference.* It's all very incongruous.
The reality of Lou
Reed-as-technical-boffin jars discordantly with the image of
Lou-Reed-as-icon-of-street- romanticism. In the post-punk scheme,
technique and technology are generally deemed to be enemies of the
gritty authenticity that's allegedly the heart of rock 'n' roll: Lou
Reed and the Velvet Underground, for all the arty input, are generally
taken to represent the epitome of this raw expression. Because they tend
to come from a Litcrit or humanities background, rock critics find the
nuts-and-bolts side of music-making demystifying. But for Lou Reed, it's
where the mystery is painstakingly constructed. It's a sort of science
"No one knows that better than me because I know how
much magic disappears when the technical stuff is wrong. At the end of
the whole process, when you listen to your finished CD, you realise that
you've got a cassette from the very beginning that sounds 100 times
better. So what happened? Why is it so cold sounding? There's no
dimension. That guitar hurts my ears. Where's the bass? Why is it muddy?
If you get into the why of it, it's fascinating. And it's a real thrill
if you finally get it to sound right. The only way to learn is to make
records. But most people aren't really interested, they think the magic
is all over there, and the technical stuff is another matter, and if you
have a good producer that's all taken care of. The writing and
performance are one thing, but if the production and technical side
aren't there... and I've got the records to prove it. A lot of my
records, 'till I could get a handle on it, aren't even produced, except
in the sense that I wouldn't let the producers do anything, rather than
let them do it wrong. And the records are completely dry, 'cos I didn't
know how it worked, but I knew they'd fuck it up so I wouldn't let 'em
do anything. It takes a long time to learn, when you're making a record
every couple of years. It's fascinating, but it's like this onion with
all these skins, endless."
Far more congruent
with Lou Reed's received image is the fact that Penguin are soon to
publish Between Thought And Expression, a selection of lyrics that he
felt could stand up on their own without music. It's strange that it
took him so long to get between book covers, considering that back in
1979 he declared "my expectations are very high... to be the greatest
writer that ever lived on God's earth. In other words I'm talking about
"That was just me shooting my mouth
off, but it is a real dream. To do something that's not disposable, that
could really hold its own for ever. It sounds kind of glib and
pretentious, to say you want to be up there with Dostoievsky, but I
would. I wanna create art that will live forever, whether it's on record
or on the printed page. That's why I avoid slang, any expression that
will date, like 'dig it' or 'freaked out'."
Despite his aversion
to transient argot, Reed's lyrics exude a great sense of demotic,
everyday speech, rather than the ornately poeticised. The same love of
‘conversational tone’, the faltering rhythm of thoughts taking shape as
they're spoken, informed his interviews with novelist Hubert Selby (Last
Exit To Brooklyn ), and Czechoslovakian playwright turned President,
Vaclav Havel, both of which are included in Between Thought And
"I don't like it when the interview's so cleaned up
that both interviewer and subject sound like the same person. I like to
keep the real rhythm of the way the person talks. With Selby, hopefully
from the interview I did with him, you can hear him think. The way he
puts things together I found really fascinating. Hearing a writer think
like that, you can see why he's a great writer."
interesting thing to emerge in the Havel encounter was the Velvet
Underground's indirect effect on history. First there was a Czech
avant-rock band called Plastic People Of The Universe who covered Velvet
Underground songs, and then they got sent to prison, and then the
campaign to get them released evolved into Charter 77, which in turn led
to Czechoslovakia's ‘Velvet Revolution’. That's a coincidence (the
"Velvet" means soft, bloodless) but a beautiful one, and it highlights
the way a band like the Velvet Underground, by symbolising absolute
possibility, can be ‘political’ without being politicised, can change
things without being explicitly consciousness-raising. Most touching of
all for Reed is the fact that the Charter 77 activists recited his
lyrics to themselves as a source of spiritual fortitude.
the handprinted book of my lyrics, in Czechoslovakian, that Havel gave
me, and it's an astonishing thing. It meant so much to them. Music was a
real expression to them of social change. We walked over this beautiful
bridge in Prague and they told me that a few years ago you wouldn't
have seen a guitarist on that bridge with kids singing. It was
considered dangerous. Where people get together is where ideas are
generated, and that's a problem for totalitarian governments. It's hard
for us to even conceive of living under such constraints."
When he goes about his daily life, or looks in the mirror, does he feel mythic, an icon?
don't even relate to that. It doesn't even cross my mind. What I'm
really interested in is stuff like analogue to digital converter
shoot-outs. I don't even conceive of that other stuff at all. It's like,
they must mean someone else. It doesn't compute with me, simply because
I know how hard I have to work with the limitations that I have, just
to get to where I am."
Nonetheless, Lou Reed is one of those
artists that people of a certain generation tell the time by. Like Neil
Young, Reed is one of the few figures from his era to survive with
credibility intact and muse in working order. But Reed denies feeling
any responsibility to the people who look to him for the next big
statement. "It wouldn't even dawn on me," he shrugs. He also claims to
be oblivious to the legions of copyist who have turned ‘Lou Reed’ into a
"I always thought of it as a situation where some really
obvious ideas were sitting there, and I happened to be one of the guys
who happened to hit the dirt first. It's like, hey, look at that,
there's a whole continent over there. It seemed really obvious. Then you
start listening to Brecht or Weill, and you realise quite a few people
have been running around there."
BONUS QUOTES FROM THE PULSE MAGAZINE PROTO-VERSION
OF THIS PIECE
spend a lot of time researching. You could call it studying. I ask, Why
does digital do that? What's the analog-to-digital conversion process?
Are the filters better now? It goes back to the wood in the guitar,
which pickups to use. Everything I have has been modified, tinkered
with, to make it work for me." Reed and his co-producer, second
guitarist Mike Rathke, spend "incalculable hours" in research and
refinement. "I practically studied with some technical people who really
helped me out. Because there's millions of choices out there and even
if you had a zillion dollars and bought all these to try them, it’d take
forever. So you really need someone knowledgeable and talented to guide
you. Even down to the kind of tape you record on."
similar pains when it comes to selecting compatible musicians,
preferring to work with people he knows personally. He's quick to
demolish the idea that tension heightens creativity, and is particularly
scathing about what he calls "the Lou Reed/John Cale myth" (that the
duo's prickly relationship is the font of their collective genius).
"Things would be 1,000 times better without that tension." When you
recall that he and Cale disagreed about such minutiae as the amount of
time between tracks on Drella, it's easy to believe.
on Magic and Loss is almost the same as for New York: Mike Rathke as
second guitarist, Rob Wasserman on bass, with frequent Tom Waits and
Elvis Costello accomplice Michael Blair replacing Fred Maher on drums.
"We have the interaction of a real band. The music's based on ebb and
flow. A song should give the impression of being a living thing. It's
always going to be assembled; that's how recording works. But our stuff
is about as live as we could get it and still satisfy my requirements
According to Rathke, the approach to Magic and Loss
was, with New York, a fusion of vintage and state-of-the-art. "We try to
blend the old with the new. Lou and I spend a lot of time on
pre-production. It goes down to the kind of wood, strings, pick-ups,
wirings, speaker cabinets you use. Neither vintage nor state-of-the-art
does it all. If I was a painter, I'd want the colors to harmonize. And
sounds are like colors in a way; they have to match."
perfectionism ("compromise makes me ill"), it's not surprising that Reed
has only ever produced one other artist, Reuben Blades. "It's too much
work. You'd have to love what they did, to spend that much time with
their material. Plus I want things my way. I could imagine producing one
song, maybe, and only if I got alone with the person. But I couldn't be
brought along to produce a group – that's too many factors I couldn't
control. I want as much control as possible."
Reed is legendary for his antipathy to being interviewed. During our
encounter, he had to cadge a couple of soothing cigarettes, even
though he's quit smoking, because, he says, "I get nervous about
interviews." He was even more uptight about being on the other side of
the tape recorder.
"With Hubert Selby, I came in with typed
questions, because I was sure I’d be nervewracked and I didn't want to
forget anything. Same with Havel. The only reason I did it was that
these were people I really wanted to meet, that I really admired, and
here was a chance to meet them and ask them things that I was really
interested in. I'm sure there are a few others I could think of, but
it's just really hard work. I'd much rather go out for a drink with
them. I found with someone like me it was really good to have notes, in
order of asking, so that I didn't glaze out. And later kick myself
'cause I forgot to ask them the most important question. I had loads of
spare batteries, and a microphone that I knew worked."