Who Is That Masked Man?

One of the very best parts of my job is it not only allows me to listen to music all day it requires me to. The last couple of days have been wall-to-wall Lou Reed. Lou Reed station on Pandora. Lou Reed playlist on Spotify. Lou Reed 24×7. Vicious. A Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.

 

As only music can, I was transported back in time…

 

In college there’d periodically be these gypsy-style (sorry, “Roma”) flea markets in the student center where you could buy and sell used records, posters, and assorted musical arcania. I loved them and bought tons of vinyl there (as well as some bitchin’ Echo and the Bunnymen posters.)

 

I vividly recall one disk in particular. The Blue Mask by Lou Reed. Truthfully, I knew next to nothing about Reed. I knew quite a lot about The Velvet Underground, but other than “Walk on the Wild Side” very little about solo Reed. It had a cool cover and was just a few bucks so I sprung for it.

220px-Bluemask

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What an incredible revelation. Like the Grinch whose heart grew multiple sizes when he learned the real meaning of Christmas, my mind grew exponentially with every scratchy spin of this album. Like so much of Reed’s work that I’d learn about on the basis of this album, The Blue Mask is no joke. It’s not easy. It doesn’t make good party backdrop.

 

But it’s so worth it.

 

Actually, much of it is really beautiful and melodic. There’s a really distinct production value to the whole album and the guitar parts in particular are sparsely beautiful. Until it sounds like the studio was swept up in the blitzkrieg and it becomes audibly terrifying.

 

Every track has something memorable. A line of verse, a guitar hook, or just a feeling it invokes. Here’s my track-by-track take.

 

My House

Aside from introducing me to the poet Delmore Schwartz. this sweet and plainly sentimental track is great poetry about a great poet and just happens to be set to a beautiful melody beautifully played.

 

The image of the poet’s in the breeze

Canadian geese are flying above the trees

A mist is hanging gently on the lake

Our house is very beautiful at night

 

Women

Always stuck me as a joke I didn’t get let in on. Could have been written by any boy between the ages of eight and eighteen. Aside from its contrast to the often obscure and usually gritty Reed lyrical style, this softy is an ode to all things female. Odd in light of Reed’s sexual palate. Lovely, though. Even bikers fall head over heels. This song is as unambiguous as Reed ever got.

 

Underneath the Bottle

This is where things get going. Brutally honest and self-deprecating, Reed channels his Bukowski and lays out the sadness of bars and booze when the crowds thin and the jukebox dies.

 

So long world, you play too rough

and it’s getting me all mixed up

I lost my pride and it’s hidin’ there underneath the bottle

 

The Gun

In just two songs and a little over four minutes we go from a nursery rhyme about women to a play-by-play account of rape and assault— told to the most languid and beautiful tune. The song makes me want to cry and vomit. It’s my favorite track on the album. So haunting.

 

Get over there

Move slowly

I’ll put a hole in your face

If you even breathe a word

Tell the lady to lie down

I want, ah, you to be sure to see this

I wouldn’t want you to miss a second

Watch your wife

 

The Blue Mask

All the beautiful guitar work and subtle rhythms go right out the fucking window. This is war. A war with words. A war with sounds. This song makes me want to hide under the bed. It’s an assault on all of your senses.

 

Spit upon his face and scream

there’s no Oedipus today

This is no play you’re thinking you are in

what will you say

Take the blue mask down from my face

and look me in the eye

I get a thrill from punishment

I’ve always been that way

 

Average Guy

You can tell by the thin, nasally singing that this is more parody of Joe Schmos than homage to them ala Springsteen. The fact that there is no lyrical content is the content. I think Lou liked the margins better than the middle.

 

Average guy, I’m just your average guy

I’m average looking and I’m average inside

I’m an average lover and I live in an average place

you wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face  

 

The Heroine

A clever play on words, this is equal parts Homer (of Greece, not Springfield) and Iggy Pop. Looked at through either prism, it’s a massive accomplishment. Looked at through both it is nothing short of remarkable in its small, fragile way.

 

The mast is cracking as he waves are slapping

Sailors roll across the deck

And when they thought none was looking

They would cut a weaker man’s neck

While the heroine dressed in a virgin white dress

Tried to steer the mighty ship

But the raging storm wouldn’t hear of it

They were in for a long trip

 

Waves of Fear

Another feel good number in the vein of “The Blue Mask.” Just say no to drugs, this song says. Compellingly.

 

Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw

What’s that funny noise, what’s that on the floor

Waves of fear, pulsing with death

I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step

I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell

I know where I must be, I must be in hell

 

The Day John Kennedy Died

This song has a certain Norman Rockwell quality about it.  It’s a nostalgic and sad first-person account of the shot heard round the world devoid of any of Reed’s irony or gristle.

 

I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done

I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone

I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take

And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

 

Heavenly Arms

And it ends on a straight-up love song. This sounds like a track Reed may have written for someone else or for himself at a different time.

Heavenly arms strong as a sunset

Heavenly arms pure as the rain

Lovers stand warned of the world’s impending storm

Heavenly arms reach out to me

 

That’s all folks. An incredibly powerful roller coaster ride of an album through the highest highs and lowest lows. It’s guileless and unvarnished. Lou Reed may have been one of the coolest rockers ever, but he’s not cool on this album. Which is what makes him and it so fucking cool.

 

Do they make cool albums anymore? Albums that challenge, punch, confuse and confound? I’m not sure. But twenty-five years or so after I came to it, The Blue Mask has stayed with me.  I hope artists out there today have that kind of staying power.

 

How do you think it feels
when you’re speeding and lonely, come here baby
How do you think it feels
when all you can say is if only?

 

 



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