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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?