The Wire, February 1992
by Simon Reynolds
"Maybe 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 somewhere."
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".
"Both of 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!"
Then 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.
"The character 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.
"You 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."
Lofty speculations 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 sound.
"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."
Reed 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 of magic.
"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 Shakespeare, Dostoevsky..."
"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 Expression.
"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."
The most 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.
"I have 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?
"I 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 genre.
"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
"I 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."
Reed takes 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.
Reed's team 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 for sound."
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."
With his 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."
Lou Reed is legendary for his antipathy to being interviewed. During our encounter, he had to cadge a couple of soothing cigarettes off me, 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."