It was posted on my friend Karl’s facebook page on October 27th:
He was lucky to have lived as long as he did.
“Who?” I wondered, and I started to get a sick feeling. I scrolled down the page, and when the news was revealed, I just couldn’t believe it. Lou Reed.
Earlier this year, when I read the message to his fans from his wife, Laurie Anderson, I was filled with a sense of happiness. She was thanking everyone for the love and prayers as they fought through his illness. At the time, it looked as though he would make it–or that at least he would be granted a little more time–and I suppose he was.
From The New York Times:
He died peacefully, with his loved ones around him.
Dr. Charles Miller, Mr. Reed’s liver transplant doctor, said.
Lou Reed was 71.
I didn’t expect that his death would hit me as much as it did. It wasn’t as though I knew him, and I fully realize the absurdness to think that we are somehow “connected”. But then again, aren’t we all?
As a sullen and mostly awkward 80s teenager, I was highly drawn to an edgier side of rock n’ roll; putting people like Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop at the top of my list. I was convinced that they had come through their own versions of youthful angst and ennui by boldly trailblazing through everything that was trite and typically successful by societal standards. They did what they wanted to do, and were who they wanted to be, and thumbed their noses (or worse) at anyone who questioned it. They were fearless artists… heroes. They still are.
I was spellbound by the album The Velvet Underground and Nico with tunes like Heroin, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and what I still believe to be a masterpiece; The Black Angel’s Death Song.
I can’t find much to explain the meaning behind the lyrics of The Black Angel’s Death Song, let alone anything from Lou Reed, who was not especially known for being one to explain his lyrics–his poetry… his music. I read somewhere (sorry, but I was unable to find or cite an exact quote) that he said that the lyrics to the song are meaningless, and that he just thought the words sounded cool strung together. Which rather sounds like one of his bogus responses to some journalist that he didn’t like (there weren’t many that he did). Even as I think of myself as a journalist of sorts, I understood his general disdain for them. I think when he was on the rise, it was especially trying for someone like him. He just wanted to make art in the way that felt right to him without having to explain it. Many of the questions asked of him at the time were inane and simple; designed to treat him as a spectacle or a curiosity—likely due to the topics he chose to write and sing about. But to much of the press, the art was incidental; and really, what artist wouldn’t be pissed off by such a disingenuous approach to storytelling?
Returning to The Black Angel’s Death Song. The lyrics are sad and beautiful at times; harsh and gritty at others. There is a rapid, desperate sort of cadence in the delivery of the lyrics, accompanied by an almost upbeat, but frantically manic and clearly dissonant gypsy-style violin melody. Add to that, the intermittent sound of the air hose–which rather sounds like a fuse being lit–and you have yourself one hell of song, akin to a race against time. (And isn’t that how life feels sometimes?) There are several things going on here:
Not a ghost bloodied country
All covered with sleep
Where the black angel did weep
Not an old city street in the east
Gone to choose
With the sadness, there is compassion. There is empathy for the angel, as we note that the angel; indeed, feels sympathy and perhaps regret or sorrow.
Also, this is clearly a song about choices. The combination of the words, “choices”, “choice”, and “choose” is used throughout the song. The word appears in one of the forms, no less than fifteen times.
Cut mouth bleeding razor’s
Forgetting the pain
Antiseptic remains cool goodbye
So you fly
To the cozy brown snow of the east
Gone to choose, choose again
This seems to reflect the pain of loss–perhaps lost love that at times in life, is next to impossible to digest or make sense of. “Antiseptic remains” may refer to numbness wearing off. “So you fly to the cozy brown snow of the east…” something familiar which may offer some comfort, yet when one feels hopelessly sick, there is no solace or comfort to be found; i.e., there is nothing cozy about brown snow… which may well be a drug reference.
And if Epiphany’s terror reduced you to shame
Have your head bobbed and weaved
Choose a side to be on
Perhaps this speaks to a realization that things were not as they seemed–which can be a death of sorts. “Bob and weave” is a boxing reference. They are also hairstyles. Resentment about a decision that was made–or that someone failed to make–led to a match of wills. Here, he jests sarcastically.
If you choose, if you choose, try to lose
For the loss of remain come and start
Start the game
I chi chi
Chi chi I
Chi chi chi
Ka ta koh
Choose to choose
Choose to lose
Choose to go
Sometimes life is a game, and therefore, so is death–perhaps they are one and the same. We experience small deaths and rebirths throughout life. This seems to speak to the notion that in the game of life, indeed, we sometimes cut our losses; i.e., “Choose to lose,” or walk away. And then we start all over again.
To thine own self, be true.
— William Shakespeare (spoken by Polonius in Hamlet; Act 1 scene 3)
Lou Reed was no apologist, and he was true to his nature. He was regarded as difficult by more than a few (and that might be putting it kindly), and his general success in terms of his popularity sometimes suffered as a result. I’m guessing that he wasn’t too bothered about it. I think he felt he made the connection he needed to make with the people that mattered to him. At least that’s what I’d like to think. And that’s a fine legacy.
There are few artists that have knocked me over on a first listen. Lou Reed had that effect on me as a kid. I was blown away by Walk on the Wild Side, which was likely the first tune of his that I heard, and from there I was hooked. He was a brilliant storyteller, and from the time I was old enough to listen to the lyrics of songs, I was enthralled with their ability to impact, and take me somewhere else. Of course, I didn’t understand much of what he was talking about at the time, but somehow I knew it was raw and daring… and funny. I was beyond excited to put the needle on my Transformer record for the first time.
His album, New York had a similar effect on me, and I instantly fell in love with Romeo Had Juliet and all the tracks that followed. Its energy was every bit as raw and fresh as his other great works, and the honesty and emotion in his words gripped me. The stories were bitter and filled with love and resentment, as if to say, “Wake up.” Last Great American Whale really says it–a ballad that is grim, majestic and beautiful. The message is pretty simple: “It’s time to give a shit.”
I only had the chance to see him perform live once–which was during his New York tour. It was a great, energetic show; and from what I could tell, he loved his fans–his people. Maybe we were lucky that night because he wasn’t particularly known for his warm fuzziness. Or maybe that was just how I received it. He smiled a few times, maybe even told a joke or two, and performed plenty of old songs as well as all the songs from the New York album. Everybody left smiling. It was perfect.
Incidentally, that was how I wanted this piece to be–so it took me a while to get it out. And obviously, much of it is conjecture. But then, plenty of stuff that he did wasn’t perfect. He did it anyway.