LOU REED: Sunday Morning

Saturday afternoon, sunny bright and breezy, as I walked along railroad tracks and the Allegheny river that runs a few hundred yards from my house, accompanied by Rachel, my faithful if impatient fifteen-year-old Gordon Setter, two flocks of Canadian geese appeared.  Flying in V-formation, one group followed the other directly above us on the road next to the tracks, trees and the riverbank, their loudly honking leaders alternating a sort of call-and-response.  As they led the flocks along a southwestern path following the river, I heard in my mind the opening chords and the first lines of Lou Reed’s “My House,” his tribute to the poet Delmore Schwartz and Reed’s newfound domesticity after a life and career of turmoil,

The image of the poet’s in the breeze
Canadian geese are flying above the trees
a mist is hanging gently on the lake
my house is very beautiful at night.

The following afternoon, Sunday, I learned that Reed had died that morning.  At 71, it was not exactly a shock, but still, given his incredible ability to overcome every obstacle life, love and art could place in his path, it was unexpected.

No one aside from Buddy Holly could wring more feeling, experience and truth out of a simple song structure of three chords, and often less, than Lou Reed: think of “Not Fade Away” and “Heroin.”  Now there are two songs one doesn’t expect to find linked in any way, but both are two-chord masterpieces by the two great masters of the form.  Equally important, no one before Reed even attempted to put into popular song-form, lyrics as stark and blunt and real as the awful, and frequently terrifying and generally ugly aspects of life they describe.

Lou Reed the Blue Mask 1982

No one had captured what one feels when the mind and body are out of control with anxiety, panic or delirium tremens, as Reed did in “Waves of Fear” from his 1982 album, The Blue Mask (that also featured, “My House”).

Riding a nauseatingly delirious, roller-coaster bass run by Fernando Saunders, punctuated with dryly thudding drums, all against a background of shrieking distorted guitars by Reed and Robert Quine, Reed’s tremulous vocal strains at first, just to be heard — the voice of someone barely able to remain in control, trying his damnedest to describe his uncontrollable fear as it tears him apart, mind from body:

Waves of fear, attack in the night
waves of revulsion, sickening sight
My heart’s nearly bursting, my chest choking tight
Waves of fear, waves of fear

Waves of fear, squat on the floor
looking for some pill, the liquor is gone
Blood drips from my nose, I can barely breathe
waves of fear, I’m too scared to leave

Waves of fear, waves of fear
waves of fear, waves of fear

Reed momentarily regains something like composure, but his nerves nearly at the breaking point cause him to stutter out the next verse with machine gun rapidity in a nearly mindless monotone that only emphasizes he is about to break:

I’m too afraid to use the phone,
I’m too afraid to put the light on
I’m so afraid I’ve lost control
I’m suffocating without a word

As he begins to break down, he shouts the remainder of the verses, a man with no hope of relief, salvation, or even a light in this dark and paralyzing tunnel of terror:

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 at my tremors, I jump at my own step

I cringe in my terror, I hate my own smell
I know where I must be, I must be in Hell!

Waves of fear, waves of fear
wave of fear, waves of fear

The bass and drums take over, and swell.  Guitars sputter random scattered notes and screech to an ear-splitting crescendo as the track crashes to its conclusion.

Reed could combine wistfulness, pathos and still remind us of his and our own violent desires, our frustrations that eventually melt into meaninglessness.  In his monumental, and until recent years overlooked, masterpiece, the song-cycle Berlin (1973), Reed is at his most blatantly autobiographical, or so it seems.  With Reed one is never completely sure if he is the impassive narrator, the protagonist, or both, particularly on Berlin.

For the closing track of the album some have called the most depressing work of pop music ever created (and I tend to agree), Reed gives us “Sad Song.”  It is sad, but not completely depressing because we know that the singer has reconciled his past and is letting go, but without forgetting:  he describes a reverie as he peruses a photo album of his lost love.  He does not flinch at, nor does he attempt to hide from us, his true feelings about the broken relationship and dead love:

Staring at the picture book
she looks like Mary, Queen of Scots
She seemed very regal to me
Just goes to show how wrong you can be!

I’m going to stop wasting my time
Somebody else would have broken both of her arms

Sad song, sad song
sad song, sad song

With the line, “Just goes to show how wrong you can be,”  and its dry, flat emphasis, Reed breaks the reverie, and with his next thought, “Somebody else would have broken both of her arms,” he momentarily, barely loses his composure and allows his anger to surface as he rationalizes and minimizes his role in the troubled relationship.  But we can’t criticize Reed (as many did at the time the album was released) for his thoughts of violence.  We’ve all been there.

Lou Reed and Nico c1967

My own thoughts and “reverie” drift back to the first Reed composition on the first album containing his songs, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967).  On “Sunday Morning,” a glockenspiel chimes the opening melody, and then appears a voice almost unrecognizable as that of Lou Reed, whispery and childlike, with a lyric that could almost be described as a lament for a past that can never be recovered, a thought seemingly much too mature for the vocalist:

Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It’s just a restless feeling by my side
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It’s just the wasted years so close behind

Watch out, the world’s behind you
There’s always someone around you who will call
It’s nothing at all

John Cale’s viola appears in the midsection and supports the fragile guitar line before the remaining echo-laden verses begin.  At the conclusion, Reed reassuringly repeats, “It’s nothing at all,” and Teutonic chanteuse Nico is heard singing a “la la la la la” on the last five notes of the verse before she joins Reed in harmony on the ending chorus:

Sunday morning and I’m falling
I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It’s all the streets you crossed, not so long ago

Watch out, the world’s behind you
There’s always someone around you who will call
It’s nothing at all (la la la la la)

Sunday morning, Sunday morning
Sunday morning

Reed’s passing comes nearly fifty years after he recorded those lyrics, a song that reassured us that despite our fears, our constant, anxious, looking over our shoulders to watch out for the world behind us, it really is nothing at all, that is, nothing to fear — not the end of the day, not a final “Goodnight, Lou,” but a Sunday morning to praise.

* * *Nico and Lou Reed

* * *

3 thoughts on “LOU REED: Sunday Morning

  1. Gene,
    I’m not familiar with Lou Reed, though I’ve probably heard his songs without realizing who the artist was. It was much the same for me with Buddy Holly. A good friend bought “The Buddy Holly Story” in the summer of 1960. After hearing it a few times, I was hooked – and still am. After reading your kind and insightful comment about Buddy, I realized your good taste carried over from film to music. I will definitely give Lou a try. Which album/CD do you recommend?
    Thanks again for all you do to keep these people “alive” for us.
    George R. Gallagher
    Lehi, Utah

    1. George,
      Thanks! Lou Reed is the polar opposite of Buddy Holly. What they shared was the ability to make important and lasting music out of very basic song structures and musical arrangements (there are exceptions, such as Reed’s 1973 album, “Berlin”). Before you buy, I recommend that you check out some of Reed’s work on YouTube: http://bit.ly/1aQV1UI
      and at this link to Rolling Stone Magazine that was published in the Wall St Journal on Sunday: http://rol.st/Hqten9.

      Holly and Reed certainly aren’t names one expects to find in the same sentence, but the more I reflect on their work, the more interesting the comparisons become. Reed is associated most strongly with the 1960s and 70s (though he made compelling records throughout his life), while Holly is an icon of the 1950s. Yet they were of the same generation, only 6 years apart. Holly was a dynamic vocalist — his reputation as the singer who “hiccupped” is an extremely superficial observation by lazy writers and thinkers. He was as effective a singer as any produced in 20th century pop music. Reed’s voice, never pretty, hardened over the years (as Holly’s may have had he lived longer than 22 years). Like Holly, lazy journalists describe Reed’s voice in one-dimensional terms, as a “talking” singer. His style was certainly conversational, but he often (especially with his 60s, 70s and early 80s work) surprised listeners with his ability to sing in a melodic style. Both were very effective, highly underrated guitar players, the primary difference being Reed’s use of distortion and feedback, something not generally available (or acceptable) to players of the period in which Holly performed and recorded.

      Anyone listening to Reed will find extremes in his music — quiet, contemplative numbers versus ear-rattling, earth-shaking tracks. The first three Velvet Underground albums (1967-69) illustrate this concisely, but it was something he used and was able to exploit for artistic purposes throughout his solo career (post-1970) as well.

      Let me know what you find and what you think. And thanks again for commenting.

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