Life’s Like A Mayonnaise Soda: Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss at 30

For his first solo album of the 90s, Lou probed the depths of death and desire

Lou Reed Magic and Loss-era publicity photo (Image: Sire Records)

When Lou Reed released his sixteenth solo album Magic and Loss on January 14, 1992, he was well adept at making records that resonated with added impact and inspiration.

He had gone the concept route several times before, beginning early on with Berlin and continuing up through Songs For Drella, recorded with his former Velvet Underground colleague John Cale, but none of his previous albums made quite as indelible an impact as this particular effort overall.

“It’s my dream album, because everything finally came together to where the album is finally fully realized,” Reed once wrote. “I got it to do what I wanted it to do, commercial thoughts never entered into it, so I’m just stunned.”

Lou Reed Magic and Loss, Sire Records 1992

So, too, Magic and Loss makes for one of the most personal statements Reed ever offered. Originally inspired by a somewhat strange fascination with Mexican magicians, the narrative shifted when Reed learned of the passing of two people that had been a profound inspiration to him early on — songwriter Doc Pomus, a major proponent of Reed’s work at the start of his stint in the music biz, and a woman only identified as “Rita,” but widely assumed to be “Rotten Rita,” an associate of Andy Warhol’s and one of the regulars at Warhol’s in-spot, The Factory, during the Velvet Underground’s early residency at that same scene. 

Despite that personal perspective, Reed’s typically dispassionate voice served up the usual quotient of doom and gloom. “What’s Good” shares some optimism in its melodic make-up, but its lyrics eschews any upbeat intent. “Life’s like forever becoming,” Reed intones before declaring “But life’s forever dealing him hurt…life’s like death without living, That’s what life’s like without you.”

“Sword of Damocles,” meanwhile, takes that sobriety several steps further. “I have seen lots of people die from car crashes or drugs. Last night on 33rd St. I saw a kid get hit by a bus.”

It’s not exactly cheery stuff, and indeed, songs such as “Goodby Mass,” “Cremation” and “No Chance” further affirm the the fact that death and despair get equal emphasis when Reed ruminates on the passing of people that held special meaning for him. This is no walk on the wild side by any means, and it seems all Reed can do to muster the motivation to continue.

 

 

Nevertheless, Magic and Loss is fascinating in its own way, and Reed’s tales of death and destiny occasionally strike a conciliatory chord, far removed from his usual edgy intents. It’s a knowing look at mortality from the perspective of a man who saw that demise first-hand and then struggled — successfully — to put it into clear context. Yet, when he elevates the tempo and rocks out with the assertive “Warrior King,” desire gives way to determination and a fierceness fueled by ominous intents. “I wish I was the warrior king in every language that I speak, Lord over all that I survey and all that I see I keep,” he declares before threatening to break his rival’s neck and rip out his “vicious tongue” altogether.

Things get scarier still with “Harry’s Circumcision,” a bizarre tale of a young man who purposely disfigures himself because he feels he too closely resembles his father. Spoken over a tentative strum, it takes the album to an unforeseen level of masochism and manipulation.

Some thirty years on, Magic and Loss remains as passionate and profound as it did on its original release. In some ways, Reed was predicting his own demise from hepatitis on October 27, 2013, a life lost all too soon.

“I was driven by the power and glory with a bravery stronger than lust,” he sings on “Power and Glory Part II” as the set draws to its close. Indeed, Reed’s lust for life was never more evident.

 

VIDEO: Lou Reed “What’s Good”

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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