Magic & Loss: Lou Reed and Grief
Lou Reed's passing a few days ago caught everyone by surprise. The man, despite all that he had been through, was the epitome of ageless cool. Dressed all in black, sunglasses ever-present, gravelly voice commenting sardonically on all manner of personal and societal darkness -- it seemed like, minus that terrible early 90s mullet, Lou had always been and would always be pointing the way towards hipness; your unflappable older brother or uncle who always knew best
But it wasn't just his Dorian Gray-style looks that contributed to the shock. For those who had followed his work and life, Lou Reed represented a very real triumph -- over the horrific electroshock treatments of his youth, over drug abuse and reckless behavior, over career missteps, and, in a very real way (or so it seemed) over death itself
In 1991, Lou was reeling from the deaths of two close friends. The legendary songwriter Doc Pomus had died of cancer that March, and another publicly unnamed close friend of Reed's, often speculated to be Kenneth Rapp, a.k.a. "Rotten Rita" of Warhol's Factory, passed around the same time
While most people facing such a double whammy would be happy to be able to put their shoes on in the morning, Reed was writing and recording an album the month after Pomus' death. Magic and Loss is a powerful record that takes the listener through Lou's journey, from the initial shock and outrage ("You loved a life others throw away nightly/It's not fair, not fair at all") to his friend's treatment ("But this drawn out torture over which part of you lives/Is very hard to take/To cure you, they must kill you") to cremation ("Since they burnt you up, collect you in a cup/For you, the coal black sea has no terror") to an angry need for cosmic revenge ("I wish I was a warrior king/Inscrutable, benign/With a faceless charging power") to, finally, a hard-won transcendence ("There's a bit of magic in everything/And then some loss to even things out").
The record helped a ton of people, Lou undoubtedly included, deal with death. My copy, shortly after I bought it, was lent to my freshman year geometry teacher, who had a friend pass from cancer. It was youthful brashness that made me think I could help a grown-up recover from grief, of course. I knew next to nothing about this guy, and he may not have known the Velvet Underground from the London Underground
Yet several weeks later, he returned the album with a heartfelt thank you. Something about the record's plainspoken feeling, combined with the stark descriptions of things most pop music runs screaming from, but everyone ends up facing, like funerals ("Listening to the speakers -- they're talking about you/Look at all the people, all the people you knew") and survivor's guilt ("But me, I'm all emotional, no matter how I try/You're gone and I'm still here alive"), gave comfort to the unlikeliest of people
That same copy of Magic and Loss still has a ton of lyrics underlined in pencil, from when I went through it a few years later, when a friend was killed after being hit by a bus. Going to Colleen's funeral didn't do much to help my grief. A girl I had never seen wear anything but Slayer shirts and tall boots was buried in a white dress, in a church she couldn't have been dragged to while alive. The whole thing was bizarre, and seemed so far removed from the person I had known
But Lou came to the rescue yet again, helping me realize that I wasn't alone. I will never forget the experience of discovering how his words now spoke for and to me in an inexplicably direct way. It was as if he was inside my head, speaking my thoughts before I could even form them into sentences
Years later, that record brought me further unexpected joy. Little Jimmy Scott, who I was introduced to via his backing vocals on "Power and Glory," became my favorite singer, and I got to see him perform probably a dozen times, all of which were magical experiences
So when Lou died, I was at a loss. How can someone who taught me how to deal with death in the first place be dead? How can the person I relied on to help me through grief not be around? Who will guide me through?
The answer, of course, was right in front of my nose. Lou always knew best, and in Magic and Loss he left us the perfect blueprint to deal with our feelings about his own passing. So clear out an hour, pull out the record, and let Uncle Lou help you one more time
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