Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Knifing Around with Lou Reed

I’ve been blogging about the weird nooks and crannies of Lou Reed’s musical career on his birthday for quite a few years now. You might think by now I’d be running short on topics, but as this year’s entry illustrates, that would be grossly underestimating my creepy eye for minutia. At this point I can’t imagine why anyone else would want to read this stuff, but I know I want to write it and that’s all that really matters.

A while back my friend Stefa tweeted me asking for the name of the Lou Reed song where a guy is killed with a knife. It took me a few moments to answer “The Gift,” not because I couldn’t think of it, but because I could think of so many songs that fit the description. I’d never really thought about it before, but Lou Reed wrote a lot of songs about knives.
As I’m prone to doing when struck by a revelation, I immediately made a playlist about it. Pulling from Lou’s entire catalog beginning with the Velvet Underground, I assembled every song that mentions knives, swords, razors, stabbing, cutting and/or slicing. The playlist wound up being more than two hours long. If I’d included hypodermic needles it would be even longer, but I decided there’s enough of a distinction there. Here, then, is an annotated documentation of Lou Reed’s long and bloody history of knifing around.
Delivered in a second-person street-jive, this slow-burning wad of sleaze follows a homicidal dude with a blade on an evening prowl, luring in gay bar pickups and murdering them with his knife. The lyrics make no bones about the motivations. “When the blood run down his neck / You know it was far better than sex / It was way better than getting laid / ‘Cause it’s a final thing to do.”

“Sword of Damocles”
The blade here is metaphorical and mythological, hovering over the head of Lou’s terminally ill friend. It’s one of the most personal and harrowing songs in his catalog. That the sword hasn’t fallen by song’s end just makes it all the more powerful.

“The Gift”
The instrument of stalker ex-boyfriend and Internet Nice Guy prototype Waldo Jeffers’s well-earned destruction is one of Lou Reed’s most beautifully observed objects. After all of Sheila and Marsha’s fruitless fumbling with the sheet metal cutter, John Cale’s dispassionate description of the long blade’s journey “through the masking tape, through the cardboard, through the cushioning and [plunk] right through the middle of Waldo Jeffers’s head” is catharsis of the most macabre sort.

“Egg Cream”
Even at his most upbeat, Lou can’t help working in a little twist of misery. This is mostly a nostalgic ode to the favorite after school treat of Lou’s days at P.S. 92 in Brooklyn, a bubbly chocolate drink that “made it easier to deal with knife fights and kids pissing in the street.” No cloud is so silver that Lou Reed can’t find its grey lining.

“Hold On”
This montage of social ills in pre-Giuliani New York City hits sardonically on just about every form of violence available, including “blacks with knives and whites with clubs fighting at Howard Beach” and a subway commuter outfitted with “a black .38 and a gravity knife.” Call me nuts, but that vision of New York still sounds perversely appealing to me.

“My Friend George”
Unhinged gym rat George’s weapon of choice is a stick, but Lou’s reverie of him is sparked by a newspaper story about a man killed with a sword, and George’s barroom manifesto includes an exhortation to “stick it to these guys, right through their heads.”

“Prominent Men”
The Dylan influence is almost embarrassingly evident on this early Velvet Underground demo, from the grim social commentary to the rudimentary harmonica solos, but Lou Reed’s take on ‘60s folk is still a few degrees sleazier than his idol’s. One of the lost souls profiled here is a child with a glistening knife that “stabs no ways and all ways.” And thus was the template set.

“Dime Store Mystery”
Lou’s tribute to Andy Warhol envisions the artist as a dying Christ figure staring down his last temptation. As such, he is introduced “banged and battered, skewered and bleeding.” The real-life Warhol’s side-wound was more bullet-induced, of course, but I think we can safely assume a spear in this scenario.

“The Bed”
Lou fairly whispers his way through this haunted, ethereal post-mortem from his masterpiece of despair Berlin. After years of abuse of the mental, physical, substance and self varieties, our heroine Caroline has slit her wrists in the bed she once shared with her husband Jim. Jim narrates from his own traumatized yet unrepentant perspective, but if you’re not in Caroline’s corner when she lifts that fateful razor, I don’t think I care to know you.

“High in the City”
This steel drum-laced jaunt about getting stoned and strolling around town sounds celebratory on its surface, but listen a little closer and you’ll find the grimness beneath the glee. Before setting out on a simple walk through a landscape of vicious dogs, burning Jeeps and street crazies, Lou has to make sure that “You got your mace and I got my knife / You gotta protect your own life when you’re high in the city.”

“Future Farmers of America”
A rapid-fire slave revolt story set to a rollicking rock beat, this one culminates in a call to “kill your master with one cut of your knife. Kill them during talk, kill them during sex, kill them whenever you can.” It’s not one of Lou’s subtler messages.

“The Murder Mystery”
All four Velvets are on hand to chant along with this discordant collection of dueling nonsense rhymes, which naturally include plenty of chopping, piercing, flaying and other forms of blade-related mutilation. “Off with his head, take his head from his neck off/Requiring memories both lovely and guilt-free/Put out his eyes, then cut his nose off” is a pretty typical sequence. This is arguably the most widely hated Velvet Underground song, so it should come as no surprise that I adore it.

“The Blue Mask”
The title track from one of Lou’s most visceral albums follows a tormented soul across a life of violence that leads him to believe in the cleansing power of pain. He demands to have his face slashed with a razor, pierces his own nipple with a pin and dreams of genital mutilation. The guitar is pretty good too.

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”
This one melds a deceptively lovely John Cale melody and dreamy Nico vocal with some mighty harsh lyrics, even by Lou Reed standards. It’s all about embracing death and finding salvation through pain, much of it blade-induced. Not to be confused for one second with the easy-listening standard, even though it’s fun to imagine Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra crooning “The knife stabs existent wounds / Pus runs through matted hair.”

“Power and Glory”
A big, boisterous anthem that also happens to be an introspective meditation on death and the meaning of existence, the opening track from “Magic and Loss” delves into a variety of mystic imagery, naturally including a little bit of piercery. “I saw a man put a red hot needle into his eye / turn into a crow and fly through the trees” might not be one of your more orthodox visions of the afterlife, but I’ve certainly heard worse.

I’m not entirely sure that “You must think that I’m some kind of gay blade / Well, why don’t you go swallow a razor blade?” even counts as wordplay, let alone rhyming, but it’s close enough for me.

“Lady Godiva’s Operation”
In maybe the purest example of the collaborative vision of Lou Reed and John Cale, the menacing elegance of the musical arrangement both belies and accentuates the brutality of the lyrics. The jarring discordance of Lou and John swapping lead vocals, sometimes mid-verse, plays right into the story of the alluring Godiva’s vaguely defined and highly traumatic surgery at the hands of a surgeon who “sees the growth as just so much cabbage that must be cut away.” By the time “the doctor removes his blade cagily so from the brain,” it seems as though the damage has already been done.   

“The Heroine”
I’m pretty sure this ode to a seawoman standing strong in the face of both a mutiny and a collosal storm is a metaphor, but I couldn’t tell you for what exactly. Anyway, the situation with the crewmen is dire enough that it’s almost an afterthought when Lou tells us that “when they thought no one was looking, they would cut a weaker man’s neck.”

“Sally Can’t Dance”
One of the few instances where I believe the bladeplay in a Lou Reed song to be metaphorical, this sardonically upbeat number about a gender-fluid party girl and eventual overdose victim finds its heroine surviving a rape in Tompkins Square and thereafter adopting an unorthodox self-defense system. “Now she wears a sword like Napoleon / And she kills the boys and acts like a son,” says Lou. I don’t think the boy-killing is literal, but it would be hard to fault Sally if it were.

“Video Violence”
This very ‘80s cut finds a skeevy dullard sitting down to a quiet night of television and being bombarded with graphic violence both physical and ideological in nature. He’s the type of dude who beats up sex workers, then calls up a televangelist to rant against the menace of TV violence. Lyrically, Lou almost seems to be having it both ways, decrying moviegoers “grabbing their crotches at the 13th beheading” and the general pervasiveness of ugly imagery in the Reagan era. In the end, though, it’s clear that nobody’s to blame for this dummy’s actions but himself, no matter how hard he might try to blame slasher movies and Madonna.

“The Black Angel’s Death Song”
The song that allegedly got the Velvet Underground banned from at least one nightclub is as unsettling lyrically as it is musically. Lou’s monotone stream of consciousness recounts a weary trudge through an apocalyptic landscape laced with semi-coherent couplets like “Cut mouth-bleeding razors forgetting the pain / Antiseptic remains cool goodbye” and “Wandering’s brother walked on through the night / With his hair in his face on a long splintered cut from the knife of G.T.” I have no idea who or what G.T. is but I want to believe it’s George Thorogood.

“Harry’s Circumcision”
A blackly humorous jaunt into identity crisis and body horror, this one watches a poor slob named Harry taking a depressing inventory in his bathroom mirror, nonchalantly carving up his face with a straight razor, and finally slitting his own throat. The punchline has Harry surviving his self-mutilation and laughing ruefully as he considers his new life with a new, horrific face. It’s one of the less grim songs on Magic & Loss.

“Rock Minuet”
I get the impression that Lou was mighty proud of this song, but for me it’s always verged on trying too hard for the sleaze and grime of the Lou Reed brand. Anyway, it’s all about a damaged loner who gets off on torture and eventually slits the throat of a hustler who tries to pick him up. I think of it as a sort-of sequel to “Kicks,” minus the nebulous menace.

It seems only fitting that Lou Reed’s final album is loaded with mutilation imagery from the very first line, as “Brandenburg Gate" opens with the eponymous Lulu telling us “I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff / And Kinski in the dark of the moon.” It’s the story of a small town girl heading to the city with images of Hollywood and adventure in her head. You know how well those stories usually end. By the time we reach “Pumping Blood,” she’s fixated on, well, blood, demanding point-blank, “Use a knife on me” among other far less wholesome things. “Frustration” finds her lover bemoaning “a sword between my thighs,” and in the end everybody’s all carved up, emotionally if not physically. But probably physically too.

Happy Lou Reed’s birthday, everybody!