Saturday, March 2, 2019

Let's talk about Lou Reed yelling about possums for 18 minutes

I’ve never in my life anticipated an album release more eagerly than I did Lou Reed’s Ecstasy. For starters, it was only the second album Lou had put out since I’d been old and aware enough to get excited about new albums. Of course I’d purchased Set the Twilight Reeling the day it dropped in 1996 at my local Electric Avenue store (because Best Buy bizarrely had it labeled as “You must be 18 to purchase,” presumably because it contained a song called “Sex with Your Parents”), but my self-hyping in that case was limited to reading reviews in music magazines and watching Lou make the rounds on the late night talk shows. When Ecstasy was coming out in 2000, on the other hand, I had the internet.

Unsurprisingly, Lou Reed had a sizable web presence in those nascent days of home computing. His website was updated regularly with tidbits and teasers for the forthcoming album, and I ate it all up. I listened to the primitive pre-release streams of “Paranoia Key of E” and “Modern Dance” obsessively and checked the page multiple times a day. I’m certain my then-girlfriend (and current wife), who’d long since given up on feigning enthusiasm for my Lou Reed fanboyism, was almost as eager for Ecstasy to drop as I was, just to stop my constant stream of speculation.

When it finally hit, it was, probably inevitably, everything I’d been waiting for and simultaneously also a bit of a letdown. Remember when Kid A came out and half your hipster friends were like, “It’s really good but it’s no OK Computer” and the other half were like “This makes OK Computer totally irrelevant”? It was kind of like that, except with Ecstasy vs. any number of previous Lou Reed records standing in for the two Radiohead albums and me taking both sides of the argument because I’m pretty sure I was the only 21-year-old in the year 2000 attaching Radiohead-level expectations to a new Lou Reed album.

I loved most of it right out of the gate, of course. “Paranoia Key of E” was exactly the kind of literate, grimy rock groove Lou did best. “Future Farmers of America” was a sardonic flurry of social commentary. “Baton Rouge” was the saddest, prettiest song Lou had recorded since the Velvet Underground days. On the other hand there was “White Prism,” which opens with the line “There’s a white prism with phony jism / Spread across its face” and only gets more cringey from there. And there was “Rock Minuet,” an overblown wallow in depravity and degradation that’s always struck me as Lou trying way too hard to write another “Street Hassle.” (It was also, I believe, Lou’s favorite song on the album, which makes all kinds of sense.)

And then there was “Like a Possum.”

“Like a Possum,” in which Lou Reed yells about possums and rollerbladers and “one-night fucks” for a solid 18 minutes over a churning drone of distortion that never varies. “Like a Possum,” filled with imagery of crack-smokers and used condoms and “women with the butt that hurts.” “Like a Possum,” which exemplifies every accusation of ego and pretension Lou Reed detractors had been leveling against him for 45 years.

I fucking love “Like a Possum.”

I don’t believe I’m exaggerating if I say that, much as I love Ecstasy and regard it as a minor classic in the Lou Reed pantheon, I would love it just as much if not more if it had been just  a full hour of “Like a Possum.” Lou’s opening bark of “Good morning! It’s POSSUM DAY!” should by all rights be a beloved American catchphrase. There should be theses written on Lou’s very gradual progression from feeling “like a possum” to feeling “calm as an angel.”

Hyperbole aside, I really do regard this song as a masterpiece. It combines the aggro sonic experimentation of Metal Machine Music with the bleak cityscapes of Street Hassle, the doomed majesty of Berlin and the defiant mourning of Magic and Loss. It’s four Lou Reed masterpieces boiled down into one 18-minute, aurally challenging package.

Lyrically, it’s fairly familiar Lou Reed territory: a litany of ugly images of people doing ugly things in the ugly corners of New York City. That sort of thing was Lou’s stock in trade since the early days of The Velvet Underground, but few people ever did it better. The biggest thing setting “Like a Possum” apart on that front is the framing device. Before we get to the druggies and hustlers strolling the banks of the Hudson, we spend five minutes listening to the singer’s vision of himself as a possum, complete with “Possum whiskers, possum face, possum breath and a possum taste.”

It’s never clearly defined what it means to be like a possum, nor whether that’s a good or bad thing to be. Given that possums are nocturnal scavengers who tend to creep around unseen, I feel I can make a reasonable guess, but the ambiguity is part of the appeal. There’s a lot of naked juxtaposition as the song churns on, blending crass couplets (“I got a hole in my heart the size of a truck / and it won't be filled by a one-night fuck”) with picturesque exclamations (“wouldn’t it be lovely?” and “calm as an angel”) and passages of terrifying introspection (“You know me I like to dance a lot / with different selves who cancel out one another”). The contrast between these lines is never presented for the sake of irony or shock value. They’re just the stream-of-consciousness truths of a human possum living on the edge.

The most obvious knock someone could make against “Like a Possum” is that it does not, under any condition, need to be 18 minutes long. I can see people taking that position (especially regarding an album whose cover is a photo of Lou Reed masturbating), but my personal take is that, a few live renditions notwithstanding, it could not possibly be a second shorter. Lou Reed had a long history of putting out long, difficult songs, and each one served a different purpose. “Heroin” is a slow, loving build into chaos that mirrors a narcotic episode. “Sister Ray” is a frantic churn of madness that pushes the listener into an escalating frenzy. “Street Hassle” is a short story and a mini-opera told across multiple movements. “Metal Machine Music” is an endurance test of beautiful brutality.

“Like a Possum” doesn’t fall neatly under any of those umbrellas, and I’d guess it has fewer defenders than any of those songs. I say it’s the equal of all of them. Yes, it’s a droning, repetitive trudge, both lyrically and musically, but that’s exactly the point. “Like a Possum” envelops you, pulls you inside its grimy orbit. There comes a moment where you’re fully inhabiting the song, and vice versa, and you forget what it was ever like to not be listening to “Like a Possum.” Once you’ve crossed that threshold, you get it. You’re a possum. You’re calm as an angel.

I didn’t know it back in the year 2000, of course, but Ecstasy would turn out to be, in my estimation, the last true Lou Reed album. He put out three more studio albums, sure, but The Raven is a passion project that’s as much a theater piece as it is a record, Hudson River Wind Meditations is a niche side project, and Lulu is, y’know, all Metallica’d. Ecstasy was the last time Lou Reed went out and did his full-on weird, unapologetic Lou Reed thing.

Maybe that’s another key to why I love “Like a Possum” so much: it’s such a deeply, thoroughly Lou Reed thing to do. It’s a song that makes zero attempt to win you over. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ll know for sure which side you fall on within the first two minutes, and then guess what? The song is going to keep on going for another 16, and if you disliked it in minute two, you’re going to hate it by the end. And Lou doesn’t care, because it’s not for you. It’s for him and all the other possums out prowling the streets. It’s the epitome of Lou Reed in all his grimy glory.

Good night, everybody. It’s possum day.


  1. brilliantly put. like a possum is a masterpiece . i felt exactly the same when i first bought ecstasy .

  2. love it. just discovered this the other day. with the vacuum in music today, thank God there are gems like this to be discovered when there was such a thing as musicians.

  3. "Like a Possum" is my drug of choice. Can't get enough of it.

  4. The song is constantly in the Spotify mix list I make and remake for myself.
    Relentless, brutal, aching, poetic, sardonic. A masterpiece.
    However, I would definitely disagree with your characterization of "I've got a hole in my heart the size of a truck ..." as a crass couplet. I think it's pure poetry, immensely sad and immensely true, and shows that Lou was a romantic at heart. Good for him that he found the love of his life before dying.

  5. I’m so glad I read this article before jumping into Ecstasy for the first time a few days ago because it was the perfect setup. I’ve been calm as an angel and smiling like a possum for three days straight now. Wouldn’t it be lovely? (Happy belated Lou day and happy possum day to you.)

  6. Liked this song right away when I heard it years ago. Appreciate it more over the years. Once in a while I have to give it a listen. Listened to it this morning, and wondered if anyone else gets it. Glad someone does. Enjoyed the article. Happy possum day!

  7. Was in my local pub and wanted to play a song by Lou this weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of his passing. The football game had ended and it was kinda dead ( just me, the bartender, and some guy I’d never seen before) so when the bartender went to the jukebox to liven the place up with some music and offered me the opportunity to play a song I typed Lou Reed into search. Scrolling down through his songs I was having difficulty deciding until I saw LaP. I was surprised to see it and immediately selected it forgetting that it’s 18 mins long and has a droning guitar riff that makes for a difficult listening experience to those used to classic rock and mainstream pop which is what usually gets played. About 6 mins in the bartended asked me how long the song was. After 12 mins she was cursing me out and saying that I put the song on intentionally to fuck with her. I tried to explain that was not the case but she was getting inconsolable so I offered to cut the song off. To her credit she let it play out. At the end she said that she couldn’t believe that I chose to play an 18 min song that was so repetitive and awful. I enjoyed every minute of it for the same reasons. Not that I consider it awful. Quite the contrary for the very reasons you cite in your excellent commentary. She wound up apologizing for giving me shit about the song. She was having something of a bad day due to some douchebaggery by a couple of customers. I started to feel a little bad for her and told her that I was sorry to have subjected her to it (she has a Michael Jackson musical sensibility). But after all the overplayed mainstream commercial pablum I’ve endured listening to there LaP was like, well, a possum. You have to see (hear) past the off- putting features of it to truly appreciate the thing of beauty it really is. That’s true for Lou too.