Friday, October 8, 2010

The Blue Mask by Lou Reed (1982)

Since the 1960s, rock music was reliant on an air of danger, youth and glamour. Can “dangerous” artists still deliver at forty? Lou Reed was part of the first generation of rock musicians crossing that barrier. John Lennon’s life was cut short at forty, but Dylan, assorted Stones and their contemporaries were reaching uncharted territories in the early 1980s. Does maturity end interesting rock? Are tales of rebellion, revolution and debauchery still convincing from someone old enough to be your father?

Lou Reed is unique in this respect, as he was wise (and cantankerous) beyond his years before even hitting thirty. His intellectual, adult-oriented content, sunglasses and leather trousers had stood him in good stead for some fifteen years with several peaks and an equal amount of valleys in his musical career throughout the 1970s. A glammy makeover by collaborator David Bowie (1972’s Transformer) had made Reed a household name, and since then, his career had coasted along with a few highlights along the way.

Right off the bat, The Blue Mask references Transformer. The cover reuses the iconic high-contrast Mick Rock photograph that graced the earlier album, but in blue instead of white. Was this the titular “Blue Mask”? Were Transformer and its immediate successors masks that hid the true artist? In any case, it’s an unusual choice for an album to use a photograph of the artist from ten years earlier, although his saggy-eyed and powdered visage make age an indeterminate quality anyway.

Sonically, The Blue Mask is a large step ahead for Reed. Remarkably “flat” compared to earlier albums, Reed and his band keep it simple, with twin guitars, fretless bass and drums forming the core of the album. The two guitars, played by Reed and Robert Quine (right and left stereo channels, respectively) duel, duet and complement each other beautifully, in a way reminiscent of the dual guitar attack of Neil Young’s Zuma. In fact, this latter album is specifically mentioned in The Blue Mask’s reissue liner notes as another example of nicely separated guitar work. The rest of the band are pure session musicians, giving the chaos of Reed’s artistic expression a very solid base. Occasionally, these seasoned professionals let rip like the Velvet Underground’s amateur upstarts, but also keep time and a groove like no other. Almost all the album was recorded “live”, with only most vocal takes and one single solo dubbed on top. All these factors make the album a listener’s delight, with very clear definition of the instruments and a beautiful collaboration that you can only get from musicians interacting face to face.

All of this would be of only minor interest if the songs themselves were in any way weak. Thankfully, they are not. The album is taut (at ten songs, forty minutes), with each song bringing something unique and essential to the album. Lyrically, middle age dominates, along with some very self-referential and autobiographical songs. Reed had become newly domesticated: married (after having lived together with a transsexual for several years), “clean” (see: “Underneath the Bottle”) and looking forward.

Three songs are clearly indebted to the Velvet Underground, mostly due to their frenetic, discordant guitar workouts. The title track is the most abrasive on the album, providing a chugging riff and howls of feedback. “The Gun” is almost a sequel to the Underground’s “Heroin”, with the sparse and ominous jangly guitar that builds to a climax. The references to “shooting with a gun” are also a lyrical echo to the ode to opiates. “Waves of Fear”, with its paranoid, frantic lyrics and powerful guitars also raise memories to Reed’s earlier band. The swooping fretless bass work and the tight drum breaks that appear on this song are something unique to Reed’s contemporary band, however.

"Waves of Fear" performed in New York, 1983. (from A Night With Lou Reed)

The influence of new wave music, especially other NYC stalwarts Talking Heads can also be felt on some tracks. The funky riffs and catchy ironic lyrics abound on “Average Guy”. Here, the two guitars are most clearly separated, with a distorted rhythm track courtesy of Reed and a Knopfleresque slick and sparse tone giving lead flourishes. Reed plays down his freaky past, proclaiming himself average in about every single way you could classify a person, including body temperature. A genuinely funny reference to a “reverend cripple from the right” raises a smile in a largely serious album. Another way of distancing himself from his controversial past, the luscious “Women” plainly states “I love women” in lieu of a chorus (another funny lyric: “I used to look at women in the magazines/I know that it was sexist, but I was in my teens”). Iggy Pop did something similar three years earlier, although his “I love girls” sounds more juvenile than Reed, eight years his senior at the time of authorship. A man loving women may be quite average, but having “a choir of castrates” “sing a little Bach” as they make love keeps Reed kinky.

"Women" performed in New York, 1983. (from A Night With Lou Reed)

A final upbeat and ironic song, despite its rather grim subject matter, deals with Reed’s attempt to “give up drugs by drinking”. “Underneath the Bottle” is an ode to alcoholism, a socially and legally acceptable way of being a shitfaced addict. A hint of The Velvet’s “Sweet Jane” in the guitar riff, and Reed’s confession gets started. Falling down stairs, ordering Scotch together with beer, hoping to rediscover pride hidden underneath the bottle: all symptoms of Reed’s “cleaned up” lifestyle since quitting drugs. “Liquor set me free!” The “Average Guy” might worry about his hurting liver, but Reed drinks five days and sleeps on two.

The Blue Mask also contains much soul-searching, an inevitable by-product of reaching forty and settling down. “My House” paints a domestic picture, albeit of a romantic haunted mansion with Ouija boards and the ghost of Reed’s former mentor. Nevertheless, who’d have guessed that the man who revolutionised singing about smack and blowjobs would one day sing the line “Canadian geese are flying above the trees”? “The Heroine” is a tender solo song, with Reed simply playing along with his own singing. The song is quite straightforward, despite the homonymous connotations of Reed’s past subject matter. Autobiographical elements are brought to the foreground on the final tracks: “The Day John Kennedy Died” is a sober recollection of Reed’s experiences on that day in late 1963, a twenty-one year-old still in college in upstate New York. The album ends with the rousing “Heavenly Arms”, a typical Reed ballad in the style of “Satellite of Love” (Transformer) and “Sad Song” (Berlin, 1973). Reed wails an ode to his newlywed wife at the full force of his usually talk-singing voice.

Reed would tour with these musicians, spawning several live releases. The movie “A Night With Lou Reed” provides a concert experience in the intimate Bottom Line Club in New York, 1983. A confused-looking Andy Warhol can be seen in the audience (see the beginning of "Women", above), as the band plays a greatest hits collection. Fernando Saunders’ virtuoso bass playing on “New Age” is enough to make Reed grin like a maniac, but it is the few songs from The Blue Mask where this band truly shines. Another release from this tour is the album Live in Italy (1984).

So, does middle age mean less credible sex, violence and debauchery? No, just more (commendable) self-awareness, and outstanding musicianship. The Blue Mask strikes an excellent balance between the almost unlistenable grinding freak-outs of The Velvet Underground (White Light/White Heat (1968)) and the poppy Transformer songs, while leaving ample space for intricate songs of contemplation. This kind of artistic maturity, an intuition as to what works and what doesn’t on a single album is something that only comes with age and experience. Reed had entered his forties with an artistic highlight. In live performances, he seems at ease, and dignified, which is more than can be said about his former mentor at forty:

So much for dignity: Bowie at 40 in his ill-fated “Athletic Superstar” period, The Glass Spider tour of 1987