Lou Reed's 1982 album The Blue Mask was "the end of something," as Reed put it in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, "the absolute end of everything from the Velvet Underground on. The Blue Mask was the final ending and Legendary Hearts [the 1983 follow-up] like a coda."
The Blue Mask certainly marked a crossroads in Reed's life and art. In stark contrast to his well-publicized personal and musical indulgences of the Seventies, Reed was now married and enjoying the new-found domestic calm documented in "My House" and "Heavenly Arms," the ballads that bookend the album. At the same time, he had formed a lean, mean quartet combining his own psycho-twang with that of the celebrated New York guitarist Robert Quine and the fluid R&B bass of Fernando Saunders.
The result is a poetically compelling, musically brutish summation of Reed's rites of rock & roll passage. The Blue Mask harks back to the twin-guitar violence of the Velvets and Reed's earliest literary conceits ("My House" is dedicated to his mentor at Syracuse University, the poet Delmore Schwartz). At the same time, the album casts a hopeful eye toward the future while effectively closing the book on Reed's extended narrative odyssey through the dark side of human experience — violence ("The Gun"), alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle") and spiritual isolation (the howling "Waves of Fear"). Reed, who had already written definitive songs about drug addiction and sexual perversion, managed to top himself with the title track, which was packed with graphic images of sexual torture, Oedipal desire and, finally, castration. "I can't even listen to that song," the usually fearless Reed admitted in 1986.
Initially, Reed gave each member of the band a bare-bones demo of the songs for The Blue Mask, with Reed singing and strumming an electric guitar. There were no rehearsals as such before the band went into the studio in October 1981. According to Robert Quine, "We'd just go in every day and do at least one, maybe two songs. We'd start to play and the arrangement would take shape."
To preserve the spontaneity and bare-knuckles sound of the band, each track was recorded live (Reed redid his vocals later) and usually nailed down in two or three takes. "The Blue Mask" itself didn't even take that long. "We did one half-finished take on that one," says Quine, "did another one and that was it. That's a great moment when [Reed] takes that guitar solo at the end. It's every bit as brutal and energized as his stuff with the Velvet Underground."