This is an album about death — and how to live with it. It is an eyewitness account, documented in compelling song, of a losing battle with cancer, the mourning after and the little miracles that, for the mourner, mark the beginning of the healing process. It will probably bum you out the first couple of times through.
But it’s worth your perseverance, because Magic and Loss is Lou Reed’s most affecting, emotionally direct solo work since The Blue Mask, a stunning consummation of that album’s naked guitar clamor, the hushed-chapel intimacy of the third Velvet Underground album and the barbed reportorial vitality of Reed’s best songwriting. He offers no great moral revelations and no happy ever after, just big questions and some basic horse sense. “There’s a bit of magic in everything,” he sings at the very end of the record, “and then some loss to even things out.”
Yet the beauty, however dark, of Magic and Loss is in the asking — in the subtle, elegiac lift in Reed’s stony sing-speak, the sepulchral resonance of his and Mike Rathke’s guitars and the Spartan grace of the storytelling. Reed recounts the victim’s harrowing odyssey of radiation treatments, chemotherapy and utter physical erosion with simple detail and then candidly traces his own pain train of confusion, self-recrimination and tentative, hopeful resolution.
Magic and Loss is more formally structured than Reed’s last life-cycle operetta, Songs for Drella, written and recorded with his former VU colleague John Cale in memory of Andy Warhol. The album opens with a brief heavy-metal-guitar annunciation, and the fourteen songs all have arty subtitles that read like stage cues (“What’s Good: The Thesis,” “Power and Glory: The Situation”). Drella, though, was a celebratory requiem for a mentor and pop icon, subtitled with the mock disclaimer “A Fiction.” There is no cushion of emotional distance on this album. Magic and Loss was directly inspired by and is dedicated to two close friends of Reed’s, “Doc” (the great R&B songwriter Doc Pomus) and “Rita,” both of whom recently died of cancer, and it shows in the begrudging but undisguised vulnerability in Reed’s singing and writing. “I see you in the hospital, your humor is intact/I’m embarrassed by the strength I seem to lack,” he confesses in “No Chance: Regret.” On Magic and Loss, Ol’ Poker Face looks straight into the face of the Big Inevitable — and flinches.
You can hear it in the very first song, “What’s Good: The Thesis.” The music is a jaunty reprise of New York‘s Velvets-redux recipe — Rathke’s austere strumming, the glissando slide of Rob Wasserman’s stand-up electric bass, Reed’s strategic bursts of distorted lead guitar and screeching feedback. But the droll juxtaposition of the banal and the surreal in the lyrics (“What good is seeing eye chocolate/What good’s a computerized nose”) belies the choke in Reed’s delivery of the punch line (“And what good was cancer in April/No good — no good at all”). In a striking guest appearance, the legendary R&B vocalist Little Jimmy Scott fires up his man-child wail on “Power and Glory: The Situation,” accenting Reed’s reverie on the power of dreams and the crush of deathbed experience with funky, angelic pleading: “I want all of it, all of it, all of it/Not just some of it….”
Much of the album’s power comes from its elegant severity. The guitar playing is skeletal but swinging, like the ghostly Duane Eddy-style whammy-bar bends in “Goodby Mass: In a Chapel Bodily Termination.” Drummer Michael Blair is an almost invisible presence, combining lithe percussive flourishes with the heartbeat simplicity of Maureen Tucker’s timekeeping with the Velvets. Reed’s own vacillation in “Sword of Damocles: Externally” between the crapshoot realities of chemotherapy and the vague possibility of a greater spiritual rationale for all this hurt (“mystic shit,” as he puts it) is neatly echoed in the song’s foreboding seesaw rhythm and the fluid groan of Rob Wasserman’s bowed bass.
In his lyrics, Reed has backed off from the machine-gun spray of imagery and argument that fueled New York, dwelling at an almost glacial pace on “the drawn-out torture” of day-by-day dying and the agonizing ritual of hospital vigils and funeral proceedings. In the three songs at the heart of the record — “Goodby Mass,” “Cremation: Ashes to Ashes” and “Dreamin’: Escape” — Reed holds a dramatic one-way conversation with the deceased, spiking his half-sung, half-muttered monologue with typically parched wit and lapsing into startling passages of drop-dead poignance. “Dreamin'” is nothing less than the sound of utter loneliness, a faint, choppy guitar figure and hard-gulp bass notes underscoring Reed’s melancholy as he tries to sense movement and presence (“I hear the dog bark, I turn and say ‘What were you saying?'”) in a now-empty room.
“Harry’s Circumcision: Reverie Gone Astray,” a black-humored spoken-word entry about a gruesome suicide attempt gone awry, seems at first to be out of sync with the rest of Magic‘s narrative. The piece is not about dying or grieving per se but about cutting off your life to spite your past and fucking up in the process. (It is based on the real-life tragedy of Lincoln Swados, the brother of writer-composer Elizabeth Swados and Reed’s roommate at Syracuse University in the early Sixties, who suffered from schizophrenia and died, homeless, on the streets of New York in 1989.) But it also deals with very common fears — of growing old, of growing into the very thing you left behind (“He was turning into his parents/The final disappointment”), of life’s diminishing possibilities. Besides, it’s very funny, the delicious if bloody irony rendered by Reed with casual, monotonic charm.
Reed does slightly overplay his hand in spots. “Warrior King: Revenge,” a brusque hard-rock number, is too harsh, too vengeful, although there’s a jolting guitar-drums jam at the end. The subtitles also have an inappropriate, overly academic air. These songs speak boldly and eloquently for themselves, and the emotions at the root of Magic and Loss are all too tangible and, to anyone who has lost a close friend or family member to disease, an accident or simply the ravages of old age, all too familiar.
In the introduction to his recent collection Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed, Reed notes that “the heart of a lyric for me has always been anchored in an experienced reality…. So in answer to the question I am most often asked, ‘Are these incidents real?’ Yes, he said. Yes Yes Yes.” The surge of embattled nobility and stubborn hope that charges through this album is just as real. “They say no one person can do it all but you want to in your head/But you can’t be Shakespeare and you can’t be Joyce/So what is left instead,” Reed asks rhetorically against the slow martial thunder of the final song, “Magic and Loss: The Summation.” “You’re stuck with yourself and a rage that can hurt you/You have to start at the beginning again.”
Anyone who’s been through this experience will know exactly what Reed is talking about. For anyone facing it for the first time, Magic and Loss can help with the starting over.