Happy 30th Birthday to ‘The Blue Mask,’ Lou Reed’s Solo Masterpiece
Happy 30th birthday to Lou Reed’s solo masterpiece, The Blue Mask, which he released on February 24th, 1982. Everybody has a favorite Lou phase – some people prefer the noisy guitar records, some prefer the black-lipstick leather-queen ones, the members of Metallica like Lulu. But for some of us, Lou never got more intense and soulful than on The Blue Mask. It’s one of the toughest, truest, funniest albums about husbandhood ever made. Lou’s fallen in love, but he finds it just scares the hell out of him. As he sings, “Things are never good / Things go from bad to weird.”
The Blue Mask came out a few days before Reed’s 40th birthday. (Which means he turns 70 next week, on March 2nd.) After all his years of debauchery, walking every wild side in town and passing out in most of them, he had plenty to say about his new life as an “Average Guy.” Lou faces up to the terrors of adult love, staring down his own psychic demons as he struggles to hold on to this good thing he’s found. As Rolling Stone’s Tom Carson wrote in a five-star review, “Lou Reed has done what even John Lennon couldn’t do: he’s put his Plastic Ono Band and his Double Fantasy on the same record.”
He also had his hottest band since the Velvet Underground. On bass, Fernando Saunders, making his debut as Reed’s long-running wingman. On drums, Doane Perry, who joined Jethro Tull a couple of years later. And on lead guitar, the late great Robert Quine, a New York virtuoso fluent in free jazz as well as punk rock. Lou’s recent records had been overbaked pop failures, so fans were shocked to hear songs like the late-night panic-attack horror show “Waves of Fear.” It simmers for a couple of minutes until Quine plays a flurry of anguished notes that doesn’t sound like any other guitar solo – it sounds like agitated human neurons, overheating until they pop off like a string of firecrackers. It’s the “Sister Ray”of suburban-husband angst.
Lou obviously hadn’t been taking any voice lessons lately, but that’s part of the emotional impact, as he strains to reach the gorgeous doo-wop high notes of “My House” in his gum-chewing off-key croak. There’s humor in the deadpan Robert Mitchum way he delivers lines like, “I’ve really got a lucky life / My writing, my motorcycle and my wife.” And when he serenades his wife as “The Heroine,” it’s a knowing twist on the Velvets’ 1967 drugs-and-death trip “Heroin.”
Yet The Blue Mask also exposes how true romance can dredge up the bad shit you kept buried in your brain, back when you were single and it was easier to hide from yourself. Lou purges some seriously toxic waste: ugly memories (“The Blue Mask”), booze (“Underneath the Bottle”), destructive urges (“Waves of Fear”), violent nightmares (“The Gun”), the dread that he’ll screw up this relationship the same way he’s screwed up everything else. But for now, he isn’t giving up. In “Heavenly Arms,” a rewrite of “Femme Fatale,” he belts her name over and over (“Syyylviiiaaa”) and it’s all the poetry he needs.
Robert Quine, a famously cantankerous sort, was once quoted by his friend Lester Bangs as saying, “The only trouble with music is you gotta play it with other people.” And he might have added that you gotta play Lou Reed music with Lou Reed, a man never known for his bubbly personality. Somehow they managed to play together off and on for four years. Quine once said, “The first week and a half was great.”
Given these two combative types, there’s no way the band could last, and the Quine/Reed/Saunders team (with future Scritti Politti drummer Fred Maher) only cut one other studio record, the almost-equally-choice Legendary Hearts. As Quine told Perfect Sound Forever in 1997, when he heard how low he was mixed on Legendary Hearts, he didn’t take it too well: “I was in Ohio and took it out in the driveway and smashed the tape into pieces.” So yeah, there was that. (Quine was honored in 2003 as one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists – you can read his entry here.)
The Blue Mask wasn’t a commercial hit – are you kidding? – but it reinvigorated the Lou Reed legend. No rock star had ever turned 40 with this much grace, as Reed defined the grizzled-elder-statesman role that Neil Young took over a decade later (and Springsteen a decade after that). True, the marriage eventually broke up, just like the band. But there isn’t a single phony moment on the album. If “things go from bad to weird,” The Blue Mask is a testament to how good weird can get.
Here’s a clip of Lou Reed playing “Waves of Fear” live at the Bottom Line in NYC, from 1983. RIP Mr. Quine.
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