Lou Reed Week - 5 Songs Of Death & Drinking
It's a common misconception that Lou Reed only ever wrote about drugs and transvestites. In truth, he wrote stories. Yes, many of the characters in his stories were transvestites, and pretty much all of them were on drugs, but a lot of the time these trappings (for want of a better word) acted as springboards to explore much deeper themes of love, loss, addiction, obsession, hypocrisy, vengeance, hatred, cruelty, anxiety, lust, sacrifice, faith and, on one unforgettable occasion, the best place to find Cream Eggs in New York.
In the past few months, I've paid a lot of attention to the times when Lou sang about booze. Like with most every subject he touched, when it came to the sauce, Lou used a variety of characters to explore the topic from every conceivable angle – from the bleary, dizzying highs to the grim and sordid lows – without ever quite offering his own personal “take” on the matter along the way.
Which is one way of looking at it. Some Lou Reed albums are self-contained narratives, but I believe I might have found a five-song suite that, over the course of four albums and ten years, tells a very sad story indeed.
It's interesting, but over the course of his career, Lou's songs about drinking become increasingly bleak, which makes me think that whilst assessing humanity's relationship with intoxicating liquids, he was, at the same time, battling his own demons.
Or you could say that this is all about the same man, and that Lou only ever wanted to tell the story of how enjoyment can so easily become dependency, of how life just loves to kick the crutches from underneath you.
Is this a morality play, a cautionary tale, a form of therapy or the fruit of too much thinking - or too much drinking? In any case, I believe that this is truly the stuff of great art.
Perfect Day (Transformer, 1972)
Perhaps his most famous song, thanks to a BBC Children in Need ensemble single and an unforgettable inclusion on the Trainspotting soundtrack. Those who take great joy in sneeringly highlighting the “horrifying undertones” of everything in the world love to point out that Perfect Day might sound nice, but it's actually about heroin, yeah?
I don't think it is. In the liner notes to the NYC Man collection, Lou himself talks about how Trainspotting, and specifically Perfect Day, served to remind people that he can write nice songs, too. Perfect Day might just be about a perfect day. That it was originally titled “Summer Day” only compounds its blissful, bucolic qualities, and for me one of the most evocative parts of the idyllic picture painted has been the idea of drinking sangria in the park.
The closing lines of “You're going to reap just what you sow” - is that a suggestion of something much darker, or just a warning about the impending hangover?
Or maybe the protagonist of Perfect Day is the same guy that appears in all of these songs. What follows is a descent into something really quite nasty. What he's reaping is dependency, and what he'll sow is...well, we'll see.
I heartily believe that Perfect Day is just a nice song. A nice, lovely, innocent song. It just might point towards something altogether less pleasant.
The Power of Positive Drinking (Growing Up In Public, 1980)
This catchy little number comes across as an attack on those self-righteous sorts who'd scorn you for enjoying a drink now and then. The tone's jubilant, and if there's any hint of dependency, it's too subtle for me to spot. However, the narrator's self-assurance could so easily transform into self-delusion.
“Some say liquor kills the cells in your head / And for that matter so does getting out of bed / When I exit, I'll go out gracefully, shot in my hand.”
Friend, I'm afraid that's not how it's going to end for you.
Underneath The Bottle (The Blue Mask, 1982)
The party didn't last very long. Is the world-weary narrator of Underneath The Bottle an older, sadder version of he who previously enjoyed a Perfect Day before extolling The Power of Positive Drinking? Whilst ruining his liver, he's also ruined his life. Now he sleeps two days a week and he keeps finding mysterious bruises on his body.
Yes, it's grim and alarming, but backed by one of his most satisfying riffs, it's also as pleasurable as the initial mellow rush of a binge before it starts to hurt.
The Last Shot (Legendary Hearts, 1983)
One year and one album later, things are worse than ever for our hapless, sozzled hero. The mysterious bruises have been replaced by blood, which is everywhere – on the dishes in the sink, inside a coffee cup, on the table top...
The Last Shot deals with what must be the most terrifying thought for all drinkers: That you can't quit any time you want to. Because “when you quit, you quit, but you always wish that you knew it was your last shot.”
If you knew that it was your last shot, you might have made more of an occasion out of it. You might have savoured it a bit more.
Soon, though, even the idea of taking pleasure from the booze will be as distant a memory as those heady days of sangria in the park.
Bottoming Out (Legendary Hearts, 1983)
Goodness, another one from Legendary Hearts? Is this his booziest album? Perhaps. As a result, we might have here an example of a particularly bleak Lou Reed album, though to even consider the existence of a “particularly bleak Lou Reed album” is a bit like considering the existence of a “particularly wooden tree”.
Forget The Kids, forget The Bed, forget anything that Caroline ever said, Bottoming Out is a contender for Lou Reed's gloomiest song, especially if you consider it as the end of a downward trajectory that started with Perfect Day.
The attempts at redemption suggested in The Last Shot have failed. Now our hero has a “violent rage, turned inward,” that “cannot be helped by drink”. Thus we have what must be an even more terrifying prospect for drinkers: The idea that drinking might not always make you feel better. And yet he still needs to drink.
It ends with our hero “cruising fast on a motorcycle”. “I'm drunk, but my vision's good,” he says, “And I think of my child bride / And on the left in the shadows / I see something that makes me laugh / I am that bike at the fat pothole / Beyond that underpass.”
I'd drink to his memory, but that might not be in the best taste, all things considered.