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LAST NEW YEAR'S EVE, the sagging economy claimed another victim. Max's Kansas City, one of Manhattan's best known and most innovative rock clubs closed its doors for good, symbolically ending an era of popular music. At Max's, Bruce Springsteen once opened for Bob Marley, the New York Dolls got their start, and a plethora of unknowns enjoyed brief moments of fame, But above all, the Village hangout will be remembered by veterans of the 60s as the birthplace of Lou Reed's Velvet Underground, perhaps the most influential group to ever emerge form New York City.
The Velvet Underground never garnered a large popular following. Its music was too intense, too frightening, too different. In 1967, while the Beatles were singing that "all you need is love" and making veiled metaphorical references to be burgeoning drug culture, Reed, the Underground's songwriter, graphically described the joys and horrors of narcotics, life on the streets, and, ten years before the punks, the general decay of society. The music was fresh--an amalgam of raw, sometimes un-melodic guitar solos and John Cale's imaginative violin in tunes so unorthodox they assaulted listeners. Countless punk and new wave bands of the 70s drew inspiration from the Velvet Underground which--after a four-year existence and a few classic tracks like "Sweet Jane" and "Waiting for the Man"--called it quits in 1971.
Today, Reed is 40 years old and--in the wake of a brilliant but erratic solo career--has just released what may be his most powerful musical statement. The Blue Mask is the work of a mature artist; the hostility and bitterness of the past that came to the fore on the successful Sally Can't Dance have given way to passion and love with an every-present undercurrent of anger. Max's may be dead and the Underground buried, but with The Blue Mask, Reed displays at 40 the vigor of a forever-young rocker.
Thematically, The Blue Mask is a study in contrasts. The album opens with the "My House," an uncharacteristic yet moving look at marital bliss featuring Reed and his wife Sylvia at home. Love and contentment run thickly through this track, as they do through rocker that espouses heterosexual love as they ultimate salvation in a mad world.
But then Reed lets loose his anger with songs about a rapist, a masochist, a drunkard and a man going insane. Reed paints the latter two characters as victims of society. His wrath for the rapist, though, knows no end The subject of "The Gun" is a "dirty animal" who won't hesitate to "blow your brains out" to satisfy his urges. Even more frightening and intense are the almost unbearable lyrics of the album's title cut:
Wash the razor in the rain
Let me luxuriate in pain
Please don't set me free
Death means a lot to me
...He put a pin through the nipples on his chest
He thought he was a saint
Contrats also pervade the music, Calm, harmonious tunes are followed by screaming, distorted ones. Melodic, lush guitar textures give way to feedback and a multitude of strange noises. The title track, for example, begins with a chaotic intro of power chords and drum rolls; then feed-backing guitars enter producing a sound akin to the horn of a steamship.
While every track is vintage Reed, two in particular stand out. One could spend hours trying to figure out "The Heroine," a bare, haunting song that features only a guitar and Reed's voice. At first, it seems a tale of adventure on the high seas that sports one hitch: the hero is a woman. But the cut takes on added significance when one remembers the Velvet Underground sang "Heroin," a violently direct song about drugs. All at once, the drug imagery emerges.
While the Heroine dressed
In a virgin white dress
Tried to steer the mighty ship
But the raging storm
Wouldn't hear of it
They were in for a long trip
The metaphor is neither facile nor gratuitous, and Reed crafts it carefully throughout the cut.
"The Day John Kennedy Died" is poignantly reminiscent of Bob Dylan at his best. Reed tells the story of where he was and how he heard about Kennedy's assassination. The narrative constitutes the middle section of the song while the lyrics of simultaneous hope and despair begin and end the piece:
I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I replaced ignorance, stupidity and hate
I dreamed the perfect union and a perfect law
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day
John Kennedy died
The dream may seem simple. But a few years ago it probably would not even have been there. Reed has swallowed his bitterness and now seems willing to admit that as bleak as things look, better days may still follow.
Optimism in the face of harsh reality, then, is Reed's new-found philosophy. The singer constantly agonizes over "the world's impending storm" and "a world in a terrible state." But unlike his earlier works, a warm and positive feeling suffuses. The Blue Mask. Reed, a veteran of a difficult business and a difficult era, could easily have become a cynic with age. But instead of displaying unalloyed disgust, Reed confronts us with a touchingly realistic album that tempers anger with hope.
In a recent interview granted to The New York Times, Reed explained: "I took a major in English and a minor in philosophy; I was very into Hegel, Sartre, Kierkegaard. After you finish reading Kierkegaard, you feel like something horrible has happened to you--Fear and Nothing. See, that's where I'm coming from." Fear and nothing are strikingly evident in The Blue Mask, "but so too is love and the salvation is promises. Reed sings that "in a world full of hate/ Love should never wait/ Heavenly arms reach out to me." At the age of 40, Lou Reed has grown; in a world where he once saw nothing bur darkness, he now perceives hope.
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