Waxing Nostalgic: Lou Reed, Magic and Loss

Published on August 2nd, 2016 in: Music, Waxing Nostalgic |

By Tim Murr

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“There’s a bit of magic in everything
And then some loss to even things out”
—Lou Reed

I haven’t had many mornings this year where I didn’t wake up with the Alice Cooper lyrics “Enough’s enough’s enough/this year’s been really, really tough” in my head. 2016 has seen many of our heroes go to the grave and in February I lost my friend Jason “Jase” Gollihar, who I’ve known since I was eleven years old. Couple those losses with numerous little personal tragedies, a couple of huge ones (that have just recently started correcting themselves), and an election year that I’m still trying to get a mental grip on… Yeah, this year’s been really, really tough.

Because of all this I was drawn back to an album that I had put away a long time ago, because it was just too emotionally draining: Magic And Loss by Lou Reed. I’d easily rank this as one of the top five albums Lou ever recorded with or without The Velvet Underground. The album wasn’t originally meant to be a meditation on death and loss, but an album inspired by Lou hearing stories of magicians in Mexico. Then Doc Pomus, his friend and the man who gave Lou his start in music became terminally ill from cancer. The album is also dedicated to a Rita, possibly Rotten Rita from the Warhol Factory days, who also got a name drop in Lou’s “Halloween Parade” from 1989’s New York.

When Magic And Loss came out I was in high school and had only been a Lou Reed fan for two years after Jase had shared his copy of The Words And Music Of Lou Reed; The Best Of The Velvet Underground. That album was life changing. I played it constantly and Lou became as much a staple in my life as Alice Cooper had become a few years earlier.

As much as I appreciated Magic And Loss when it came out, I didn’t relate to it much as I had experienced very little death in my life, but I was certainly moved by the weight and power and passion behind the words and music. I taped my favorite tracks off of Jase’s copy: “What’s Good (The Thesis),” “Sword Of Damocles (Externally),” “No Chance (Regret),”, “Warrior King (Revenge),” and “Power And Glory Part II (Magic Transformation).” Fast forward a few years and I was 21 years old, a struggling writer, and already in the depths of my abuse of alcohol. And then Jase moved to Boston, leaving me in Knoxville and feeling left behind.

I wasn’t alone in Tennessee, but I was lonely. I’ve always been one of those people that felt lonely in crowded rooms. I was definitely envious of Jase’s decision and I wanted to get out too, but there I was stuck and running low on, well, everything.

Then one night, Jase’s ex-girlfriend met me at one of my usual bars and handed me Jase’s cassette copy of Magic And Loss and I almost cried. That year had been really, really tough, too. I was homeless for a while, often broke, had just lost my best friend, and it was the beginning of a six-year dry spell where I was unable to write. Holding Magic And Loss at that moment was a spooky kind of thing. I’ve always been a bit overly emotional about music and more than a bit superstitious. That my friend, who I missed so much then, had a pretty girl deliver me an important and well-loved album of his in that bar, on that night, when I was feeling that bad… it felt important.

I still have that cassette, but I soon bought the CD version and wrapped myself in it. The down side to this was that in my emotional state I kept relating to the “Loss” side and absorbed very little of the “Magic.” Once I had moved to Boston myself and met my future wife, I had to put Magic And Loss away, because it just took too much out of me. From that night in the bar until the night I started dating my wife, I went through two dark years with Magic And Loss being the soundtrack. I wanted to shake off some of that darkness, so I quit listening to the album.

Lately, those songs have been returning to me from the depths of memory. Especially the words from “No Chance (Regrets)”—“and I didn’t get a chance to say good bye.” The night Jase died I was pissed off at him. He blew into town with no notice, set up camp at a former friend’s house, and texted me at 1:30 in the morning to come over and hang out. I’m not much of a rock and roll animal these days. I’m still a struggling writer, I have a job that sucks up 60 hours of my week, and I have a family. So I can’t just leave the house in the middle of the night to go drinking with the boys.

Jase, still a bachelor and still refusing to grow up, never understood who I’d become and was disappointed in me for saying no. He had health problems and was not supposed to be drinking and I wasn’t going to be around for that shit. That was a Saturday night. Monday morning he was dead from heart failure. And I didn’t get a chance to say good bye.

This year we’ve lost both Phil and Lemmy from Motorhead, Prince, and David Bowie, so Magic And Loss just seemed to be out there calling. Now though, and thankfully so, maybe from maturity or experience, I’m really feeling the “Magic” side of the album. Yes, the “Loss” is still there—the sadness, the regret—but that’s life and it provides balance, I suppose, because we lose so much, but we still have so much more.

And before you recoil in horror that I’m going down some Hallmark card bullshit path, have faith dear reader; you should know me better than that! What I mean is that we all have magic and weirdness and wonder at our fingertips. All that we can access, all we can explore. I think that’s what Lou was contemplating with Magic And Loss, particularly summed up with “Power And Glory Part II.”

I was visited by the power and the glory
I was visited by a majestic hymn
Great bolts of lightning lighting up the sky
electricity flowing through my veins

I was captured by a larger moment
I was seized by divinity’s hot breath
Gorged like a lion on experience
powerful from life

(I wanted all of it, all of it, all of it)
All of it
(Not just some of it, all of it, all of it)
All of it

I saw a man turn into a bird
I saw a bird turn into a tiger
I saw a man hang from a cliff by the tips of his toes
in the jungles of the Amazon

I saw a man put a red hot needle through his eye
turn into a crow and fly through the trees
Swallow hot coals and breathe out flames
and I wanted this to happen to me

(I wanted all of it, all of it, all of it)
All of it
(All of it, all of it, all of it)
Not some of it

We saw the moon vanish into his pocket
we saw the stars disappear from sight
We saw him walk across water into the sun
while bathed in eternal light

We spewed out questions waiting for answers
creating legends, religions and myths
Books, stories, movies and plays
all trying to explain this

(I wanted all of it, oh, all of it)
All of it
(All of it, oh, all of it)
Not some of it

I saw a great man turn into a little child
the cancer reduce him to dust
His voice growing weak as he fought for his life
with a bravery few men know

I saw isotopes introduced into his lungs
trying to stop the cancerous spread
And it made me think of “Leda And The Swan”
and gold being made from lead

The same power that burned Hiroshima
causing three legged babies and death
Shrunk to the size of a nickel
to help him regain his breath

And I was struck by the power and the glory
I was visited by a majestic Him
Great bolts of lightning lighting up the sky
as the radiation flowed through him

(I wanted all of it, not just some of it, all of it)
He wanted all of it
(All of it, all of it, all of it)
He wanted all of it, not some of it
(written by Lou Reed and Mike Rathke)

It occurred to me in the last few weeks, at the most inconvenient times, that I never let myself grieve the loss of my friend. Since the morning I got the phone call I haven’t stopped moving. And what I think happened, through no intention of mine, is that I’ve been propelling forward, staying ahead of the grief, staying too busy and pissed off to feel it. And now, sitting in a new house in a new state with all the pieces falling into place, I feel like I outran the “Loss” and I can embrace the “Magic.” This album has been good help and therapy with all the personal memories attached to it. That’s the power and the magic of music and why it’s so important to have a lot of it in your life.

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