25 Years Ago: Lou Reed Mourns Friends on ‘Magic and Loss’
Lou Reed had been in mourning for the past few years – at least when it came to his albums. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the middle-aged rocker had delivered an epitaph for the Big Apple (New York) and a tribute to the late Andy Warhol (Songs for Drella), created in collaboration with his old Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale.
When he began work on his 16th studio album in 1991, Reed didn’t plan on continuing to sift his music through a black veil. But life – or, perhaps, death – had other plans.
“I was originally going to write an album about magic … the desire for magic in life … the magic of transformation … the idea of a man turning into a bird,” Reed told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “But my two friends died during this time and I wrote ‘What’s Good’ and that started the other songs, not necessarily in order you find them on the album. It was painful to write, but it was obvious what it was about. All I had to do was look at that line, ‘What good is cancer in April,’ and I knew.”
So the songwriter combined the two themes on Magic and Loss, eventually discovering a balance between the enchanting wonders of life and the fragile mortality of human beings. Or, as Reed intones on the final, title track, “There’s a bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out.”
Reed suggests loss in the lyrics of these dozen songs via hospital visits, tubes in arms and defunct phone numbers. The newly christened elder statesman draws on his familiar deadpan poetry to grieve for his friends: legendary songwriter Doc Pomus and Warhol “Factory” pal Rotten Rita. The music on Magic and Loss is often as unadorned as Reed’s delivery, riding chugging guitars and simple percussion, with a hint of magic to be found in bendy bass turns and the occasional, ragged freakout.
“I just hope it doesn’t start getting thought of as this terrible down death album, because that’s not at all what I mean by it,” the rock legend said to the Chicago Tribune. “I think of it as a really positive album, because the loss is transformed magically into something else. The way these two people face these things. They were giants throughout their lives and they were giants in these situations also, and a lot can be learned from them. I was very lucky to know them through all of it.”
Despite its perception as a difficult album, Magic and Loss became one of Reed’s most successful albums after it was released on Jan. 14, 1992. Greeted with warm, even effusive, reviews from many rock writers, the record became his highest-charting U.K. LP (No. 6) and boasted the U.S. No. 1 Modern Rock Tracks single “What’s Good.” The praise and success shocked Reed.
“Astonished would cover it. It’s very strange,” he told Neil Gaiman after the album came out. “In a sense it’s my dream album, because everything finally came together to where the album is finally fully realized. I got it to do what I wanted it to do, but commercial thoughts never entered into it, so I’m just stunned.”
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