I want to tell you about Lou Reed by telling you what it’s like to step into one of his songs.
One album you don’t hear talked about much is 1992’s Magic and Loss. From what I remember, he wrote it after losing two people close to him. I was spending a week in rural Missouri with my wife and her mom Liz and her stepdad John. I can’t remember if John put on the album or I did, but a song named “Cremation” grabbed me, and I started listening to it obsessively, then went upstairs with it, grabbed one of John’s many guitars, and set to learning it.
Like most of Dylan’s great songs, somehow it keeps you engaged all the way through without a bridge.
The refrain takes on the biggest of metaphors right off the bat: the sea. The infinite, beautiful void that takes in whatever you will give, never to give it back. “Well, the coal black sea waits for me me me,” Reed sings at the top of the first and last verse. “The coal black sea waits forever.”
The lyrics, an elegy, manage to paint a vivid character mostly by talking about the dead person’s ashes: “Will your ashes float like some foreign boat/or will they sink absorbed forever/will the Atlantic Coast/have its final boast/nothing else contained you ever.”
He finds the mercy in death, saying now that his friend has been cremated (in typical blunt style, Reed puts it like this: “Since they burnt you up, collect you in a cup”), all the suffering is over: “for you the coal black sea has no terror.”
Musically, “Cremation” is just three chords and a little ascending run of notes on the guitar. So–unless you’re the kind of singer or performer who can deliver those few things in a meaningful way…why bother?
I bothered anyway, realizing as I practiced it that it felt more right each time I played it again. Back in Baltimore, I had just joined a country band called Oella. I’d arrange it for them.
First–I had to add a bridge. I wasn’t going to bring anyone into the space into which Reed had drawn me simply by playing his chords and singing his lyrics. And I hoped each band member’s personality would come through in their parts, adding up to something new. As for me, I’d play that guitar run, think about the lyrics while singing my ass off, and play those chords as hard as I could.
It worked. Our ringer guitarist added an intricate flatpicked acoustic arrangement. Our other guitarist, a wildcard with an experimental bent, grabbed a Stratocaster and scratched out a spare, noisy, reverb-drenched part. Our drummer–also a wildcard with an experimental bent–started the song by playing a two-step on his lap with his hands. Our bass player, a worshipper of country music, played it straight and held it all together.
Once my friends had made me comfortable with our version of the song, it became my favorite song to perform–maybe ever. Reed had written a song, it turns out, that was way bigger than his arrangement for it. The arrangement was incidental. Like he did with the Velvet Underground and throughout his whole career, he carved out little slices of human experience and character, and showed them to us. Each slice could sound like anything–it was an important thing before you could hear it, before it was a “song.”
And so I grew to feel that Lou Reed had written “Cremation” just for me. When we played it, I always paused and felt like I had to carefully step into it. I could hear the tornadoes and hurricanes he sang about, and I could understand them Reed’s way: as seemingly powerful but ultimately ephemeral and nothing compared to the reliable, eternal presence of the sea.
I could picture a final end to suffering. I thought maybe if I embraced life, the people who loved me would be able to look at my ashes and remember a person. I could see the sea in front of me–not wine-dark, but coal-black–and I knew what it meant.
At the end of the song, Reed leaves himself a little wiggle room. He sings, “When I leave this joint at some further point,” as if he couldn’t bear to think about at what exact point, and then, inquisitively, “the same coal black sea–will it be waiting?” After characterizing this sea as the most constant, obvious, powerful thing, suddenly he leaves open the possibility that it won’t be there when he checks out.
Lou Reed, whose every move seemed to invite oblivion, perhaps couldn’t really face it. In other words, maybe he was just like us.
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