Rock songs usually address topics like sex, love, drugs, and rebellion. Rarely are they about mortality, and when they do address people’s deaths, they’re often dramatic, violent ones (think “Leader of the Pack” or “Creeping Death”). Rock is often the music of endless youth, and illness couldn’t be much further from its lyrical wheelhouse.
Lou Reed attracted notice for his songs about sexual behaviors and drug habits (“Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, and “The Kids”). What Reed sang about was (or still is) considered aberrant, even for the rock counterculture. Similarly, Reed’s unusually sharp political observations on his landmark 1989 comeback album, New York, went well beyond typical rock commentary on current events. But Reed most dramatically stepped off rock’s beaten path when he recorded an entire record about death by illness, Magic and Loss.
Reed sings about cancer killing one of his mentors, the legendary songwriter Doc Pomus. The album is also dedicated to “Rita”, whose identity Reed wouldn’t reveal. Some have guessed that “Rita” was Kenneth “Rotten Rita” Rapp of Andy Warhol’s entourage, whose death was rumored in 1991 (though he didn’t die until 2010). Others have said that “Rita” was Rachel Humphreys, Reed’s transgender partner, who died in 1991 of AIDS. Regardless of Rita’s identity, most of the lyrics on Magic and Loss point to Pomus.
The album begins with an unremarkable minute-long instrumental intro: “Dorita (The Spirit)”. Next is the lead single, “What’s Good (The Thesis)”. It’s a bit of a rehash of “Dirty Boulevard” and “Sweet Jane”, but it’s catchy nonetheless. Faced with death, Reed reports that life is full of absurd contradictions: “forever becoming” but “forever dealing in hurt”, great and difficult in just about equal measure. Life’s good, but it feels like it’s not when there’s so much pain, everything that makes it “not fair at all”. For Reed, it’s especially unfair that those who yearn for life end up dying while others take their lives for granted: “You loved a life others throw away nightly.” The instrumental interludes between the verses — filled with ringing, sustained guitar lines that float over the song’s signature riff — carry the music forward to its crescendo, a coda powered by drummer Michael Blair’s sparkling cymbal work and background vocalists singing its title.
In “Power and Glory (The Situation)”, Reed yearns for a force outside himself to help him (and Pomus) overcome death. The song is graced by show-stopping vocals from Jimmy Scott, whom Reed heard sing at Pomus’s funeral. Scott articulates Reed’s wish to evade life’s limitations: “I want all of it, not just some of it.” Reed imagines various forms of power: veins flowing with electricity, the ability to turn into an animal, walking on water, alchemy, and even sex with a deity. However, the problem with great power is that all too often, it’s double-edged, able to save but also to kill. Radiation “burned Hiroshima, causing three-legged babies and death”, but “shrunk to the size of a nickel”, it can help Pomus “regain his breath”. In the verses, Reed and Mike Rathke play pensive, intertwining riffs on their guitars, like two friends engaged in a serious conversation, before coming together for the choruses to support Scott’s vocals.
As Reed voices the thoughts of the dying, the desire for life is expressed even more poignantly in “Magician (Internally)”, one of the most heartbreaking songs on a heartbreaking record. Reed and Rathke slow their playing as Rob Wasserman subtly slides up and down the neck of his bass in the background. Though Reed claims not to be a “believer” and says he needs “more than faith”, he admits that he wants to “believe in miracles” and begs for “some magic” to take him from the storm of illness to a safe place. He expresses hate for his “painful body”, explaining that inside, he’s “young and vital”, with “so many things” left to do. It’s rare to hear the fear of death — and the end of consciousness — articulated this directly in any piece of art, let alone a rock song: “I want a miracle, I don’t want to die / I’m afraid that if I go to sleep, I’ll never wake, I’ll no longer exist / I’ll close my eyes and disappear and float into the mist.”
“Magician” sounds even more doleful than “Power and Glory”. A single guitar line and Wasserman’s bass provide skeletal backup for Reed’s vocals, with a second guitar providing minimal, bluesy accents and a brief solo.
“The Sword of Damocles (Externally)” expands on Reed’s “Power and Glory” observations about the double-edged power of radiation. The song’s title refers to a Greek tale highlighting the precariousness of wielding power. Reed points out that “radiation kills both bad and good”, so to “cure” those dying of cancer, the doctors must kill them. As he did on “Magician”, Reed toys with the idea of faith, wondering whether “there’s something over there, some other world that we don’t know about”, but reports that his dying friend hates “that mystic shit”. He admits he has seen “lots of people die from car crashes or drugs”, but that it wasn’t like the “drawn-out torture” of watching a cancer victim die, which is “very hard to take”. He also shares that he and others “on the street”, like the terminally ill, use a “mix of morphine and Dexedrine” to deal with their pain. The upbeat instrumental track matches an insistently rhythmic, brightly strummed three-chord guitar sequence with the catchy motif Rathke plays on his synthesizer. With Blair pounding out a Phil Spectoresque beat and Rathke’s synth mimicking a string section, this song on the album sounds most like Pomus’s work; he wrote “This Magic Moment”, among other classics.
By the time “Goodby Mass (In a Chapel Bodily Termination)” arrives, Pomus has passed, and Reed is sitting at his funeral. Here, Reed is clearly uncomfortable, which he expresses by complaining about the hard chairs and how difficult it is to hear. He imagines Pomus would have been uncomfortable, too: “I don’t think you’d have liked it, you would have made a joke / You would have made it easier, you’d say, “Tomorrow, I’m smoke.”
Like “Magician”, “Goodby Mass” is downtempo and melancholic. Thanks to a whammy bar guitar part and Blair’s wobbly, dragging beat, the instrumental breaks echo shoegaze, a new genre when Reed and his band made this album. Those woozy sounds convey just how disoriented Reed felt at Pomus’s funeral.
“Cremation (Ashes to Ashes)” describes the next phase in the process, as Pomus’s ashes are scattered in the Atlantic. Reed acknowledges that he’s in store for the same fate — that the sea is waiting for his ashes, too. Unlike him and Pomus, the sea is forever and always remains the same. Supported by a gentle guitar line and tranquil strumming, Reed here seems to experience some measure of peace.
If the line “I can smell your perfume” is any indication, “Dreamin’ (Escape)” is one song on Magic and Loss that’s clearly about “Rita”, not Pomus. In this track, Reed is in denial (“I can’t believe that I’m here without you”) as he closes his eyes and dreams that “Rita” is still with him. Her death sounds just as painful as Pomus’. “You sat in your chair with a tube in your arm / You were so skinny,” Reed sings. “They say in the end, the pain was so bad that you were screaming.” These gut-wrenching lyrics don’t match the song’s calm, ethereal soundscape, which features a quietly plucked guitar line, soft bass accents, and sustained synth washes.
“No Chance (Regret)” expresses Reed’s remorse at not calling in time to say goodbye to Pomus, and he compares himself unfavorably to his dying friend: “I’m embarrassed by the strength I seem to lack /
If I was in your shoes / So strange that I’m not / I’d fold up in a minute and a half.” Musically, this mid-tempo track bridges the gap between the four downtempo songs leading up to it and the following number, a full-on rocker.
Returning to the themes explored in “Power and Glory”, “Warrior King (Revenge)” describes a king (or deity) who is benign and kind but inscrutable and potentially murderous. This king is like life, as described in “What’s Good”: a mix of good and bad. He has a “rage instilling fear”, but at the same time, he’s “fair and good”. As the king, Reed promises “a steak on every plate” and “a car for every house” but warns, “If you ever crossed me, I’d have your eyes put out.” He also threatens to crush you “like a bug”, “break your neck”, “rip out your vicious tongue”, “snap your leg like a twig”, and “squash you like some slug”. This king resembles some people’s impression of the deity described in the Torah; the God Reed would have heard about growing up in a Jewish household. Though it’s built on a simple two-chord progression, “Warrior King” allows the band to let loose. It’s a hard-driving, exciting mix of sustained, distorted guitar chords, rapidly picked riffs, and Blair’s monster fills.
Bringing the tempo back down, “Harry’s Circumcision (Reverie Gone Astray)” returns to the musical territory of “Magician”, “Goodby Mass”, and “Dreamin'”. Focused on neither Pomus nor “Rita”, the song is a tangent but a meaningful one. It’s about Lincoln Swados, Reed’s college roommate, who suffered from schizophrenia. In this track, Swados is so pained about resembling his parents that he takes a knife to himself. Swados feels only “disappointment”. He brings to mind Reed’s description of people who throw their lives away for no good reason.
Again in denial, Reed shares in “Gassed and Stoked (Loss)” how he continues to dial Pomus’s number, though it’s unsurprisingly now disconnected. He takes some comfort from the loss of Pomus and others in that his dead friends are “melting into one great spirit, and that spirit isn’t dead”. He praises Pomus for always being “gassed, stoked, and rarin’ to go” and says there’s “not a day goes by, not an hour” when he doesn’t “try to be” like Pomus. “Power and Glory, Part II (Magic Transformation)” has the same words as the first version of the song, though the instrumentation is much different. “Gassed and Stoked” and “Power and Glory, Part II” come off as failed attempts at metal. Reed wants to rock hard here, but these songs really don’t.
However, Reed and the band recover quickly, bringing Magic and Loss to a stirring conclusion with “Magic and Loss (Summation)”. This is the most melodically compelling song on the record, thanks to Rathke’s inventive synth lines. Some of what Reed is saying is familiar from elsewhere — “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out” — but some of it is new. The lyrics point to a belief in reincarnation, an emotional rebirth following the death of someone close to you, or possibly both. Reed sings about starting “from zero over and over again”, about death not as a “wall” but as a “door”. He shares observations of all one must let go of in the fire of death, whether it’s your own or someone else’s: self-doubt, arrogance, hurt, caustic dread, and self-deprecation. Most profound is the realization that he still yearns for the unlimited power described in “Warrior King” but knows he can’t have it:
They say no one person can do it all, but you want to in your head“Warrior King”
But you can’t be Shakespeare, and you can’t be Joyce, so what is left instead?
You’re stuck with yourself and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again, and just this moment, this wonderful fire started up again
Looking back more than 30 years, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to think about Magic and Loss being prescient. Was Reed, watching Pomus and “Rita” die, somehow preparing for what he (and those close to him) would someday experience? Reed did end up dying of cancer in 2013 after his body swiftly rejected a liver transplant.
Sadly, artists generally haven’t picked up the baton from Magic and Loss in the intervening years. There are just a few notable exceptions: Billie Joe Armstrong shared about the loss of his father to cancer (Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends”), and David Bowie, Reed’s old friend and collaborator, sang about his impending death from the disease (“Blackstar”). We can only hope that there will be more rock songs about illness and death in the future, as they’re obviously such an essential part of our lives.