Sad Song, When Tragedy Becomes Comedy

Today I was talking to my Dad on the phone about Dante’s Inferno.  Surprisingly we both found it funny.  This is a book where people’s souls are tortured in the most horrible ways imaginable for all eternity, often for no more than religious thought crimes or moments of passion.  The religious medieval mind was sure a strange one!  When things go that dark they, at some point, go through the looking glass and pass into the realm of absurdity, and then turn into comedy.

Lou Reed often makes me laugh in the same way, though I’m almost positive that he was in on the joke.  When he was asked about his album Berlin, which many deem the most depressing album of all time, he said he was just, “having fun.”  Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I can put that album on, or any number of his albums, and find myself instantly cheered up.  The final song on it, Sad Song, is the cosmic punchline to the album.  I was going to describe it, but I found this description on YouTube by Adam Pendleton, the first comment at the time of writing, and I really enjoyed it:

So this poem is about an abusive husband, than his wife kills herself. Even so, he doesn’t really care. He half-heartedly chants “sad song.” than shrugs and moves on. Even after she’s gone he thinks of her as “wasting my time.” and that he was wrong for thinking she ever looked beautiful. He justifies his abuse, “somebody else would have broke both her arms.” At least that’s what I got out of it.

As Mark Twain once said, “Humor is tragedy plus time.”

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The Common Good and Lesser Deities

One of my favorite towns on earth is Bend, Oregon.  I almost don’t want to admit this, because I am greedy and don’t want too many people to discover this place.  The way it is right now is perfect.  Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it is exactly the right size for a town.  It is big enough that things go on here, but small enough that it is built on a human scale.  You can walk to most places.  I have been here on tour about six times, give or take.  I have spent many hours walking the town and the trails just outside of it.  It never ceases to captivate me.
In Europe there are many cities that seem to be designed for actual people.  Even larger cities have adequate public transportation.  A city as large as Rome or Berlin can be crossed with ease, without even speaking the language.
I have an affinity for the people of Houston, Texas, but I doubt anyone from that town would say it is built on a livable scale.  Often you will see a fururistic skyscraper next to a taco shack.  There are no zoning laws.  There are great neighborhoods and great people, but without a car there, you would be doomed.
I wish we would spend more time in this country contemplating our communities and how they are designed.  I wish we would not be so attached to our cars.  Until you have spent time in a beautiful walkable town, or a city that has great public transportation, you really have no idea what you are missing.  Our quality of life could be so much higher.
When I worked my last day job in Austin I lived 12 miles from work.  It would take me an hour or more somedays to get home in rush hour traffic.  You would begin by taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Slowly but surely you would curse other lesser deities as well.  Eventually you would find swear words for the gods all the way back to antiquity.  No matter how easy your day was, you would get home broken and defeated after a commute like that.  A shell of a man.  As one of my friends stated, “How inefficient is that shit?!!!”
As I have stated before, the free market is great for many things.  It is just not good at doing things that are part of the common good.  Parks and other public spaces, good transportation, these things can make a community and not just a city.  Hopefully at some point we can have a smarter national conversation about these things.  If not, please forgive me in advance, if my middle finger makes itself known next time we are in rush hour.  I might be more animal than man by then.  My patience gone and out of gods to curse.

Lou Reed, Comedian

One of my favorite comedians is Lou Reed.  Seriously.  Some of you that know the man’s work will think I’m jesting.  Some will think I’m comparing his later solo work with the Velvet Underground and saying it’s comically bad.  Others will think I’m talking about his voice and saying the fact that he has about a two note range is funny.  However, as much as I like the Velvets, I listen to Lou’s solo output way more.  And I love almost all of his solo output.  Those of you that didn’t like The Raven, or Lulu, or Ecstasy, are missing out on some great stuff.  And despite his limitations as a vocalist, I think that it is a perfect instrument for conveying his truth.  I think he’s funny because I think his lyrics are often intentionally funny in the blackest of the black humor that they possess.

Lou’s remark on Berlin, what many consider to be one of the most depressing albums of all time, was, “We were just trying to have some fun.”  There’s a point where things get so dark that they pass through some kind of other dimension and come out the other end funny.  I remember seeing Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and feeling uncomfortable for part of it.  By the time people were dancing and catching human heads in baskets, it became so absurd that it was funny.  Again, the kind of comedy that I’m talking about is not laughing at something because it’s ridiculous or bad.  Apocalypto is one of my favorite films and I think that, behind its relentless action and nonstop entertainment, it has a serious theme.  I’m talking about the divine comedy.  I’m talking about the fact that a lot of what has been done and is being done on this planet is absurd.  We have believed in weird gods, have killed each other for pointless reasons, have worked jobs to which there was no meaning, and have followed senseless cultural practices.  If you pull back and look at things through a wide angle there is a space for comedy in all of this.

I think Lou Reed gets this.  On Berlin’s Sad Song he sings:

I’m gonna stop wasting my time
Somebody else would have broken both of her arms

When he sings this he is singing in his typical deadpan voice.  Behind him is an almost ecstatic symphony of music.  Glorious guitars and other instruments reach for the heavens.  Berlin is the tale of junkies and their downfall.  Lou sympathizes enough with them to make them human.  However, he also seems to grasp the cruel absurdity of their situation.  The combination of music and lyrics here create something that is inherently funny.  He isn’t making fun of them though.  He is laughing at a universe that has allowed such a situation to take place.

Another song that makes me laugh is Lou’s Fly Into the Sun, from one of his most underrated albums New Sensations.  In this he sings:

The earth is weeping, the sky is shaking
the stars split to their core
And every proton and unnamed neutron
is fusing in my bones
And an unnamed mammal is darkly rising
as man burns from his tomb
And I look at this as a blissful moment
to fly into the sun
Fly into the sun
fly into the sun
I’d burn up into a million pieces
and fly into the sun

On this song Lou Reed is singing about a nuclear holocaust.  However, his music is light and major key.  Lou is using over the top poetic language.  By combining that with the music he is creating a sense of high comedy.  The human race is simply ridiculous for ever allowing itself to create a world where we could wipe each other out with such ease.  He is making a point through humor without being didactic.

Anytime my soul feels dark and I need to cheer up, Lou Reed is never far away.  Lou’s writing touches upon every human emotion.  He does have songs that can break your heart and songs that are filled with a righteous fury.  However, a sense of humor is always lurking near.  Lou Reed is one of rock’s greatest comedians and truth seekers; defying the god’s and bringing fire back to man.