As I said yesterday, in honor of Lou Reed, every day this week I am going to pick a set of his lyrics and write a piece on them. Today I picked the lyrics Bottoming Out from his excellent Legendary Hearts album:
I’m cruising fast on a motorcycle
Down this winding country road
And I pass the gravel on the foot of the hill
Where last week I fell off
There’s still some oil by the old elm tree
And a dead squirrel that I hit
But if I hadn’t left, I would have struck you dead
So I took a ride instead
My doctor says, she hopes I know
How lucky I can be
After all it wasn’t my blood
Mixed in the dirt that night
But this violent rage, turned inward
Can not be helped by drink
And we must really examine this and I say
I need another drink
I’m tearing down route 80 east
The sun’s on my right side
I’m drunk, but my vision’s good
And I think of my child bride
And on the left in shadows
I see something that makes me laugh
I aim that bike at the fat pothole
Beyond that underpass
The thing that often gets overlooked by the casual Lou Reed listener is how absolutely drop dead funny he could be. In reading these lyrics one might not think of humor their first interpretation. Lyrics, unlike poetry, are only half the story. How they interact with the music and the delivery of the singer can change their meaning. This song to brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. I find this song to be full of the blackest humor. Lou Reed understood the divine comedy of life.
For those of you that don’t think Lou Reed had a sense of humor, when he released Berlin, what many consider to be the most depressing album of all time, he said he was, “just having fun”. The thing about Lou Reed was that he played everything straight. Some songwriters write songs that are silly, they wear their humor on their sleeves. Also the way they sing something might express joy and humor in their delivery. Lou Reed kept everything real close to his breast. I actually believe this is one of his greatest strengths as a singer. Many people say that Lou can’t sing. In a technical sense, they could often be right. However, when it comes to conveying something through song, for making the stories of his lyrics come alive, he was one of the very best singers. Try to sing the above song and make it come across the way he did. Even if you are a great singer, I bet you can’t do it. His voice was the perfect instrument for conveying his truth.
The music to this song is upbeat. It’s a rock n roll pop song. He purposely chose in arranging this song to put these “dark” lyrics to music that was the opposite. I believe there is some clue there in his intention.
Soldiers in war often express “gallows humor”. They make jokes about completely inappropriate things, even death, to keep sane in the face of madness. I believe that Lou was often doing something similar. You know the old saying: If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
When you watch a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm it is full of humor based on the problems of human behavior. The situations Larry David finds himself in are extreme, but we can often relate to them in some way. He often says the things that we are thinking, but can’t say.
Everyone has had a bad day. This song is a bad day taken to the extreme. In taking a normal situation that everyone has dealt with and painting an extreme version of it, Lou is creating a situation where absurdity arises. There is a famous quote that is, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I would add distance to that equation. Lou Reed, by presenting us with distance to the above situation, through the distance of artistic perspective, allows us to see the humor and absurdity of the narrator’s situation. It doesn’t hurt that again he has put these words to a bouncy little tune that helps highlight this.
Whenever I am having a bad day I put this song on and my spirits can’t help but brighten. It is in particular some of the darkest lines that I find the funniest given the context of the song. It is the way he sings bottoming out with almost no emotion. Maybe I just have a strange sense of humor!
But I don’t think that is totally the case. I’m sure many of you have had a day that has gone from one bad thing to another. All of a sudden it reaches a point of such horrible ridiculousness that you find yourself laughing. Whatever that emotion is, that part of the human spirit that allows us to laugh when things go wrong, Lou Reed must have instinctually understood. He turned it into a song. It’s easy to write a song that is just sad or just happy. But try to write something that conveys those kinds of emotions that are in between, that you feel, but can’t quite describe. Lou made a whole career out of it. He was a poet and an artist. He was also a funny motherfucker.
This is technically going up a little early. But what the hell, it’s after midnight on the east coast.