Looking Back at Lou Reed’s Blue Period

It’s just a cultural quirk that Lou Reed’s “official” photographer, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is also Monica Lewinsky’s authorized shutterbug, a grouping no crazier then Mr. Reed performing at the White House last year when the intern-on-her-knees scandal was in full swing. What song did he play for Bill and Hillary, “Walk on the Wild Side”? How Mr. Reed must have identified with Bubba, both men the same age, both “growing up in public,” to quote one of his songs. And both afflicted with journalists writing about their private lives.

Last year, Mr. Greenfield-Sanders tried to rectify Mr. Reed’s public history by making the PBS American Masters videography, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, much of which was pure whitewash. I could go on and on, being something of a Lou Reed fetishist, but I’ll focus instead on one pertinent aspect of Mr. Reed’s domestic history that Mr. Greenfield-Sanders ignored because it leads to one of the most astonishing works Mr. Reed ever committed to tape, his 1982 album The Blue Mask, which RCA had never made available on CD in the United States until now.

In 1980, Mr. Reed, former leader of the Velvet Underground, quietly married Sylvia Morales, an alleged stripper and part-time dominatrix. Lou and Sylvia seem like old history since, for most of the 1990’s, he and musician-cum-conceptual artist Laurie Anderson have been as inseparable as John and Yoko. But back in the 1980’s, Sylvia was the Yoko in Mr. Reed’s life and he proclaimed his undying love to her over the course of several albums.

The Blue Mask, Mr. Reed’s warped vision of Dagwood ‘n’ Blondie married life, is arguably a masterpiece, but be forewarned: This album is an acquired taste. It contains some harrowing moments, although nothing as bad as that god-awful song with the crying baby on Berlin (reissued last year). In fact, the only time Mr. Reed has sounded as fine is on his 1989 album New York. But back then, Mr. Reed’s band could straighten your teeth. The Blue Mask was his first album with Fernando Saunders, the man responsible for that fat bass vibe. And Robert Quine, the Voidoids’ old guitarist, duoed and dueled with Mr. Reed on guitar-both men ultra-eloquent even when one let loose with a traumatic wail.

The songs on the album can be categorized three ways. The first are autobiographical numbers. In “My House,” Lou and Sylvia contact Mr. Reed’s dead mentor, the writer Delmore Schwartz, via a Ouija board. In another, Lou praises his wife’s “heavenly arms,” singing her name over and over, “Syl-vee-ahh, Syl-vee-ahh …”; in “The Day John Kennedy Died,” he remembers being a college boy up in Syracuse, N.Y., the day the President was shot.

Those songs are fine, though Lou’s life could seem overbearing if it weren’t for the album’s pair of novelty songs, “Women” and “Average Guy.” In his recent autobiography, What’s Welsh for Zen? (available only in England, for now), Mr. Reed’s old V.U. bandmate John Cale brings up the singer’s peculiar sense of humor and delivery. “People laugh at Lou a lot,” Mr. Cale writes. “But the thing is, Lou doesn’t know when he’s funny. He can be absolutely hysterical and have you rolling on the floor grasping your stomach, begging him to stop, and he still doesn’t know what’s going on.” Mr. Cale adds, “I like the quality. The point is, I don’t think that Lou would like it if you told him.”

That may be true, but surely Mr. Reed knew what a hoot both “Women” and “Average Guy” would be. In the vinyl days, Side 2 of the album opened with Mr. Reed proclaiming he was just “an average guy,” as if the singer who had only recently shed his bondage look, not to mention his narcotic habits, was really just another Merle Haggard. A few songs before this, Mr. Reed insists, “I love … women.” Back in ’82, Mr. Reed appeared unsure about how this heterosexuality business was conducted. He wanted to make love to Sylvia surrounded by singing castrati. Eunuchs have always got me going, how about you?

To say the final group of songs are dark is like saying Charles Manson is troubled. Mr. Reed sings about being drunk and covered with bruises (“Underneath the Bottle”) or being so panicked that blood is dripping from his nose and he can barely breathe (“Waves of Fear”). Then there’s the castration song, “The Blue Mask”: “Cut the stallion at his mount/ And stuff it in his mouth.” (Eunuchs again.) As the butchery progresses, the guitars rage, sounding as if they’re performing the castration. Mr. Reed also sings a solo ditty, a kind of narrative silent movie about a lone woman piloting a ship that’s being ripped apart by a typhoon. The song is called “The Heroine,” a word whose pronunciation echoes the Velvet Underground classic “Heroin,” but in this case, as Mr. Reed noted in his own book, Between Thought and Expression: Selected Lyrics of Lou Reed , the song is about “Jackie Kennedy trying to crawl her way out of that car.”

Finally, there’s “The Gun.” “The man has a gun/ He knows how to use it,” Mr. Reed intones, he’s packing a 9-millimeter Browning, “let’s see what he can do …” Then the song switches to the gunman’s persona. “Get over there/ Move slowly/ I’ll put a hole in your face/ If you even breathe a word.” Then Mr. Reed is telling a “lady” to lie down. He wants her husband to be sure to see what he’s going to do. Just when you think the song is too evil to continue, Mr. Reed pulls back, becoming a third-party witness standing in judgment. The gunman is a “dirty animal … Don’t touch him/ Stay away from him/ He’s got a gun.”

They say Goya is a great artist, but no one wants to live with one of his battlefield mutilation paintings hanging over the fireplace. Why on earth put Lou Reed’s horrors in your ears? For the same reason you listen to Velvet-era gems like “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “European Son.” They are deliciously foul pleasures. Besides, The Blue Mask‘s song order balances horror with autobiographic sensitivity; Mr. Reed’s unique combination of those two states will haunt you long after you turn your stereo off. As a cultural artifact for adults, the album is equal to Leonard Cohen’s dark-night-of-the-soul masterpiece from 1971, Songs of Love and Hate. No one forgets that album’s collection of lyrical songs (“Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Joan of Arc”), or its monstrous ones-the hunchback song (“Avalanche”), the song about Santa Claus slitting your wrists (“Dress Rehearsal Rag”). Of course, Mr. Cohen has never been portrayed in biographies as a spiritual hunchback, like Lou. But even if every dreadful Lou Reed story is true, the fact is the man has found a way to turn poison into art. Seventeen years on, The Blue Mask remains unsurpassed as a brilliant, howling bit of entertainment and madness. If Mr. Reed ever weds Laurie Anderson, who knows what stark yet breathtaking glimpses of domestic bliss he’ll unleash on our ears.