Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Pale Blue Eyes -- the Lou Reed song that rips my heart out

OK. Lou Reed is dead.

As amazing as it is that he even lived to 71 given his serious substance abuse (in the early 70s, the press was basically just waiting for the guy to die, believing it was just a matter of time), I actually find it really unsettling to realise I now live in world without Lou Reed in it.

I am not going to try any profound analysis of Lou Reed's career and his vast body of work. Others far better equipped have had their crack at it.

I am not gonna talk about the raw rock'n'roll perfection of "I'm Waitin' For The Man" or the pop perfection of "Perfect Day", which starts so superficially pleasant and ends in such despair. I'll just simply note my personal favourite Lou Reed song -- one he recorded with the Velvet Underground, "Pale Blue Eyes".




'Thought of you as everything I've had but couldn't keep... I've had but couldn't keep.'


It is, put simply, one of the most heartbreaking songs I know of -- to such an extent it reminds me of the best Tom Waits' heartbreaking ballads. And, as anyone who knows me will attest, that is pretty the highest compliment I could pay.

And I find it heartbreaking for similar reasons -- like a great Tom Waits’ ballad, it is not polished or even close to "perfectly" sung. The song is dragged through the dirt. It is the sound of someone falling down and trying to get back up. Lou Reed's vocal sounds just like a man having his heart torn out... and trying to keep on going.

The music is downbeat, basic and repetitive. It provides an almost haunting background over which Lou Reed sings, in a shaky voice that threatens to collapse under the weight of the pain, the story of his love for a married woman (Wikipedia claims the song was about Reeds' first love, who was married to another man). This is a stylistic trick Canadian band The Cowboy Junkies later used to great effect.

The song is raw. Lou Reed's vocal is utterly fragile, he sounds at every moment like the emotion will overwhelm him and he'll break down. Yet he pulls himself together -- just.

Each line is delivered with repressed emotion. But by the end, when he sings to the woman he loves, but cannot love, "But it's truly, truly a sin", the suppressed emotion in that highly conflicted line nearly bursts through to drown the song.

But it doesn't. You can feel the dam cracking. It comes so close to splitting wide open. But somehow it holds. And this near-unbearable tension makes the song even more heart-wrenching.

This is a personal favourite -- one that rips my heart out each time I hear it. But the skills as a songwriter and singer Reed employs here are found throughout his career.

Lou Reed was truly one of the giants, and the fact he no longer walks among us is still more confusing to me than painful. I can't comprehend it. Lou Reed has always been alive. He has just always been around. I guess getting older is as much about confronting the mortality of others, even those who seem immortal, as it is confronting your own.


Pale Blue Eyes

Sometimes I feel so happy,
Sometimes I feel so sad.
Sometimes I feel so happy,
But mostly you just make me mad.
Baby, you just make me mad.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

Thought of you as my mountain top,
Thought of you as my peak.
Thought of you as everything,
I've had but couldn't keep.
I've had but couldn't keep.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see,
I'd put you in the mirror,
I put in front of me.
I put in front of me.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

Skip a life completely.
Stuff it in a cup.
She said, 'Money is like us in time,
It lies, but can't stand up.
Down for you is up.'
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

It was good what we did yesterday.
And I'd do it once again.
The fact that you are married,
Only proves, you're my best friend.
But it's truly, truly a sin.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.
Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

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