Magician, by Lou Reed

“Between two Aprils I lost two friends/Between two Aprils magic and loss…”.

magic-and-loss-inner

Lou Reed wrote this inscription in the liner notes for Magic and Loss, the album he released in January of 1992. One of these friends was the legendary song writer Doc Pomus, who died from lung cancer in 1991. Pomus, who contracted Polio as a child in the 1930s, started his career as a blues singer and released a number of songs in the 40s and early 50s. You can only imagine the sight of a white Jewish singer on crutches singing in blues joints. He started to write songs for artists on the then-young Atlantic label, including Big Joe Turner and Laverne Baker. Collaborating with pianist Mort Shuman, they became one of the legendary duos of the Brill Building hit machine. Writing 12 songs a week, they generated hits by sheer volume of output. Some of these hits are classics now: “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and many more.

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Doc Pomus, 1947

In Later years Pomus became a teacher and mentor for younger songwriters. He was known for his generosity and big heart. Jerry Wexler, who knew Pomus from the early days of Atlantic records said of him: “If the music industry had a heart, it would be Doc Pomus.” Lou Reed, who lived a few blocks away from Pomus, struck a friendship with him and used to come over to talk about music and life in general. In 1991 Reed had plans for a record that will feature songs about magic, but during work on the record Pomus was diagnosed with lung cancer and Reed experienced the painful and slow death of his friend. He later said : “I grew up listening to so many songs written by Doc Pomus, so it was a pleasure to know him.  He was a great spirit. Doc died from cancer. I was interested in some kind of magic, some kind of transcendence, that would take one away from everything. And I wrote Magic and Loss because here had been loss to temper any magic, and  there didn’t seem to be anything that I knew of that helped you with this particular subject matter.”

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Magic and Loss booklet

Magician, a song that Lou Reed wrote during that period, is one of the most chilling songs I know. In it Reed not only experiences the death of a friend, he becomes one with the friend and tells the experience from a dying persons’s harrowing view:

I want to count to five

turn around and find myself gone

Fly me through the storm

and wake up in the calm

Reed kept referring to magic in various songs on the album. During his painful experienced that year, the concept had transformed from the pure act of magic to a transcendent power that can lift your soul away from a decaying body:

I want some magic to sweep me away

Visit on this starlit night

replace the stars the moon the light – the sun’s gone

Fly me through this storm

and wake up in the calm …

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Magic and Loss, Magician lyrics

Even for a writer like Lou Reed, who never shied away from dealing with difficult topics in his songs throughout his career, the subject matter on this album caused him to think twice before releasing it: “I thought, maybe his one you should keep to yourself. You know, fine you got it out of your system, you wrote it, now put it away. No one wants to hear this. Go on to something else. but it was, NO WAY. I was possessed.”

Musically the album takes a minimalist approach. The arrangements, instrumentation and production are down to the bare essentials: “I’m always trying to get the gist of it without an extra word. That’s the way the guys played, too. It was all about taking stuff out. Less really is more, I truly believe that.” On Magician you hear Reed’s rhythm guitar, hints of guitar leads played by Mike Rathke and a wonderful accompaniment on bass by Rob Wasserman.

I recommend listening to the whole album. It is a painful listening experience, and while some listeners may find it too depressing, I see in it a healing quality, knowing the songs were written from a place of compassion.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these:

Sebastian, by Cockney Rebel

When I Go, by Minimal Compact

Sea Song, by Robert Wyatt


Magician Magician take me upon your wings

and … gently roll the clouds away

I’m sorry so sorry I have no incantations

only words to help sweep me away

 

I want some magic to sweep me away

I want some magic to sweep me away

I want to count to five

turn around and find myself gone

Fly me through the storm

and wake up in the calm

 

Release me from the body

from this bulk that moves beside me

Let me leave this body far away

I’m sick of looking at me

I hate this painful body

that disease has slowly worm away

 

Magician take my spirit

inside I’m young and vital

Inside I’m alive please take me away

So many things to do – it’s too early

For my life to be ending

For this body to simply rot away

 

I want some magic to keep me alive

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

 

Somebody … please hear me

my hand can’t hold a cup of coffee

My fingers are weak – things just fall away

Inside I’m young and pretty

Too many things unfinished

My very breath taken away

 

Doctor you’re no magician – and I am no believer

I need more than faith … can give me now

I want to believe in miracles – not just belief in numbers

I need some magic to take me away

 

I want some magic to sweep me away

Visit on this starlit night

replace the stars the moon the light – the sun’s gone

Fly me through this storm

and wake up in the calm …

I fly right through this storm

and … I … Wake … Up … In … The … Calm

 

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