The late singer of the Velvet Underground grieves on the album “Magic and Loss”
Lou Reed’s signature lyrical style – a mixture of stark realism with dreamy symbolism – is why fans consider him as much a poet as a songwriter. It also happens to be a moving and effective way that many of us process grief, as Reed does on his 1992 concept album “Magic and Loss.”
The song “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes)” deals with one of the most popular methods of disposition: cremation, and specifically the experience of scattering the ashes of a loved one at sea. Reed sings, “The coal black sea waits forever,” a reprise that is both mysterious and comforting. It suggests the sea as a metaphor for what happens after death: perhaps nothingness, perhaps an afterlife, or perhaps simply the unknown.
Reed wrote the album “Magic and Loss” in the aftermath of losing two of the most important people in his life in 1991: Blues songwriter and mentor Doc Pomus, and Warhol superstar and close friend Rotten Rita. Most of the album, including the song “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes),” specifically references Pomus, who died of cancer.
Despite being a very beautiful and poignant track, there is something refreshing about how Reed describes cremation so explicitly. The line, “Since they burnt you up / Collect you in a cup” says it all right there – and there is a sort of juxtaposition throughout the song of the absurd mundanity of our loved ones dying, which we experience alongside all the profound emotions, the sorrow of losing them and the beauty to be found in remembering them.
Reed ends the song by shifting from the loss of his friend to reflecting on his own mortality, singing:
Now the coal black sea waits for me, me, me
The coal black sea waits forever
When I leave this joint
At some further point
The same coal black sea will it be waiting…
If this song speaks to you, you might be interested in checking out the rest of “Magic and Loss,” particularly the song “Dreamin’ (Escape),” which (for transparency) includes realistic portrayals of people losing their life to cancer, and also describes the experience of being able to viscerally recall the sight, sound and smell of our loved ones after they have died.
“Magic and Loss” is a record that slowly unfolds, with introspective and nonlinear meditations on grief, the fragility of life and mortality. Ultimately, Reed offers something seemingly simple, but which is a struggle to find: songs that facilitate us thoroughly feeling the reality, gravity and complexity of losing a loved one.