Magic and Loss

How’s this for a strange association? While marveling at Lou Reed’s performance Wednesday night, I kept thinking of Michel Subor. In Claire Denis’s L’Intrus, Subor plays Louis Trebor, a mysterious man nearing 70 whose carefully managed life is undone by a heart attack. Denis often films Subor and the other actors in close-up, emphasizing the peculiar character of their faces — the deep lines and moles and varieties of complexion. When Trebor visits a masseuse soon after his heart transplant, Denis lingers on the deep scar running down the middle of his chest. His face winces as the small woman’s fingers kneed on his scarred skin.

I went to the Lou Reed concert mostly out of curiosity and with no particular expectations. I certainly wasn’t expecting such a stellar band — featuring Rob Wasserman, Kevin Hearn, Tony Smith, and Steve Hunter — or such an affecting experience. Lou and the band ticked through the same twelve songs they’ve played every night on this tour, which meant there was little chance of spontaneity or surprise, but the setlist was tight and had a slow-burning power. (“Slow-burning power”? Really? This is why I don’t write about music.)

Back to the strange association . . .

The fourth song of the set was a 14-minute version of “Ecstasy” that completely transformed the atmosphere in the room. It begins with a drone-like prelude before settling comfortably into a shuffling verse. Lou’s minimalist guitar solo opens things up a bit — God, I love his guitar tone — and then things temporarily explode into a fit of percussion. The part that really got to me, though, was the final verse:

I feel like that car that I saw today, no radio, no engine, no hood
You know, I’m going to that cafe
I hope they got music, I hope those guys can play
But if we have to part, I’ll have a new scar right here, right over my heart
Any you know what I’ll call it? I’ll call it ecstasy.

As he sang, he dragged a line with one finger over his chest and introduced a new idea — or a new sense — to the show. The deep lines in Lou’s face suddenly became more fascinating and hard-earned. There was a new melancholy in the room — a kind of painful pleasure. It’s hard to explain, and perhaps I’m the only one who felt it. A few minutes later, he sang a new song, “The Power of the Heart,” which is sentimental and sweet, even — presumably it’s a gift of sorts for his recent bride, Laurie Anderson — but, somehow, passing through Lou’s body makes the song something else. It’s that same melancholy, the sense that life is long and hard and occasionally beautiful. It’s “magic and loss,” as he sang later in the show. It’s a “halloween parade” — a roaring carnival of lost friends and lost loves.