Humour: it’s not something often associated with Lou Reed, even though he filled up much of 1978’s Live: Take No Prisoners with breakneck Lenny Bruce-style banter. But a listen to ‘The Gun’, ‘Underneath The Bottle’ or ‘Waves Of Fear’ from The Blue Mask always cheers me up; there’s just something so uncensored, unapologetic and even cathartic about his worldview, and of course an element of ‘there but for the grace of God…’
Newly married to Sylvia Morales (who also designed the striking album cover), recently clean and apparently the happiest he’d ever been, the more extreme cuts from the album seem to point towards some of the sacrifices Reed had made for this new life, and/or the fears that it could all go pear-shaped at any moment. Maybe falling in love simply scared the hell out of him.
He had put together possibly the finest band of his career (Robert Quine on guitar, Fernando Sanders on bass, fresh from John McLaughlin’s One Truth Band, Doane Perry on drums). Gone were the perky, ‘funky’ tones of 1980’s Growing Up In Public – now it was time to return to two guitars, panned hard-left and hard-right, voice, bass and drums. The whole album has a gorgeous, ambient mix – Rudy Van Gelder would surely have approved.
‘Women’ is just magnificent – Sanders plays some great countermelodies on fretless while Lou eulogises: ‘A woman’s love can lift you up, and women can inspire/I feel like buying flowers and hiring a celestial choir/A choir of castratis to serenade my love/They’d sing a little Bach for us and then we’d make love.’
‘Waves Of Fear’, a coruscating portrait of alcohol DTs, plays out like a deleted scene from ‘The Lost Weekend’. In the extended outro, as Reed riffs viciously, Quine’s manic solo quivers and flaps around like a dying fish at the end of a line. ‘Underneath The Bottle’ also focuses on the booze to gripping and sometimes amusing effect: ‘Things are never good, things go from bad to weird/Hey, gimme another scotch with my beer.’
The title track is a Burroughsian jaunt through torture, pain and self-loathing, while ‘The Gun’ seems to represent the worst possible situation between a man and woman: ‘A man…carrying a gun/And he knows how to use it/Nine millimetre Browning/Let’s see what it can do/Tell the lady to lie down/I want you to be sure to see this,’ croaks Lou over a gentle two-chord vamp and more ingenious Sanders bass playing.
‘Average Guy’ brings back the lightness, a mock-heroic look at Lou’s new life: ‘Average in everything I do/My temperature is 98.2.’ ‘The Day John Kennedy Died’ is a classic piece of modern Americana, a fable of lost innocence: ‘I dreamed I was young and smart and it was not a waste/I dreamed that there was a point to life and to the human race.’
‘No redemption, no salvation… My characters just squeeze by’, Reed told the NME in 1983. Dylan rates him as one of the great lyricists and The Blue Mask offers many reasons why. The band sounds pretty damn great too but was sadly short-lived – apparently Lou couldn’t stand Perry who fled to Jethro Tull pretty soon after the recording. Quine lasted a little longer but was also soon on his way.
The Blue Mask only reached number 167 on the US album chart and didn’t even register in the UK – a pretty dire state of affairs for such an influential artist. The ’80s were not going to be easy on Lou.