Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask: 35 Years Old Today

61doi8e-mvl-_sl1050_RCA Records, released 24th February 1982

8/10

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 scared the hell out of him.

lou_reed_-_the_blue_mask_1982-in01

He had put together possibly the finest band of his career (Robert Quine on guitar, Fernando Sanders on bass, 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 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. ‘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 superb Sanders bass.

‘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.

The Crap Movie Club: One-Trick Pony (1980)

paul simonBy his own admission, Paul Simon had some very lean years between his 1975 classic Still Crazy After All These Years and 1986’s multi-million selling, multi-Grammy-winning Graceland.

His 1983 album Hearts And Bones was a major flop despite featuring some fine songs and great musicianship.

But the real nadir was ‘One-Trick Pony’. I stumbled across it very late at night on British TV in the late ’90s and was instantly gripped. It’s that special kind of crap movie – the ‘rock star’ vanity project with a gallon of overreaching ambition.

To say it hasn’t aged well would be a huge understatement, though, as with most genuinely bad films, it features a myriad of guilty pleasures too…

In 1980, Simon clearly wanted to celebrate his new Warner Bros record contract with a bang (he’d just jumped ship from CBS) but who persuaded him that a self-written, autobiographical movie was the answer? His screen persona was hitherto based pretty much on one (admittedly superb) cameo in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’.

But in ‘One-Trick Pony’ he tried to carry an entire movie with just two default settings: he’s either bopping around the stage, sweaty and somewhat bug-eyed, trying desperately to ‘rock’ (in Joe Queenan’s memorably cruel words, Simon is ‘too short to rock’n’roll, too young to die’), or he’s sulky and morose, peering doe-eyed into the middle distance, desperately trying to be adorable.

Simon plays Jonah Levin, a once-popular folk-rock artist who has fallen on hard times (see what he did there?) and now reduced to hawking his band (Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Richard Tee and Eric Gale) around the Midwest, supporting bands like the B-52’s (who are held up as an example of the ‘hideous’ way the recording industry is going, but whose schtick is so much more vital and life-affirming than Simon’s supposedly ‘raw’ music…).

Jonah’s relationship with his estranged wife – Blair Brown in a completely thankless role – is terminally dull, with undramatic longueurs and clunking one-liners. There’s also some excruciating stuff with Jonah’s ‘cute’ son. You know the kind of thing – lots of ‘whatever happens, Daddy loves you, OK?’, cloying shenanigans with baseball mitts and copying Daddy shaving at the mirror.

From a muso perspective, you might well ask how a movie so heavily featuring superstar players such as Gadd, Gale, Tee and Levin can be outright crap. Well, the novelty effect lasts a few minutes but after that you can only feel for these gents – they’re given pretty thankless roles, playing a fairly tasteless ‘dead pop stars’ quiz in the car, reading out gig reviews and endlessly checking into dodgy hotels. Poor Richard Tee and Eric Gale look the most uncomfortable.

Jonah’s dealings with the record-biz ‘suits’ in ‘One-Trick Pony’ are presumably based on Simon’s disagreements with his previous employers CBS Records, and they produce the only enjoyable sections of the film.

Rip Torn is reliably gruff though resolutely uncomical in his impersonation of legendary CBS hatchet man Walter Yetnikoff, but Lou Reed clearly relishes his cameo as a jobsworth producer; he’s desperate to add strings, horns and backing vocals to Jonah’s stripped-down tracks. Cue a lingering close-up of David Sanborn letting rip on alto, though we’re never sure if this is meant to be a Bad Thing or even a joke – to this viewer, it seemed like the first bit of decent music in the movie.

Oh yeah, the music. The soundtrack of course did a hell of a lot better than the movie – great single ‘Late In The Evening’ featured a Steve Gadd groove almost as influential as ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ and even made the top 10 in the States.

To be fair to Simon, he had sorted out his screen persona by the time of the ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video in 1986, settling on a kind of faux-naif ‘everyman’ figure with some aplomb. He was also pretty funny in Steve Martin’s ‘Homage To Steve’ short from the same year. But let’s just rejoice that he hasn’t returned to the world of feature films since (or has he? Ed).