Whenever a great musician dies, it’s customary for grieving fans to look back through the body of work left behind for something movingly elegiac in an effort to say a proper goodbye. But such a task was never going to be easy with Lou Reed, who passed away on October 27 at age 71, simply because Reed’s songs were always coming from way too many angles to snugly serve any single purpose.
The most obvious candidate, at least musically, would seem to be “Perfect Day”, the lush ballad that became one of Reed’s signature songs practically from the moment it appeared on his second solo album, 1972’s Transformer. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson and featuring Ronson’s swirling string arrangement and piano flourishes, it really is a gorgeous track on the surface.
Yet there’s something gently unsettling about it. Maybe it’s the eerie stillness that permeates the song or the dirge-like pace. Maybe it’s the way that Reed sings the line, “It’s such fun” as if he were being lobotomized. In any case, there’s always the feeling that this idyllic day is just a tiny oasis in a dark desert.
Still, the narrator manages to snap out of his stupor to thank the one with whom he’s spending this “Perfect Day.” “You made me forget myself,” Reed sings, slivers of emotion creeping into his voice. “I thought I was someone else, someone good.” With cutting simplicity, it’s clear that this day isn’t just a good time for this guy. It’s his temporary redemption.
As for the haunting refrain that Reed intones in the closing moments of the song, Bono spoke about its subversive nature in his tribute to Lou in the most recent edition of Rolling Stone. “It’s been sung by all manner of earnest voices, including mine and children’s choirs, since it was written in 1972,” Bono wrote. “It never fails to give me some kind of extra ache as they sing the last line, ‘You’re going to reap just what you sow,’ oblivious of the icy chill suggested.”
If you doubt the dark side of this seemingly benign song, check out the chilling way it was used in the 1996 film Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle’s portrait of young heroin users. Yet you could easily imagine it in a romantic comedy as the soundtrack to a sappy montage of a young couple enjoying a picturesque afternoon.
That’s the kind of dichotomy that was commonplace in the music of Lou Reed, so, come to think of it, maybe “Perfect Day” isn’t a bad summation of the man and his work after all. It’s beautiful, brutal, and impossible to pin down.