Listen now on:
Leave it to Lou Reed to scoop the world on his own eulogy by a good 17 years.
Not that anyone really noticed back in 1996, when rock’s surly king of cool made “Set The Twilight Reeling” the final song on the largely overlooked album of the same name, but it is obvious looking back now that Reed intended it to be the looping, oversized “John Hancock” on his undefinable and defiant career.
The song, which Reed considered among the very best he ever wrote, feels like his life’s journey condensed to five glorious minutes. It’s lyrics— and they’re good enough to stand on their own— call to mind the philosophic yearning and precise imagery of Reed’s great early mentor, poet Delmore Schwartz, while the music glides between his early folk, soul and doo-wop influences before building to into a rocking coda as loud and defiant as anything he and The Velvets laid down in the Factory. All of this is done on the back of a killer guitar riff from a guy who knew a little bit about killer guitar riffs.
But even more powerful than the music is the persona Lou lays out in the lyrics. He manages to be somehow both humble and imperious (“Take me for what I am/ A star newly emerging”), hungry and satiated, world-weary and optimistic. We are rarely treated to a Lou that is not only self-reflective but also seems at peace with who he is— and what a positive thing to say about the human condition, that one can be this meditative and still split people’s eardrums wide open.
Moreover, “Set the Twilight Reeling” serves as a powerful reminder that that former baby-faced East Village kid in the leather jacket who first started saving our lives with rock ’n’ roll during the Johnson administration, was still making profound and important musical statements well into the Clinton years.
Bonus cut: You didn’t think we could talk about this song without also recommending the version Lou sang with Elvis Costello, Patron-Saint-Of-Trunkworthy, did you?