Michael Blair on Lou Reed’s Powerful and Glorious ‘Magic and Loss’
The drummer, percussionist, and initiator of a thousand artful ideas recalls what went into — and came out of — the rock icon’s 1992 masterwork.
On the occasion of what would have been Lou Reed’s seventy-ninth birthday, we’ve asked Michael Blair to recall the conceptual and instrumental ingredients of the late singer, guitarist, and songwriter’s 1992 studio album Magic and Loss, which the drummer played on and toured behind.
While Reed’s studio output is not short on unique recordings, from the quartet of iconic Velvet Underground releases, to ’70s solo classics Transformer and Street Hassle, to ’80s wonders The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, to late-period curiosities The Raven and (with Metallica) Lulu, Magic and Loss stands alone in terms of its focused lyrical content (see the title) and sonic stamp. In a way the arrangements are an amalgamation of the approaches Reed took on his previous two albums, 1989’s profound, popular, and stripped-down New York—“You can’t beat 2 guitars, bass, drum” [sic], Lou declared on its back cover—and his 1990 reunion with former bandmate John Cale, Songs for Drella, a drummer-less affair conceived in tribute to mentor and VU benefactor Andy Warhol.
Previous to Magic and Loss, Michael Blair had made indispensable contributions to works by Elvis Costello, Victoria Williams, Hal Willner, Leo Kotke, Gavin Friday, and perhaps most famously, Tom Waits. On those recordings and others, Blair’s skills as a rock drummer were informed and/or supplanted by his handiwork with esoteric percussion, and deepened by his studies of 20th-century classical composers and his early work with world-music pioneer Paul Winter. Blair put all of his talents into the unusual recording process of Magic and Loss, applying an enormous range of experience to decidedly spare — but not at all uninteresting — rhythmic support.
OTD: Where and when was Magic and Loss recorded?
Michael: In 1991, at the Magic Shop studio in New York.
OTD: How were you first introduced to Lou?
Michael: I introduced myself, actually. I knew Lou didn’t audition. So I asked a friend who worked at the record company — Melanie Ciccone, sister of Madonna, married to songwriter/producer Joe Henry — if she would get approval for me to call him. She did, and I did.
OTD: It would be difficult not to have preconceptions before working with someone like Lou. Did you consciously try to keep an open mind in terms of what it was going to be like working with him, or did you do the opposite and sort of bone up on everything about him and his music?
Michael: I bring the “mindfulness” thing into every project I do, even if I dive into heavy preparation. I was very aware of his history and sonic/storytelling impact over the years. So it was a combination of “open mind” and focused homework.
OTD: Sonically, how did you approach the drums on Magic and Loss? Did Lou give direction?
Michael: Elvis Costello, Marc Ribot, and I went to hear Lou’s New York tour in 1989. Even though the touring drummer was a great player, I felt that it was all too loud and way too many cymbals. So my approach was “not too loud, and almost no cymbals.” Lou’s direction was, “Michael, I know you produce records, but you are my drummer. So play drums.”
OTD: I love how on “Sword of Damocles” you leave out the backbeat during Lou’s vocals in each line in the verses, and sometimes for longer periods. Where did that idea come from?
Michael: Well, do you remember the intro to the Four Seasons’ song “Rag Doll”? There you go.
OTD: On the final song, the title track, you get to wail a bit. What went through your mind during that section?
Michael: Really hoping I could get the take done in one pass. Which I did.
OTD: There’s often no cymbal keeping time, or if it is, it’s unusually sparse. How did you come to that approach?
Michael: The most important elements of that album were, first and foremost, Lou’s lyrics. The stories. Then the interplay of Lou and Mike Rathke’s guitars, with those wonderful, full, shining frequencies. Lou was rightfully proud of his guitar rig, and Mike was incorporating guitar synth parts as well. My job was to stay the f*ck out of the way, while still making sure each song had a good walk to it, with Rob Wasserman’s beautiful bass lines.
OTD: You were using crashes mounted in Remo Spoxe, right?
Michael: Yes. It’s always in my contract that I must inject trashcan sounds on every record.
OTD: Do you remember the other gear you were using — drums, cymbals?
Michael: My drumkit was a hybrid ’80s Gretsch/’60s Ludwig. The snare was a solid maple Noble and Cooley. Plus ddrum pads and tubes — toms with shaker samples, second snare and rim, tambourines, etc. — real tambourines, a number of lovely Paiste Signature cymbals, and a remote Remo Spoxe hi-hat.
OTD: In what order were the instruments recorded, and what were you playing along to?
Michael: Well, this was, as we say, “character building.” The recording order of every track: two guitars (Lou and Mike), lead vocal (Lou), bass (Rob), then me at the end. Every track, every day.
OTD: Were you using a click track?
Michael: No. And most of the time, we got one song done a day. With drums going on last, usually around midnight. There was no f*cking way I was going to let us go home without a keeper drum track on tape. For every song.
OTD: Magic and Loss came after New York and Songs for Drella, two very publicized and well-considered albums. Was there any pressure on Lou or on you because of that?
Michael: Certainly no pressure on me. And I understand your question. I think Lou put himself under incredible pressure for most of his career. The characters, storytelling, focus, issues, sounds. Everything. He was super meticulous in his thinking, feeling, speaking. I remember a late-night conversation with him where he told me that over the years he thought he would make a record that people really loved, and then the next one people hated. It was just the way the music came out of him. He couldn’t actually control it, regarding what was “expected of him.” An artist with a capital A.
OTD: Were there any specific recording experiences you’d had previously that served you well on Magic and Loss?
Michael: All of them, regarding developing my ability to listen, learn quickly, and be focused on helping the artist tell their stories. And even though the sonic environments had little to do with Lou’s work, the Waits, Costello, and Hal Willner projects helped me understand that I could work at this level.
OTD: The live shows were set up so that you played Magic and Loss in the first set and other Lou songs in the second. I remember this because I saw the first set but had to skip the second because I had a gig that night across town.
Michael: Yep. For the theatres, Lou’s concept was we play the album all the way through. Then a break, and then Drella, Velvets, and solo songs made up the second half. I loved that. Magic and Loss was a thing unto itself. And Lou was very proud of it, as he should have been. The lyric writing on that album is absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful. And it’s very cool that you needed to head off to your own gig. That’s what we do!
OTD: When you look back on your experience with Lou, what stands out most to you?
Michael: Musically, I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to really dig into his songbook. What a privilege. And personally, that after he met Lena, my partner/wife, he told me, “Michael, if you fuck up your marriage I’ll kill you.”
OTD: Were you ever friendly with Mo Tucker or any other drummers who’d worked with Lou? And if so, did you learn anything from them that you’ve kept with you?
Michael: The Violent Femmes introduced me to Mo. That was a thrill. Hmmmm…one thing that sticks out, though not about his former drummers, is something the late, great, ultra-influential guitarist Robert Quine [Lou Reed, the Voidoids, John Zorn, Matthew Sweet] said to me. Bob said, “Michael, Lou almost always talks shit about and then fires his drummers. He has never said anything bad about you. How did you do that?” What a sweet thing for Bob to say.
OTD: Magic and Loss is rightly considered one of Lou Reed’s best albums. What about it made it so special?
Michael: Besides me being the drummer? Ha! I think the main thing was Lou’s writing process. So deep, personal, clear, and clean. And then, Mike, Rob, and I played just enough to elevate the stories and glue them into songs that could be presented to the world.