Lou Reed: Power and Glory

Power and Glory—The Situation
by Lou Reed

I was visited by the Power and the Glory
I was visited by a majestic hymn
Great bolts of lightning
Lighting up the sky
Electricity flowing through my veins

I was captured by a larger moment
I was seized by divinity’s hot breath
Gorged like a lion on experience
Powerful from life
I want all of it—
Not just some of it

I saw a man turn into a bird
I saw a bird turn into a tiger
I saw a man hang from a cliff by the tips of his toes
In the jungles of the Amazon
I saw a man put a redhot needle through his eye
Turn into a crow and fly through the trees
Swallow hot coals and breathe out flames
And I wanted this to happen to me

We saw the moon vanish into his pocket
We saw the stars disappear from sight
We saw him walk across water into the sun
While bathed in eternal light
We spewed out questions waiting for answers
Creating legends, religions and myths
Books, stories, movies and plays
All trying to explain this

I saw a great man turn into a little child
The cancer reduced him to dust
His voice growing weak as he fought for his life
With a bravery few men know
I saw isotopes introduced into his lungs
Trying to stop the cancerous spread
And it made me think of Leda and The Swan
And gold being made from lead
The same power that burned Hiroshima
Causing three-legged babies and death
Shrunk to the size of a nickel
To help him regain his breath
And I was struck by the power and the glory
I was visited by a majestic Him
Great bolts of lightning lighting up the sky
As the radiation flowed through him
He wanted all of it
Not some of it

The title of the song is Power and Glory and its poetic genius (as well as its beauty) lies in a one-two punch. One is the double use of “I wanted/he wanted all of it”. The other is the way Reed prepares us to see a man reduced to a child by disease while exhibiting uncommon bravery–to see him as one of the wonders of the world.

Hearing Lou Reed & Co perform Power and Glory is certainly preferable to simply reading the lyrics. That way you get all of the elements of song, particularly rhythm, despite the fact that Reed’s heavy emphasis on the lyrics undeniably draws energy away from song elements. But when you both listen to the performance and read the lyrics you gain a greater appreciation for both. Only by reading the lyrics do you see that the first use of “majestic” is a “hymn” and the second is a “Him”. And reading the lyrics allows you to slow down and wonder if that second “Him” refers only to the brave man undergoing cancer treatment or if it also refers to God. That last line gets to me because I saw someone in this situation, someone who led an active lifestyle, ate organic foods, took dozens of supplements, and reluctantly if ever took a pain pill, but when that cancer came and the doctors made their recommendations, she said, “Give me all of it.”

As Lou Reed grew older he focused more as a performer on clear delivery of the lyrics and as a consequence tended to become less musical. But when you look at his lyrics as poems, as I do, the austere musicality of many of his performances does not feel poor. On the contrary, the musical elements bring a dimension that increases the richness of the poetry. One might argue that I’m playing a mental game with myself and maybe I am, but consider that this formula does not always work for me. The musical content of Leonard Cohen’s performances, for example, is too stripped down for my taste. Regardless of the quality of his lyrics, I can’t find anything musical to hook onto and so I don’t enjoy listening to him. Covers of his songs fare much better, in my opinion.

As an aside I’d like to mention that I disagree with the purists who argue that songwriting is not literature. Bob Dylan earned his Nobel. And while it is true that songwriters can’t deploy all of the nuances of language that come into play on the page it’s just stupid to deny that songwriting does not exist without words. Moreover, the performative and musical elements of songwriting bring nuances of their own to the language elements.

Getting back to Power and Glory, in performance that plaintive yet urgent “I want all of it” comes across like a universal cry. That part of the song pierces me to the core. But I like that in reading the lyrics the phrase becomes less universal and more particular. I’ve seen things that defy belief, the speaker tells us. Truth is always stranger than fiction. And I want it. All of it. All that life can offer. Even if it’s radiation therapy. Give it to me! And when death comes, may I meet it with eyes open in wonder.

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