Thursday, October 25, 2012

At The Halloween Parade

One of the most touching songs I listen to year after year is Lou Reed's "The Halloween Parade."  Situated on his now-classic New York CD, the song is the lone tender and melancholy offering on a record that is largely a diatribe against the problems of a city and a country.  Most of the songs simmer with anger and sarcasm.

"The Halloween Parade," by contrast, is a lilting tune, whose pleasant guitar signature is undercut by the many variations of each verse's ending sentiment:  "Especially to be here without you."

The song is a brilliant rendering of the annual Greenwich Village Halloween parade, especially as it focuses on the LGBT crowd in attendance. The extravagance of the event has made it synonymous with gay pride in a themed public display. Here are the opening details that set the scene:

There's a downtown fairy singing out "Proud Mary"as she cruises Christopher Streetand some Southern Queen is acting loud and meanwhere the docks and the badlands meet

There's a Greta Garbo and an Alfred Hitchcockand some black Jamaican studThere's five Cinderellas and some leather dragsI almost fell into my mug
What Reed captures is both the scope and outrageousness of the event, the participants and the onlookers (some who are there for nothing but trouble).  The parade is something that would be hard to picture or perhaps even believe without the evocative details he provides, especially for someone like me living in a sleepy, conservative Southern city.

But, if you know the song, you know that it is even more about who isn't there than who is.  An elegy for the gay AIDS victims of the 80's, "The Halloween Parade" both humanizes and personalizes what an outside viewer or " some Homeboys lookin' for trouble down here from the Bronx" might see as some kind of freak show."  For after the first two verses, the specific names and characters shift to a litany of all of those who have passed away--"Hairy" and "Virgin Mary" and "Johnny Rio" and "Rotten Rita" and "Brandy Alexander" and "Peter Pedantic" and "Three Bananas." Reed reminds us that "you won't see those faces again."

But there's someone else.  There's the person that Reed really misses, the unnamed "you" of the song and the reason why "this celebration somehow gets me down" and "it's a different feeling that I have today/especially when I know you've gone away."

The song accomplishes at least three distinct goals.  It salutes the living who carry on, despite their fallen comrades.  It honors those dead.  And it shows Reed's efforts to shake off the melancholy that overwhelms him and keeps him from enjoying a yearly cornerstone event in his life:

The past keeps knock knock knocking on my doorAnd I don't want to hear it anymoreNo consolations pleasefor feelin' funkyI got to get my head above my kneesBut it makes me mad and mad makes me sadAnd then I start to freeze
It's one of those funny things about life that during the happiest times we miss those whom we have lost the most.  It isn't that we don't still enjoy, in my case, Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter; it's that we can never enjoy them in the same way that we did.

I like the way Reed's anger seeps in at the end of the song and connects it to the rest of the record.  It reminds me, removed from the circumstances of the song by time, geography and lifestyle, that when AIDS began to ravage the gay community, research and funding for research was slow in coming because they were, after all, gays.  
Many of those problems that Reed articulates on New York have not gone away, including America's ambivalence towards its immigrants and its gay citizens.  So much ambivalence, in fact, that both issues sit on the sidelines of our current presidential election.  The complex emotions battling in the narrator of Reed's song stir me and connect me to a situation I might otherwise have no business understanding every time I hear it.

"The Halloween Parade," in Lou Reed's able hands and with the masterful monotone of his voice, reminds us that loss is one of the themes that rock and roll captures best.  The song accomplishes what "Walk On The Wild Side" never could, even though it dealt with the same kinds of characters.  Through a shared loss of loved ones, "The Halloween Parade" makes them become us.

1 comment:

troutking said...

Awesome musical commentary.

Put the song on the list for Polyp's Lou Reed/Velvet Underground night. For once, Polyp is a good name for a band playing these songs.