Certain Songs #985: Lou Reed – “What’s Good (The Thesis)”

Album: Magic and Loss
Year: 1992

After a pair of concept albums about New York City and Andy Warhol, on Magic and Loss Lou Reed decided he wanted to tackle death itself.

This was spurred by the imminent deaths of a pair of close friends of his, most notably the songwriter, Doc Pomus, who wrote or co-wrote a bunch of songs that you definitely know, from “Save The Last Dance For Me” to “Little Sister,” to “Sha La La La Lee,” and so the mood on Magic and Loss was appropriately darker than any of his solo albums since The Blue Mask.

And so, in the grand tradition of misdirection going back to “Sunday Morning,” Magic and Loss led off with the deceptively upbeat “What’s Good,” which rode one of Lou’s endless variation on the “Sweet Jane” riff all the way to his second consecutive #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts, but unlike New York, which cracked the Top 40 (albeit at #40), Magic and Loss was too dark & difficult for the relative success of “What’s Good” to translate into anything but mediocre sales.

Which is fine, probably because anybody paying attention to the lyrics of “What’s Good” would have noticed how most of the verses opens with absurdities and ends with pain.

What good is seeing eye chocolate
What good’s a computerized nose
And what good was cancer in April
Why no good, no good at all

At the end of the song, Lou answers the question he’s been asking as chorus of overdubbed Lous answer him for all eternity:

What’s good? (What’s good)
What’s good? (Life’s good)
Life’s good? (Life’s good)
Life’s good (Life’s good)
What’s good? (Life’s good)
But not fair at all

It’s great, because at first you think he’s going to get out of the song with some optimism — the reminder that life in and of itself is a good thing — then he turns it back around on itself.

The beauty of a song like “What’s Good” is of course you can enjoy it at a purely musical level — the steady riff, the hooky melody, Lou’s “huh!” in between “I’ve been around / I know what makes things run”, the call-and-response at the end — if you want to, but you can also get so much more out of it if you tune into the words even a tiny bit.

“What’s Good”

“What’s Good” performed live on Late Night With David Letterman, 1992

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