Certain Songs #986 – Lou Reed – “Sword of Damocles (Externally)”

Album: Magic and Loss
Year: 1992

Fuck cancer. That might be a hot take, but it’s mine, and I stand by it.

Eerie and spooky, “Sword of Damocles” rides a bed of acoustic guitars, an atmospheric bowed bass and an irregular drumbeat as he considers the plight of his friend, who is getting zapped by poison radiation in the vain hope it will cure their cancer.

Good luck with that, is what Lou’s saying.

I see the sword of Damocles is right above your head
They’re trying a new treatment to get you out of bed
But radiation kills both bad and good
It can not differentiate
So to cure you they must kill you
The sword of Damocles hangs above your head

And of course, there’s pain. And drug cocktails to deal with the pain. And if there’s one thing Lou Reed understands, it’s drug cocktails.

That mix of morphine and dexedrine
We use it on the street
It kills the pain and keeps you up
Your very soul to keep

Even though Lou sounds incredibly sad and incredibly pained, there’s just a bit of a humblebrag going on in his use of the word “we,” though somehow I doubt that in 1992 — pushing the age of 50 — Lou Reed was still shooting speedballs.

Finally, though, the futility of the whole enterprise is just too much for him, so he muses on what’s next.

It seems everything’s done that must be done
From over here, though things don’t seem fair
But there are things that we can’t know
Maybe there’s something over there
Some other world that we don’t know about
I know you hate that mystic shit
It’s just another way of seeing
The sword of Damocles above your head

The way he says “Maybe there’s something over there” is peak Lou Reed, especially after he sings “I know you hate that mystic shit,” so that you know that he does too, while still allowing for the tiniest possibility that there is something over there.

“Sword of Damocles” is a double-edged combination of sadness and bravura, chock full of darkly gorgeous music and utterly depressing lyrics that would completely fall apart without Lou not settling for walking, but rather riding the line between darkness and light.

And if there’s something over there? I guess he knows now.

“Sword of Damocles”

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One Response to “Certain Songs #986 – Lou Reed – “Sword of Damocles (Externally)””

  1. Ira Brooker says:

    Catch me on the right day and I’ll tell you this is the best Lou Reed album. Catch me on just about any day and I’ll tell you this is the best song on it.

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