by Jeff Oaks
Since Lou Reed’s death yesterday, I’ve been singing, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly to myself his song Perfect Day. That song has always had a way with me, its sad sweet plainness, as if it might have been written by a person so ordinary I might know him. Nevermind the elaborate piano and violins swells that no one I know knows how to do. A calm voice singing about a moment between anxieties.
Today I was reading someone who linked the song to heroin, as if the whole song were a love song to a drug. It might be, I don’t know. For me the song perfectly describes a state of sensitivity I felt when I was young, in which I had a great fear of dying, of vanishing, of an existence so fragile, so vaporous that any emotional blow felt like it would be the end of everything. Love in that state got magnified out of proportion, as a thing that “kept me hanging on.” I was so afraid of love because I gave it such power.
I actually kept a list of perfect days for a while. I’m sure it was because night after night my father usually wrecked any happiness we might have had, and I was trying to find some pattern to it, and with pattern hope. There was only a handful by the time I was eighteen.
On one hand, that exercise increased my self-pity, my self as a victim. On the other, keeping that list taught me that happiness probably isn’t a sustainable thing to build a life around. Happiness is vulnerable. By the time I stopped counting, I had decided I wanted to become a writer, and that decision was based on something deeper than happiness. I’d probably call it passion, although that word now seems so tied to the feel-good world of self-help that I distrust it. Maybe it would be better to say I found a direction, an occupation for all my anxiety and curiosity.
When I hear Lou Reed’s list of what they do–drink sangria, feed the animals in the zoo, see a movie, then go home–I hear a list of the ordinary, the plain, all of which are heightened by the presence of someone else, someone who makes the narrator able to “forget himself,” even feel he might be someone good, which I always understood to mean someone good enough to be loved. It’s a list of things people who have a certain heightened anxiety about their lives dream about as normal, as perfect.
It was the first song I remember that spoke in a quiet way to an inner voice I knew inhabited my thinking, a voice that was always monitoring everything I did, that was exhausting to be around, to be. Getting out of myself was important, I came to understand, or that voice would one day become the only voice in my head. And that’s how I hear the last lines in the song, as a turning out to the reader, the others who might suffer the same problem: You’re going to reap/ just what you sow. Those lines are meant for me and for the narrator himself–as a mantra that is meant to be hopeful, but which is of course phrased as a warning, because what else do we know but warnings?