Listen to this track by New York icon and guitar-distortion enthusiast Lou Reed. It’s “Egg Cream”, an anthem to local cuisine as taken from Reed’s 1996 record Set The Twilight Reeling. The song opened the record, setting the scene in more ways than one.
Lou Reed is known for writing songs about drugs, sexual ambiguity, alienation, disease, the failure of political systems, and other aspects of the darker side of humanity and culture. He continues in that tradition with this record on a number of songs. But, here on this song, Reed breaks from the heavier topics that would characterize his work from this period.
First, he focuses on that which brings him simple pleasures; the chocolate egg cream, which is a quintessential New York beverage. And second, it’s all about the guitar on this song, sounding kind of like you’re hearing it being played from the inside, full of distorted glory. Reed plays it himself, of course. Maybe the subject matter does seem a bit lightweight for him.
But, I think it serves a purpose outside of itself.
The album was released during an artistic period that saw Lou Reed explore themes of death and loss. Nineteen-Eighty Seven’s Songs For Drella was dedicated to then-departed Andy Warhol, the former patron of the Velvet Underground. And Magic & Loss in 1992 would have him continue to explore this thematic track as well. Even on this record, there’s a song “Finish Line” that is about fellow Velvet Sterling Morrison who had died that year just before the band was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
Also on this record, Reed would also confront his status at being in between relationships, and possibly on the verge of a new one with fellow artist Laurie Anderson, who also appears on the record. And there would be characteristic anger, hostility and in-yer-face politics found here too in “Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker)”. That’s the Lou we’ve come to expect!
But, I think “Egg Cream” is a break from all of that. It’s a homecoming, a personal statement, a grounding in the familiar and the comforting from when the artist was younger, and not yet having confronted the complexities of the world.
It helps to set the scene for the record sonically too, with a big meaty guitar sound that is a reminder of his connection to his Velvets past. It connects him to his identity as a New Yorker, a person who is very much a part of a landscape and a cultural milieu that he helped to create, but that he is dependent upon too.
When you’re dealing with death, and even with the risks involved with impending love, that sense of connection is what keeps you going.
To learn more about Lou Reed, you can logically get the skinny at LouReed.com.