A Perfect Day

“You’re going to reap just what you sow.”

“Um, excuse me?”

“You’re going to reap just what you sow.” And he says it three more times.

After deftly sketching some snapshots of a perfect day—a walk in the park, a moment in a zoo, me and you—the speaker/relentless monotone voice in Lou Reed’s song of that same name leaves us with that pushy, inexplicable, and echoing last line.

On its surface—and like many good songs, it has more than one level—on its surface, “Perfect Day” describes just that: The small moments of togetherness that make a perfect day. Heck, I would like this to be a song performed at my wedding, if I have one, except for that last line.

It was the B-side to Reed’s one top-40 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” so “Perfect Day” has been a radio regular for over four decades. Of the two songs, “Walk on the Wild Side” is the less complicated lyric, being a list and description of several personalities that populated Andy Warhol’s Factory in the late-’60s–early-’70s, when Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were the house band there.

“Perfect Day” starts out as a verbal picture postcard:

Just a perfect day
drink Sangria in the park
And then later
when it gets dark, we go home
 
Just a perfect day
feed animals in the zoo
Then later
a movie, too, and then home

“Just” is a heartbreaking word. The singer does not say it was “merely,” “only,” or “simply” a perfect day. Each of these modifiers look down at the word they are assisting. “Just” indicates completeness. A day spent doing whatever one planned to do—visit the zoo or not visit a zoo, either way—is perfect, complete unto itself. Further, “perfect” is not a step above good or excellent, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the day. It is not a “good” day or a “bad” day; it is a perfect day. A complete one, a full one. If all your ambitions for the day are small and are met, yes, that is just a perfect day.

And it sounds like it truly was a fine day, too. The activities are unimportant in the same way that the mundane details of lives other than our own are not all that important. When we hear details about a friend’s date, we nod, smile emptily, and say that it sounds like it was “nice.” When our friend tells us he went to the movies with his new girlfriend, we don’t ask about the ticket price or how dirty the theater appeared to be, even though those are details that might be interesting, more interesting than “later a movie, too, and then home.” “Perfect Day” sounds like it is about a “nice” date, which is part of why the song is loved: We all (I hope) have experienced a “nice” date. It makes the song seem universal.

But then something happens:

Oh, it’s such a perfect day
I’m glad I spend it with you
Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
You just keep me hanging on

“Such” is not “just.” This is how tautly the song is composed, that a minor shift in the language, in a word, betrays a change. “Such” is emphatic. Here, “perfect” seems to be the singer’s statement about the quality of the day, and it is almost pushy, it almost demands agreement. “It’s a PERFECT DAY!!” your friend declares when he has had a few too many drinks and becomes scary.

In performance, this is where most singers, Lou Reed included, start to sing. To croon. Here is where the music shifts, too. Up till now, it has been the singer’s voice with a piano accompaniment, at least in most recordings. From the very first recording of the song, it is at this moment that strings appear and the voice gets double-tracked, bringing out the sweetness of the melody. In one famous performance, Luciano Pavarotti sings/bellows the “Oh, such a perfect day” line.

In 1966, The Supremes had a number one hit called “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Its famous opening verse

Set me free, why don’t cha, baby
Get out my life, why don’t cha, baby
‘Cause you don’t really love me
You just keep me hangin’ on

is not something that would be sung or spoken by someone having a “just” anything sort of day, much less a perfect one. It is one of The Supremes’ biggest hits, it is one of Motown’s most loved songs, and a songwriter can not quote it even in part without invoking all the upset that that song contains and the declaration of independence that it presents. In Lou Reed’s song, the perfect day now is less of a nice picture postcard, and it just got interesting.

But he returns to the narrating of the day/evening/date, and now problems are acknowledged:

Just a perfect day
problems all left alone
Weekenders on our own
it’s such fun
 
Just a perfect day
you made me forget myself
I thought I was
someone else, someone good

That is a compliment that anyone in a good relationship would like to pay to their beloved. I would love to say this to my girlfriend, except the “someone good” phrase. Someone who says that you make them think they are someone good is either fishing for a compliment (“Honey, you ARE someone good”) or thinks that he or she is not good, not at all good.

In 1997, the BBC created an ad to promote itself, and the people there came up with a clever idea: have more than 30 performers sing one line each of a classic song. The song selected was “Perfect Day,” and Reed not only gave his blessing, he performed on the single. His is the first voice heard, thus giving the single (it raised money for charity) his imprimatur. It was a huge hit and went to number one in the United Kingdom, Reed’s only number one there.

 
Depending on the singer, the final line, “You’re going to reap just what you sow,” can sound demanding, creepy, a declaration of independence, or the promise of a treat. This is because now we have a distinct you versus me, no longer a we, and the singer is passing judgement. It could be a happy judgement: the object in the song has been sowing love and understanding everywhere, so the singer could be promising a sweet result. But when this is sung in the same song as “You keep me hanging on,” something malign is being foretold. AT a minimum, “Reap what you sow,” is something usually said as a tsk-tsk.

The BBC rendition has several participants share duties on the line, and they all seem to emphasize the interpretation of the song that promises a happy future with even more PERFECT! days to come. Especially Tom Jones.

I am not a reader or a critic who thinks that the absence of evidence means that whatever is absent from a work is what the work is “about.” There lies madness. Some critics do not agree with this. Some have have interpreted the song as a love song to addiction or at least to a substance. This is because Lou Reed was a heroin user, a junkie. Is this a love song or a conflicted love song to the needle? Perhaps, but the needle is not in the song. When Reed wanted to sing about heroin, he did, clearly and emphatically. (“I’m Waiting for the Man.” “Heroin.”) What is in the song, what the song contains, is a not-unconflicted, not-uncomplicated love story, which is every love story, and thus is about one perfect day in that.

Thus, conflicts hinted at and all, it is a nearly perfect song, but that is why it will not be played at my wedding.

 
* * * *
This is a lightly edited column from November 2014 that last re-appeared in August 2015.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for June 18 asks us to reflect on the word, “Perfection.”

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4 comments

  1. loisajay · June 18, 2016

    Not that I needed the reminder, but in reading this I find that I use the word ‘just’ too much. That is sad and I will be backspacing a lot when I reread my written thoughts. Nice…how mundane. Almost a slap to whomever the word is directed. So much so that a coworker and I have a joke between us. Whenever one of us says something the other does not agree with, rather than have a discussion about it, we smile and say, “That’s nice.” We crack each other up. Happy weekend, Mark.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. camparigirl · June 18, 2016

    I must have been 17 the first time I heard Perfect Day and, to me, it is still as perfect a Lou Reed song as they come.

    Like

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