My friend Swamp Rabbit, who only likes bluegrass and Bulgarian folk music, asked me about Lou Reed: “If this guy was an outsider, how come insiders sing his praises?”
The rabbit was referring to the subhed of The New York Times’s front-page (!) obituary for Reed: “Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll.” The obit was a reminder that successful outsider artists, if they live long enough, encounter the irony of being accepted by people and institutions they’d set themselves against early on.
I thought of when I saw Reed in concert at a packed stadium in Prague, in 1996. A friend told me one of Reed’s biggest fans was Vaclav Havel, the Czech president and a well-regarded playwright and essayist. Havel, it turned out, was proud that he’d smuggled a Velvet Underground LP into Communist Czechoslovakia after hearing the band during a visit to America in 1967.
Reed had fronted the Velvets, whose artsy, rough-edged style was far removed from mainstream American tastes and values. The style was dissonant and anti-authoritarian, to put it mildly. Some critics called it anti-musical. The same white, middle-class moms and dads who had tolerated “A Hard Day’s Night” and even “Satisfaction” would not have warmed up to “Heroin” or “Venus in Furs,” even if the Velvets had sold a lot of LPs.
And yet, by the 1970s, it was clear that Velvet Underground had been in the vanguard of an alternative aesthetic that sneaked into the mainstream in a big way, under various guises — glam rock, punk, new wave — and changed the culture. VU-influenced bands led by former art students, underground fashionistas, street toughs in drag, etc., had sprung up in New York City and all over the world. Reed himself broke into the Top 40 in 1973 with “Walk On the Wild Side.”
Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia, Havel was working against the Communist regime as part of a network of dissident artists and intellectuals. Many of them had been inspired by rock ’n’ roll and Velvet Underground in particular. Havel was jailed for several years. The dissidents’ struggle culminated in the so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989.
By the 1990s, Reed was still making music but he also was settling into an insider’s role, as an unofficial elder statesman of rock ’n’ roll. Havel had transitioned from outsider to official statesmen, as the last president of Czechoslovakia and first president of the Czech Republic.
Reed played Prague a few times before and after 1996, sometimes with Havel in attendance. The former outsiders were friends who admired each other not only for surviving but also prevailing against the repressive yahoos of the world. Reed’s brutally honest art had helped make America more tolerant of alternative lifestyles. Havel had helped tear down the Iron Curtain, and he said Reed had helped, too.
“OK, I get it, they were heroes,” the rabbit said. “They helped kill the Commie monster and make America safe for gay marriage. But who’s gonna kill the capitalist monster? Who’s gonna make America safe for poor people? Skrillex? Lady Gaga?”
That’s why my rodent friend annoys me — he asks questions I can’t even begin to answer.
Footnote: Check out The Economist for more on Reed’s friendship with Havel, who died in 2011.
Another: The term “Velvet Revolution” may have been coined by Rita Klimova, a longtime friend of Havel’s and a fellow dissident. The revolution was so named because it went so smoothly, but it’s easy to believe Klimova, maybe with input from Havel, was also alluding to Reed’s band.
One more: John Cale, who was with the Velvets for their first two LPs, deserves as much credit as Reed for the strange beauty of their first and, arguably, most influential LP.