The Velvet Underground was one side project of Any Warhol that lasted longer than 15 minutes. In the late 60’s they might had seemed no different from other hangers-ons at The Factory, a small-time band, by the standards of the time, but a decade and half later, when miscellaneous queens and junkies proved to be only as interesting as Andy wanted them to be, they were firmly established as contenders for most influential band in rock-n-roll history, inspiring punk, noise and glam. As Brian Eno once said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Lou Reed keeps generation X bohemians keep going well into their 40’s. That they are not going to be the next Beatles was pretty obvious long time ago, but they are still holding out hope that they might turn out to be the next Velvet Underground. How wrong they are!
As DH likes to say, the underground music scene today is dominated by idiot savants who, despite having very little formal training and despite not being particularly bright, benefit from an occasional burst of inspiration. They might think that rock-n-roll is easy because somebody like Reed made it simple and dirty. But Reed had a jazz background and honors degree from Syracuse University, so he had the tools to do minimalism right.
He was a quintessential tortured artist, literally so. As a teenager Reed had to undergo electroshock therapy for fooling around with men. It’s often said that Reed was bisexual, but the proprietor of this blog strongly suspects that while female bisexuality is very common, men are either gay or straight. Although it’s possible that, in his usual fashion, Reed only wanted to be provocative, he himself stated that he invented his bisexual personae for marketing purposes. He came out as a straight man in 1978, shortly before AIDS made headlines across the world.
None of it justifies giving ETC to minors. It’s fair to say that some of the early battles of culture wars made imprints on Lou Reed’s gray matter… after which the musician himself did considerable damage to his mind and body. He lived the life he sang about in his song. Lou Reed went on rhapsodize the seediest corners of pre-Guiliani New York (the New York poised to return in case anyone gets nostalgic), in the meantime composing some of the most soul-wrenching and melodic songs of love and loss. Fellow Mexifornians will appreciate the Spanish subtitles:
Lou Reed was pretty much a commie, but he did nevertheless inspired the Czech youth of the Cold War era. Why some Western bands made it big in Eastern Europe is anyone’s guess. A few relatively unknown Western offerings were promoted by socialist states with the goal of providing the Eastern Block youth with an opportunity to let some steam out. Others penetrated the Iron Curtain purely by chance — a smuggled LP copied to reel that went viral. Expatriates broadcasted popular music (from London, most notably) both reflecting the charts and responding to our tastes, which, by the mid-80’s, tended to be on the metal side. We knew established rock-n-rollers, like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, of course, but all in all our knowledge of Western music was pretty random.
I was aware of Velvet Underground in my teens, but I don’t recall hearing the music until I immigrated. I’m not entirely sure how the Czechs got to be into this cult New York band. I know they were popularized by the Czech band The Plastic People of The Universe, along with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Captain Beefheart to this day remains an inside baseball kind of performer, so why were the Czechs cool enough to know him forty years ago? Velvet Underground were big in Czechoslovakia after the failed Prague Spring of 1968, at the time they were playing in small clubs in the US. Did The Plastic People find themselves in possession of one of these 10,000 records?
Velvet Underground helped the Czech dissidents keep their spirits high in the years between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the later event named after you guess what band. The first Czech president and a well-known playwright Vaclav Havel spoke of the liberating power of rock-n-roll — it contained the message of personal freedom. The political transformation of Eastern Europe was possible, in part, because so many Eastern European bohemians looked at Western bohemian degenerates with awe. I wouldn’t hold my breath in re Middle Eastern degenerates like Bin Laden following the suit.
Lou Reed passed away last week, at the age of 71, and, I think, he himself was surprised just how long he lasted. He lived long enough to see his musical legacy grow, to see his music change the world (or at least a corner of the world), drag queens become boring, Andy Warhol become the highest-selling artist of the year. In a particularly surreal episode, on Havel’s insistence, Bill Clinton invited the old perv to the White House in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal. Havel and Reed instantly struck a friendship, and there was no political fallout for Clinton. Lou Reed became the establishment.
I’m pretty sure Reed didn’t too terribly mind being invited to various red carpet events, and he certainly savored any opportunity to irritate the press. But while he was pretty comfortable being part of the establishment, I’m not sure why we need establishment figures like Lou Reed. When putting together a song list for our wedding, we briefly entertained including “Perfect Day”. We had to X it out eventually because, after being featured in “Trainspotting”, it was all but impossible the song from heroin. We played no Velvet Underground. It is, however, a great song:
UPDATE: The best obituary to date by Robert Dean Lurie