Lou Reed’s Politics

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This post first appeared in The Nation.

American musician Lou Reed performs on the stage in Budapest, Hungary, Tuesday, July 15, 2003. (AP Photo/MTI, Lajos Soos)

Lou Reed, who has died at age 71, will be rightly remembered for creating a canon that was groundbreaking in the scope of its sociological and literary achievement. There was nothing unreasonable about Reed’s 1987 suggestion to Rolling Stone that “all through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.”

Yet, Reed was, as well, an artist who understood and engaged in the political struggles of his times. No one who followed the remarkable career of the Velvet Underground co-founder and iconic solo artist over the better part of five decades failed to recognize his determination to speak up — and to show up.

From the beginning of his career, Reed identified himself as an artist who was determined to explore and explain the great societal taboos. He wrote songs about sex and sexuality, addiction, abuse, disease and communities that refused to conform or capitulate. His 1972 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” took AM radio and a generation of young Americans to places they had never been before. That wasn’t an explicitly political song by most measures, yet it achieved a remarkable political end: transforming how people saw one another, and themselves.

Reed kept pushing the limits in the 1970s and ’80s, relishing controversy, challenging conventions and siding with those who did the same. He outlined his political philosophy in very nearly gentle 1982 song, “The Day John Kennedy Died“:

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I replaced ignorance, stupidity and hate
I dreamed the perfect union and a perfect law, undenied
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done
I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone
I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

Reed finished the 1980s with the album New York, a visceral assessment of America at the close of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Topical and barbed, New York pulled no punches, especially on Reed’s masterpiece: “The Last Great American Whale.”

Reed closed that song with an indictment:

Well Americans don’t care for much of anything
land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
with human life not worth more than infected yeast

Americans don’t care too much for beauty
they’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
and complain if they can’t swim

They say things are done for the majority
don’t believe half of what you see and none of what you hear
It’s like what my painter friend Donald said to me
“Stick a fork in their ass and turn them over, they’re done

Yet those who heard Reed’s passionate rendering of “The Last Great American Whale” at 1990’s Farm Aid concert recognized that his commentary was biting not because he was cynical but because he cared. Reed showed up for benefit concerts, for Tibet House and Tibetan Freedom, for Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. He was there to recall the Freedom Riders, and to condemn apartheid as part of Little Steven Van Zandt’s “Sun City” project. He was there to defend human rights and to decry attacks on artistic freedom. “It’s one thing to read about things. [But it’s something else] when someone’s sitting right in front of you telling and articulating some of these gruesome, unbelievable things that happen to people who do things that we take for granted every day,” he explained in before an Amnesty International “Conspiracy of Hope” concert in the mid-1980s. “I mean, some of the records that I’ve made: I would be rotting in jail for the last ten years.”

Reed did not just take the stage.

He took to the streets. In 2011, when Occupy Wall Street activists were being hounded in New York City, Reed took their side as one of the city’s best-known and most respected artists.

“I have never been more ashamed than to see the barricades tonight,” Reed told the Occupy crowd outside Lincoln Center.

“I want to Occupy Wall Street,” he continued on that cold December night. “I support it in each and every way. I’m proud to be part of it.”

In that remarkable mic-check moment, the crowd responded: “I’m proud to be part of it.”

Lou Reed was smiling right then. He was where he wanted to be: very much in the thick of things, very much on the side of those who were upsetting the status quo.

Reed spoke up. He showed up. He was indeed proud to be part of it.

John Nichols is national correspondent for The Nation. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, he is the author of Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, forthcoming from Nation Books this fall, and co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again; Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy; and People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizeness Democracy, published in March 2016 by Nation Books. Follow him on Twitter: @NicholsUprising.
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