It’s said often that democracy requires shared public virtues such as respect for others, belief in free and fair elections, the ability of citizens to live with differences, their capacity for open compromise and passion for ‘equality in freedom’ (Alexis de Tocqueville). Consideration of these core values is sometimes put in such sugary terms that it’s forgotten that democracy depends as well on the ethic of humility defended by people sometimes dubbed troublemakers: prickly types, curmudgeons, courageous individuals willing to refuse orthodoxies, contrarians who take no shit, certainly not from technicians of top-down power.
Lou Reed, who died last month, was for me a special champion of the ornery against the ordinary. The point hit home during my first and only close-range encounter with the man in a tiny cavernous club in San Francisco. The year was probably 1975. Such were the smoke-filled times that things were rather hazy that night. I do remember that we the audience – no more than about 50 fans - gradually grew belligerent at being made to wait. Reed eventually tumbled onto stage, nearly two hours late, to loud jeers.
Dressed in black, and visibly in a bad temper, he played reluctantly, out of tune. That earned him yet more jeering. After no more than about 10 minutes, he suddenly cut loose, pulled plugs, spat abuse in our direction (go make love to yourselves, or words to that effect). Then he slipped back stage, never to return. In a trice, feeling cheated, we retaliated. The joint was rudely disordered. Knowing that flashing lights would soon arrive, we fled our cavern, scampering in all directions, as fast as our wobbly legs could carry us.
Throughout his career, feeling gripped by cramping conventions, both musical and social, Reed specialised in dishing out trouble. Irritating audiences by making them wait was part of his persona. He liked to push things to the edge, and he did so with verve. In the mid-1960s, teaming up with the Welsh musician John Cale, a classically trained violist, he formed a band called the Primitives, later the Warlocks. This soon morphed into the Velvet Underground, the group which caught the eye of Andy Warhol and later lent its name to the 1989 ‘velvet revolutions’ in central-eastern Europe.
For a young university student of my generation, the Velvet Underground was unorthodox edge. It gave musical shape to the new politics of the personal. Even its name felt like a swipe at the world. Its lyrics were direct, no-nonsense allusions to such taboo topics as drugs, oral sex, gender ambiguity and sado-masochism. Its sound was a mix of pounding percussion, deliberate distortion and grinding noise, carefully composed. Sweet Jane was among my favourites from this period. Here’s a 2006 version, softer but still defiant, from Julian Schnabel’s film, Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse: