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:
With albums like Berlin (1973), Metal Machine Music (1975) and Take No Prisoners (1978), Reed went on to defy musical expectations, and audience presumptions, at every turn. No sluggard, he was impossible to keep up with, or to pin down. He paved the way for glam rock, punk and other alternative musical styles. He once likened his defiant experimentalism to works of literature. ‘They’re all in chronological order’, he told Rolling Stone magazine, summarising his songs, with more than just a touch of self-deprecating irony. ‘You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.’ He was good at putting things in prosaic, street-gutter terms. ‘My bullshit’, he once said, when speaking of his refusal of dominant conventions, ‘is worth more than other people’s diamonds’.
Vibrant democracies need sharp-angled and unceremonious characters like Lou Reed. His open identification with civil rights, justice and environmental issues was the consequence of his embrace of agonism, and not the other way around. Reed struggled constantly to slam opposites into the same corner. Musical perfectionism and high standards captured low-life themes on de-tuned guitars. Both generous and unforgiving, he embodied detached cool and passionate anger. His mean face often softened with wry humour. Reed’s one-chord lyrics melded pain with beauty, softness with cruelty. He was the ultra-sensitive male romantic skilled at self-destructive surliness. He sang of dirt, all the while insisting that life is love, a feeling so important that anyone with a heart wouldn’t ever turn around and break the heart of others.
Blunt and brutal, he could be gentle, playful and self-deprecating. None of these qualities added up, but that was the democratic point, often made forcefully to know-all, know-nothing journalists, whom he once dubbed the ‘lowest form of life’ Check out this deadpan performance, cleverly delivered in August 1974, shortly after arriving at Sydney airport for his first tour down under:
Here the rock ‘n roll champion of the ornery against the ordinary was in deadly form, reminding everybody that democracy is much more than the obvious ‘one person, one vote’, or simple-minded preoccupation with faddish public likes and dislikes, among them celebrity fame, journalism and drugs. Another great American, Walt Whitman, reminded his audiences that democracy was about equality, that it was therefore not ‘only for elections’ because its ‘flower and fruits’ were found in the manners of ‘public and private life’. A century later, during a period of bitter public dispute about war on Vietnam, youth rebellion and political reaction, Lou Reed repeated the point. He called on his listeners not to give up, to see that life is not simply a dive. He stood up for the dignity of ‘little people’, for their higher right and duty to be different. For Reed, it was to be expected (say) that men would choose to dress in corsets and women in vests. He questioned compulsory sameness. He was against what later came to be called political correctness. His take was defiant. ‘Give me an issue’, he once sang in a 1978 live version of Sweet Jane, ‘and I’ll give you a tissue. I’ll wipe my arse with it’. Lou Reed composed and sang against imperiousness. He was sure villains could be made to blink. He detested snobbery. He championed rock n’ roll democracy.
Oh, yes, those were different times. Our years are darker, less equal, governed by second-rate politicians, greedy bankers and bigots, and by mean-spirited champions of conformity through surveillance. They’re reasons why Lou Reed deserves everywhere to be remembered, and not just by ageing democrats.
An earlier version of this obituary appeared on ABC’s The Drum.