Since Lou Reed's influence was exponentially bigger, and his personality occasionally much smaller than, his music, it's worth remembering why the late Velvet Underground singer/songwriter was deservedly famous in the first place. Jesse Walker posts some of the evidence below, to which I would add that the span of decades has dulled us to how shocking and boundary-pushing much of his earliest and greatest work was in the context of his times.
The Velvet Underground & Nico, now universally hailed as a classic, dropped like an Improvised Explosive Device into the pop universe on March 12, 1967. The number-one song in the country at the time was The Supremes' formulaic "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone"; it would be supplanted the next week by the saccharine nostalgia of "Penny Lane." The album charts were in the middle of a seven-month run of chart-topping dominance by The Monkees. Rock music was inventive and dynamic, but at the top it was still largely performed by attractive twentysomethings laying melodic vocals over love songs performed by top studio musicians.
VU, on the other hand, went both low culture and low-fi:
As Nick Gillespie and I describe in The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America,
One of the only music magazines to take contemporary note of The Velvet Underground & Nico called it "a full-fledged attack on the ears and on the brain." Legendary Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs in 1969 called the band a "bunch of junkiefaggot-sadomasochist-speed-freaks who roared their anger and their pain in storms of screaming feedback and words spat out like strings of epithets." And he liked them. The songs were about heroin, hitting your girlfriend, scoring drugs, and the pathos of planning for the next Manhattan party. The drummer was a girl (no normal occurrence in those days), who played standing up, with mallets. "The real question is what this music is about—smack, meth, deviate sex and drugdreams, or something deeper?" wondered Bangs. "The most important lesson [about] the Velvet Underground," he concluded, was "the power of the human soul to transcend its darker levels."
None of which would have held more popular interest than bad collegiate poetry if the songs hadn't been so catchy, even occasionally sweet. The first song off their debut album, "Sunday Morning," could almost be a children's lullaby if it wasn't for the nagging suspicion that the singer probably hadn't slept since Friday:
"Sunday Morning" was the favorite VU song of Jan Machá?ek, the longtime lead singer of the Czech Republic's Velvet Revival Band, unquestionably the greatest of all the world's VU cover bands (this despite Machá?ek's almost impenetrable accent in the late '80s and early '90s, in which he was more likely to sing "Hah-row-ween" than "Heroin"). Lou Reed's connection to the overthrow of communism, it turns out, was as indelible as it was accidental. The Velvet Revolution took its name in part from the Velvet Underground, and when Reed finally met Václav Havel in 1990, he was startled to hear one of the 20th century's great freedom fighters say, "Did you know that I am president because of you?"
The Lou Reed connection to anti-communism is one of the world's greatest examples of art taking on an unexpected and liberating life of its own. It's a story told in Tom Stoppard's terrific play Rock 'n' Roll, and occasionally in the pages of Reason. Here's an edit of our version in the "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" chapter of The Declaration of Independents:
No one is exactly sure how a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico found its way to Czechoslovakia before Soviet tanks crushed the cultural opening of the Prague Spring in August 1968. […]
Whatever the source, this influential piece of dissonant, drug-saturated, hyperurban yet occasionally gentle music, with the flat everyman vocals of Lou Reed alternating with the morose German female baritone of supermodel Nico, wound up in the hands of a teenage butcher's apprentice and budding rock bassist named Milan "Meijla" Hlavsa. "The Velvet Underground was something very different, very new, very real," Hlavsa recalled a quarter century later, "because their music was a part of their life. . . . It brought us America in a real way. It was good to see that in the States there were normal people who had problems like us." One month after the 1968 Soviet invasion, Hlavsa and some buddies started a band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Named after the song "Plastic People" by future Tipper Gore foil Frank Zappa (though perhaps also influenced by the Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" multimedia extravaganzas that the band would go on to emulate), Plastic People was mostly a cover band at first, singing versions in heavily accented English of Zappa, the Doors, the Fugs, and the Velvets. "The base of our music was the Velvet Underground," Hlavsa said. […]
Rock bands in Czechoslovakia required a license from the government, and in those days of communist "normalization," the Plastic People's was soon revoked. The band continued to play, but only at weddings (one of the few activities beyond the government's control) and at secret, one-time shows advertised through paranoid word of mouth. The Plastics acquired a Warholesque "artistic director," the crazed alcoholic imp Ivan Martin Jirous, and eventually replaced its English-language repertoire with a bunch of Czech originals derived from the poetry of various banned authors. The songs weren't political in any conventional sense, but when the state dictates culture, all unapproved acts become political, like it or not. […]
Forced underground by the censors, the Plastics and their followers christened their own artistic movement as "the underground" (in English), or druhá kultura ("second culture"). It was alternative before there was Alternative. As Hlavsa would tell an interviewer in 1997, "Our community, which was, probably imprecisely, referred to as 'underground,' was a pocket of normal life. . . . People with feelings similar to ours were coming to our concerts. Their music preferences were not necessarily similar, but music wasn't as important there as meeting people and being together in a normal environment for a while. I don't know if anything like that would be possible had the Plastic People of the Universe not existed then."
By 1976, the regime could stand it no more. At a festival celebrating druhá kultura, four members of the Plastic People, along with many other festival attendees, were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, no small offense in communist Czechoslovakia. It was a move that would not only backfire on communist authorities but help create source code for citizens of any lousy country to stand up to their oppressors. Dissent itself was about to be democratized, planting seeds that would eventually free hundreds of millions of people. Václav Havel, by this time, was not your typical rock 'n' roller. At age thirty-nine, this disheveled, chain-smoking playwright with the awkward stammer, son of one of the richest families in modern Czech history, spent much his time with his regal wife futzing about the garden of their vacation cottage outside of Prague, under the perpetual surveillance of the police. As an enthusiastic participant of the 1960s—"That was an extraordinarily interesting, fertile, and inspiring period, not only here, but in the culture of the entire world," he told an interviewer in 1975—Havel was a rock guy. He preferred the Stones to the Beatles and took from amplified music "a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated," he would later write. This may help explain why, the year before, after more than a half decade of depressed indolence brought on by normalization and the experience of being banned in his own country, Havel had uncorked a piece of literary and political punk rock whose ramifications are still being felt.
In April 1975, Havel sat down and, knowing that he'd likely be imprisoned for his efforts, wrote an open letter to his dictator, Gustáv Husák, explaining in fearless and painstaking detail just why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czechoslovakia. "So far," Havel scolded Husák, "you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power."
It was the big bang that set off the dissident movement in Central Europe. For those lucky enough to read an illegally retyped copy or hear it broadcast over Radio Free Europe, the effect was not unlike what happened to, well, those few people who bought the Velvet Underground's first record: After the shock and initial pleasure wore off, many said, "Wait a minute, I can do this too!" By standing up to a system that had forced every citizen to make a thousand daily compromises—indeed, by identifying those compromises and vowing to forego them in the future—Havel was suggesting a novel new tactic: Have the self-respect to call things by their proper names, never mind the consequences, and maybe you'll put the bastards on the defensive. "In general, I believe it always makes sense to tell the truth, in all circumstances," he told interviewer Jirí Lederer three weeks after issuing the letter. Besides, "I got tired of always wondering how to move in this situation, and I felt the need to stir things up, to confront others for a change and force them to deal with a situation that I myself had created." A Czech, then Slovak, then Polish, then communist-bloc dissident movement sprang up around Havel's letter, producing entire genres of literature within the confines of samizdat. Writers grew their hair out a bit, joked out loud about the secret police, and began looking for a cause célèbre. When the arty longhairs of the Plastic People got charged with disturbing the peace, it became a turning point both in Havel's life and the future of the world.
"What Havel realized was that this represented something very dangerous," said Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard, whose award-winning 2006 play Rock 'n' Roll centered on a Plastic People fan becoming radicalized in communist Prague, in 2009. "Now the state could put you into jail simply for being the wrong sort of bloke." As Havel would later recall, "Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life."
Havel's 1976 essay on the Plastic People trial—which he and his friends brazenly attended every day, shocking officials in the courtroom—has the rushed and liberated tone of someone who has just crossed a personal point of no return, or has just heard the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks for the first time. "It doesn't often happen and when it does it usually happens when least expected," the piece begins. "Somewhere, something slips out of joint and suddenly a particular event, because of an unforeseen interplay between its inner premises and more or less fortuitous external circumstances, crosses the threshold of its usual place in the everyday world, breaks through the shell of what it is supposed to be and what it seems, and reveals its innermost symbolic significance. And something originally quite ordinary suddenly casts a surprising light on the time and the world we live in, and dramatically highlights its fundamental questions."
Ivan Martin Jirous and his compadres, Havel writes, may not have "had any other aim in mind than persuading the court of their innocence and defending their right to compose and sing the songs they wanted," but through the absurd theatrics of totalitarianism they became "the unintentional personification of those forces in man that compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely, and in his own way, not to make deals with his heart and not to cheat his conscience, to call things by their true names . . . and to do so at one's own risk, aware that at any time one may come up against the disfavor of the 'masters,' the incomprehension of the dull-witted, or their own limitations." Havel and his friends began to experience "the exciting realization that there are still people among us who assume the existential responsibility for their own truth and are willing to pay a high price for it." Suddenly, "much of the wariness and caution that marks my behavior seemed petty to me. I felt an increased revulsion toward all forms of guile, all attempts at painlessly worming one's way out of vital dilemmas. Suddenly, I discovered in myself more determination in one direction, and more independence in another. Suddenly, I felt disgusted with a whole world, in which—as I realized then—I still have one foot: the world of emergency exits."
The essay ends with a classic description of Havel bumping into a film director who doesn't understand his sudden enthusiasm for defending a bunch of derelict, possibly drug-addled rock musicians. "Perhaps I'm doing him an injustice," Havel writes, "but at that moment, I was overwhelmed by an intense feeling that this dear man belonged to a world that I no longer wish to have anything to do with—and Mr. Public Prosecutor Kovarik, pay attention, because here comes a vulgar word—I mean the world of cunning shits."
With this middle finger pointed at commie censors and other cunning shits, Václav Havel and his friends then launched Charter 77, arguably the most influential human rights organization in modern history.
That none of this activity was intended when Lou Reed first picked up a guitar is precisely the point. Great art is its own catalyst. Expression that feels truly free can fire the imaginations of people who can only dream of the stuff. Havel always recognized his debt to Lou Reed and The Plastic People, inviting both to perform at Bill Clinton's White House. It is no accident that the rock & roll party after Havel's somber state funeral featured not one, but three songs about heroin. Or that a mini-documentary about Havel's passing would start with this sweet song:
Lou Reed was much more than the Velvet Underground and Revolution, of course. His most famous song, "Walk on the Wild Side," came from a solo album, the David Bowie-produced Transformer, that ranks with the VU's debut as Reed's finest work. Berlin is a classic bummer; Street Hassle is a living refutation to anyone who romanticizes 1970s Manhattan, and even the late-'80s New York has some choice sonic hate mail for Jesse Jackson, Kurt Waldheim, and Rudy Giuliani.
So yes, Reed deserves to be remembered for his outsized impact on world events, but it wasn't just blind geopolitical luck that got him there. At his best there was no songwriter who better juxtaposed melodic beauty and urban despair, low-fi delivery and high-class chord progressions. And no vocalist I can think of was better at living out the exuberance and euphoria of being an everyman singer who got lucky enough to play some goddamned rock & roll: