Lou Reed’s great American resistance music

Lou Reed died this weekend. He was an American giant in a way that seems the opposite of American giant-ness. No golden boy, he was a sexually ambiguous New York rock-and-roll artist before there was such a thing. His deceivingly simple songs are shot through with contradictions and ironies. They’re littered with gritty urban American characters — the ugly-beautiful cousins who have been smoking for years on the fire escape during Thanksgiving dinners and have managed thankfully to undermine most of the mainstream American myths that dominated until the Lou Reed era.

The Velvet Underground, which Reed started with John Cale in the 1960s, made music that has haunted songwriters all around the world. Rolling Stone on Sunday called the Velvet Underground “the most influential American rock band of all time.”

The band’s music overturned all kinds of received narratives about how life is supposed to be. It is cultural resistance music and its relevance seems only to grow. It has been taken up by cultural and political revolutionary movements across Europe, most notably perhaps in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet era, as the underground soundtrack for the “velvet revolution.”

Roger Cohen, who was Berlin bureau chief for the New York Times during the 1990s Balkan wars and who did much of the best reporting from the war zones for the paper, wrote a post-script in 2000 — an exploration of the young democratic movement called “Optor” that had caught fire in exhausted, psychologically damaged Serbia. “Optor” means “resistance,” and in Cohen’s poetic dispatch from a small southern town called Vladicin Han, Lou Reed’s music is the soundtrack for the movement, filling in where words fail.

[blockquote]The south of Serbia is known for plum brandy and gracious monasteries but scarcely for places like the Zulu Cafe in the small town of Vladicin Han, where the decor features African statuary and a favorite number is Lou Reed’s ”Perfect Day.” The sultry song wafts over this sleepy place, as unlikely as a rainbow, and abruptly everything does seem perfect enough: the sun is shining, the well-known police informer in the corner is showing scant interest in a stranger and Slobodan Milosevic is history, ousted in Europe’s last democratic revolution. It is possible to taste freedom, just as it is possible to taste murder, and this Serbian air no longer acrid with blood is little short of intoxicating.
    Davorin Popovic, 20, savors the light air laced with Reed’s voice as he sips a grainy coffee. This establishment opened in June. At the time, before Serbia’s October Revolution, a small-town bar with an African name was tantamount to sedition. Davorin compares his childhood here under Milosevic’s 13-year rule to that of a ”hostage”; he talks of building Serbian democracy ”from the roots up”; he exudes a fresh-faced determination that seems almost miraculous in a country so warped by war, so lulled by lies. But I am interested less in the dreams of this young revolutionary than in his fresh scars. For they tell the hard stories of how power really changed hands in this country and of what a necessarily scarred Serbian future holds…[/blockquote]
[blockquote]And it becomes clear to me, looking at the impassive Stojimenovic, remembering Bajagic, that this is what Davorin and Aca Radic and Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Homen and all the bold young men and women behind Serbia’s strangely bloodless revolution will have to come to terms with: the lies, the distortions, the reinventions, the holes in time, the frenetic scrambling of turncoats that are the legacy of the darkest period of Serbia’s history. It was a decade or more in which the Serb as eternal victim was incapable of seeing that this time around the Serb was more often the perpetrator of terrible crimes. These are the scars the coming generation will carry…[/blockquote]
[blockquote]I struggle to find some appropriate balance between this life still touched with innocence and all that death still unconfronted here in Serbia, but in the end can only fall silent again and listen to that hypnotic American voice of Velvet Underground fame:
    “It’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you. Oh, such a perfect day, you just keep me hanging on. . . . You’re going to reap just what you sow. You’re going to reap just what you sow. You’re going to reap just what you sow. . . . “[/blockquote]