Rock Music's Politics Are Expanding, Witness Lou Reed On Jesse Jackson

Posted: March 25, 1989

Remember the 1960s? (No, this is not a late-night TV ad for an oldies-but- goodies three-record set.) Remember when politicians and pundits quoted Bob Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones to prove they were on the side of the future?

Well, I want to tell you about a song that a major rock figure is singing these days. At the risk of looking like a befuddled middle-aged writer in search of portents in a record store, I think it may mean something.

The singer is Lou Reed. Back in the days when Andy Warhol was defining ''the scene," Reed was part of the Velvet Underground, singing about life in a world that Norman Rockwell did not illustrate.

"Walk on the Wild Side," his best-known song from those days, painted portraits of drag queens and hustlers, mean streets and drugged-out punks, that was something of an anthem for those wandering the farther shores of rebellion.

It is a very different Lou Reed these days: Free of a vicious drug habit, making the best music of his life, he is now on Broadway, performing songs

from his New York album - a work in which the politics of dissent has been fused with a clear-eyed levelheadedness unusual in pop music.

Sure, there is the obligatory denunciation of hypocrisy and privilege. In ''Straw Man," he asks, "Does anyone really need a billion-dollar rocket? Does anyone need a $60,000 car?" (It's a good thing Reed didn't ask the folks sitting in the front rows at his concert to answer that last one.)

In "There Is No Time," he says: "This is no time for phony rhetoric, this is no time for political speech. This is a time for action, because the future's within reach."

Fairly unsurprising stuff. But then Reed told his audience he was about to sing a song inspired by Jesse Jackson's speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Most of the audience began to applaud, and Reed held up a warning finger. "Wait a minute," he cautioned. "You don't know my politics yet."

Indeed. The song includes some highly critical lines about Jackson: ''Jesse, you say common ground, does that include the PLO? What about people right here right now, who fought for you not so long ago?"

And this one: "If I ran for president and once was a member of the Klan, wouldn't you call me on it - the way I call you on Farrakhan?"

The song ends with a question: "Oh is it true there's no ground common enough for me and you?"

Thanks to a superior sound system, or maybe the audience's familiarity with the album, much of the audience knew the lyrics; at least, enough of them did so that there were some audible boos mixed in with the cheers, and at least one cry of "Racist!"

But consider: In a universe where political sentiments are so often the recitation of the obvious - "War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!" goes one hard rock anthem - an important figure has actually introduced a measure of skepticism about the closest thing we have to a political superstar.

I'm not suggesting that we're about to hear a tribute to nuclear

disarmament from U2, or Bruce Springsteen in a plea for Jack Kemp's enterprise zones, or a daylong fund-raising concert for a lobbying effort on behalf of lower capital-gains taxes. No, rock music was indicted at its birth for its rebellious quality. It stirred the juices of the impressionable young, the critics said. And the critics were right.

This much, however, can be said. Rock has been the dominant popular music now for some 35 years. Its performers, and its audiences, range across the generations, and across ideology. It was, after all, Republican national chairman Lee Atwater who threw one of the great rhythm and blues concerts Washington has ever seen.

So why shouldn't an era so bereft of easy certainties find that uncertainty reflected in its music? Why not indeed. The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind - or is it?

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