Passings: Lou Reed, American Innovator, Leading from the Wild Side

This week, we mourn the passing of a great American musical philosopher, Lou Reed. He showed up, spoke up, sang up, transformed rock n’ roll and modeled a kind of crass, independent, principled artistic leadership that deserves to be recognized. He died at 71, from liver failure.

Lou Reed speaking at SXSW in 2008. Photo from the Nation's profile (Courtesy of Flickr user Nikolai36, CC BY-SA 2.0)

” Lou Reed speaking at SXSW in 2008. Photo from the Nation’s profile (Courtesy of Flickr user Nikolai36, CC BY-SA 2.0)

His inspiring role as an artist on the cutting edge of cultural change is one way of looking at his legacy. From the Guardian’s obituary: “The [Velvet Underground’s] influence on rock, art rock and punk was memorably summed up by Brian Eno’s observation that although the first Velvet Underground album may have sold only 30,000 copies in its first few years, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

But Reed wasn’t just the inciter of garage bands and radical noise. He used his art to take a stand for what he believed, from breaking cultural taboos about sexuality to Occupy Wall Street and the Edward Snowdon Controversy. In 1982, he shared his political message in the song, “The Day John Kennedy Died.”

I dreamed I was the president of these United States
I dreamed I replaced ignorance, stupidity and hate
I dreamed the perfect union and a perfect law, undenied
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done
I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone
I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take
And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

Quoted in John Nichols’ article, Lou Reed’s Politics, in the Nation.

That’s quite a mournful call to authentic, hopeful service leadership!

The Star Tribune commented, “Lou Reed was a pioneer for countless bands who didn’t worry about their next hit single. [He] radically challenged rock’s founding promise of good times and public celebration.” In leadership terms, he challenged the music industry, his fans and mainstream culture by choosing to tell a different story through his music, pointing a finger with equal passion at hypocrisy and hope. His methods and messages raise an important question about leadership, and leadership and the arts: how important is it to be nice? In other words, can leadership be innovative without tipping our sacred cows?

One perspective says “YES.” This kind of controversial, crass art is often viewed as corrupting, if we look at leadership as something that brings many different kinds of people together, or builds universal bridges between conservative impulses and transformational vision. Reed wrote and sang about ugly secrets. He alienated as many people as he inspired. So, from the perspective of leadership as something soothing, something integrative and service-oriented, that wants change to be weathered as smoothly as possible, sacred cows are meant to be nurtured not accosted.

Another says, “NO.”  Putting new ideas into the marketplace (major or marginal) is one role of the artist leader. It’s all about awakening a community, telling a story, witnessing a world that is hidden, for better or for worse. Reviewing Reed’s 1989 topical album “New York,” Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote that “the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery — plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff. Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation — all that’s missing is a disquisition on real estate.”

Whichever side you choose, it’s undeniable that art is a form of leadership development. Just look at projects from Art Core, or consider folk singer Pete Seeger’s career, and his remarkable work with Clearwater, a movement to clean up the Hudson one citizen-friendly group at a time. Neither movement is based on celebrity. It’s about presence and the integrative power of art/music/theatre to change people’s perspectives, to lead, if you will, the mind to a new place where the world looks entirely different.

I know I’m drawn to art leadership from the scruffy fringe of mainstream culture, innovators like Lou Reed and Pussy Riot, as well as artists and writers who were once considered controversial, but whose works are now known as classic (Thoreau, Samuel Clemens, George Orwell.) It’s not so much about the message (although obviously I choose artist leaders I resonate with). It’s about the way craft, innovation and influence make artists into something more than individuals telling their story, however they tell it. It’s also about the ways artists take on a powerful archetype — visionary storyteller. They reach into the core of human experience, for the moment or for centuries.

This week, we remember Lou Reed. If he’s not one of the artist leaders you admire, I invite you to look at the ones you do — what visionary storytellers lead your imagination?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: