Velvet Underground founder and pioneering avant-garde rocker Lou Reed came to the
defense of a beleaguered President Bill Clinton on Wednesday night during a special
White House visit, during which Reed played for the leader of the free world and called
the recent attack against him a "smear campaign."
During an unprecedented White House state dinner featuring a performance by a
politically outspoken rock star, Reed denounced the high-profile investigation of Clinton
by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and subsequent calls from Republicans for
"I think what's being done to him is terrible," Reed said, according to Howie Klein,
president of Reed's Reprise Records label, who also attended the state function. "Your
private life should be your private life. I think it's a smear campaign."
At any other time, a White House performance by revolutionary punk-rocker Reed
likely would have sparked a fair amount of controversy. After all, it's not often the
executive office opens its doors to an artist who forged a career with musical tales of
heroin addiction, sadomasochism and the collapse of modern society.
Then again, with President Clinton mired in his own controversy, surrounding an
admitted sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, Reed's
performance at a state dinner honoring Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel proved
something of a diversion from the recent scandal.
The founder of the hugely influential, avant-garde New York rock group the Velvet
Underground performed a 35-minute set, including his trademark
Jane"(RealAudio excerpt), at the request of his friend and fan Havel, who was
in Washington to lobby for the Czech Republic's inclusion in the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization. A renowned playwright whose works were once banned in his homeland,
Havel led the so-called "Velvet Revolution," named after his favorite rock group, which
toppled the Communist government of the former Czechoslovakia in 1989.
The first-ever state dinner featuring a rock performer also was attended by former Cars
leader Ric Ocasek, Reed's companion and avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson and R&B
legend Stevie Wonder. It also featured the unusual sight of Vice President Al Gore --
whose wife has been at the forefront of a movement to censor albums such as those by
Reed and his former band -- rocking out to the VU mastermind's music, according to
"The Vice President was totally rocking and even conservative Republican Senator
Richard Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was smiling, tapping his toes
and bopping his silver hair to 'Dirty Blvd.,' " Klein said of the song from Reed's acclaimed
1989 album, New York, which features lines critical of government, such as "Give
me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll piss on 'em/ That's what the Statue of Bigotry
says/ Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death/ and get it over with and just
dump 'em on the boulevard."
"The power of him playing that song in the White House was unbelievable," Klein said.
"To hear those lyrics so critical of the power structure -- even though I've heard it live and
on record 100 times -- was chilling."
Also included in the set were Reed's solo song "Riptide" and three songs from Reed's
collaboration "Time Rocker" with playwright Robert Wilson.
"The mood was very upbeat; you would have never thought any kind of scandal was
going on," Klein said. "The president and first lady [Hillary Rodham Clinton] were
dancing and having a great time and Lou got a standing ovation at the end of his set. It
was very different from the usual 'adult music' they'd have at these kinds of black-tie
events. Normally, it would be easy-listening jazz, and to have not just a rock 'n' roll
singer, but Lou Reed, was shocking."
Klein said the stern rocker wasn't on his best behavior, though. When approached
during a dress rehearsal by a protocol officer, who asked whether Reed could do
anything about the excessive volume of the drum kit, Klein said the singer "told him to
shut up, go away and leave him alone."
Joining Reed and his band onstage was Czech bassist Milan Hlavsa, a member of the
VU-influenced and highly acclaimed underground Czech group the Plastic People of the
Reed was not the only musician on hand who offered his support for the embattled
president, who has in the last week suffered calls by members of both the Democratic
and Republican parties to resign over allegations of perjury and other crimes related to
his relationship with Lewinsky.
"I told the president a long time ago that I was his friend and I am of the belief that when
you say you're someone's friend, it doesn't mean fair-weather friend," Stevie Wonder
was quoted as telling reporters. Also in attendance were actress Mia Farrow, author Kurt
Vonnegut and Henry Kissinger, who served as secretary of state under former President
In the last decade, with albums such as New York, Reed has become particularly
outspoken in his political views. His last studio album, Set The Twilight Reeling
(1996), included the anti-right-wing rant "Sex With Your Parents Part II (Motherfucker)" (RealAudio excerpt),
which blasts conservative leaders such as Republican former Senator Bob Dole and
talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh.
The dinner was followed by an after-party at the official guest house, Blair House,
attended by Reed and his entourage at the invitation of Havel. "I asked Lou if he ever
expected to play the White House and he said, 'no way,' " Klein recalled, adding that
Reed expressed his hope that Clinton would stay in office despite the Lewinsky scandal.
"I think he's doing a good job," Reed was quoted as saying.