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 Clinton's impeachment.
"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 "Sweet 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 Klein.
"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 Universe.
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 Richard Nixon.
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.