What becomes a legend most?
Before he finally flew into the sun this week, Lou Reed set the world of rock ‘n’ roll aflame, filled stereos with the spirit of pure poetry, renounced the fakery of so much commercial success, fed the Velvet Revolution and chronicled some of New York City’s freakiest characters.
He did it all on just two livers and one legendary heart.
In a strange way, Mr. Reed came from a simpler time, when things were more as they seemed.
That is strange considering how much of his glorious passion he spilled on some seriously confused people seeking answers in dark and destructive places. And when you consider that the heroine of his life was, well, heroin.
But it was a simpler time in that Mr. Reed was a true liberal at a time when liberals believed in liberty. They didn’t mock groups founded on the principle of freedom. They were suspicious of authority, especially the type of authority that is heavily armed, all-seeing and maintains large prisons.
Back then, liberals did not seek to shimmy under the giant thumb of big, powerful, authoritarian government. They understood that in asking for something free from the government, you would be making a deal with the devil.
In the struggle between freedom and security, those liberals went with freedom every time. And that is what Mr. Reed’s music was about. His music was a rude, clanging demand for freedom at all costs.
Of course, freedom is not necessarily pretty. Nor is it always what you want it to be.
Sometimes, it’s a dude from Miami, F.L.A., plucking his eyebrows, shaving his legs and arriving in New York City as a she. Freedom is certainly a walk on the wild side.
The demand for freedom is never polite. Politeness subjugates those who yearn to be free and gives power to their oppressor. It implies freedom derives from some source other than God.
So, yes, Mr. Reed just might walk out onto stage wearing fishnets, fake lashes and mascara and scream obscenities at his audience. Or take a 30-minute interview with a hapless Swede struggling with English and utterly humiliate him because he felt like it.
And he wrote numerous love songs to heroin, his pulsing heartbeat played by a quickening drum.
Those old liberals didn’t question people’s motives for wanting to be free. They didn’t judge. And they respected a guy who just wants to be left alone with his guns or his cats or his paintings or whatever.
It was Lou Reed’s sound of untidy freedom that Czechoslovakians heard from behind the Iron Curtain. And it made them yearn.
When they finally emerged from the rubble of socialism, what did the leader of the Velvet Revolution ask for? A drink of water? A trip to Disney World? Free health care?
No. Vaclav Havel asked for Lou Reed. And so Lou Reed was brought to the White House to play for the poet-president.
Part of what made Mr. Reed’s music so politically powerful was that it was not overtly political. It was shocking and scandalous but not political. It wasn’t folk music. It was just him wanting to get free.
• Charles Hurt can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @charleshurt.