Lou Reed never had quite the notoriety or sales of ‘60s peers such as the Beatles or Bob Dylan — his only major commercial hit was “Walk on the Wild Side.” But his influence was just as vast, if not more so. Punk, post-punk and most strains of underground music of the last 40 years would not exist without the one-of-a-kind merger of music and words pioneered by Reed and his groundbreaking band, the Velvet Underground.
Reed died Sunday at 71 in Southampton, N.Y., of an ailment related to a liver transplant he underwent in May, his literary agent said.
He leaves behind one of the most profound musical legacies of any 20th century artist. His lyrics suggested a new kind of street poetry, at once raw and literary. His music — conceived with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker in the Velvet Underground — merged primitivism with sophisticated avant-garde ideas. The Velvets made four landmark studio albums before crumbling in 1970, each a template for the underground music to follow. The artists in their debt include R.E.M., David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads, Roxy Music, U2 and Patti Smith, and stretch from Iceland (Bjork) to South America (Os Mutantes). In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1990, Roxy Music founder Brian Eno reiterated his famous remark about the Velvets — “Only a few thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a band” — and embellished it: “I should know. I was one of those people.”
In a 1992 interview with the Tribune, Reed explained his daring mix of high and low art. He only wanted nothing to do with the middle-brow territory occupied by most rock music in the ‘60s and beyond.
“I was an English major in college, for chrissakes,” Reed said. “I ought to be able to put together a good lyric at the very least. It would be embarrassing if I couldn’t. And I really like rock. It’s party stuff, dance stuff and R&B stuff that we all grew up on and loved. But I wanted something that would engage you mentally, that you could listen to on another level. I just thought that would be the perfect thing in rock ‘n’ roll. That 10 years from now you could still listen to one of my albums because it wasn’t just a party record, but something that would engage you emotionally, intellectually, if not spiritually, on the level that a novel can. And because you also have music going on, you could do something that no other form could do, especially if someone is listening on headphones. You could really get their attention and really take them someplace. You’re joining the voice in their head with your voice-there’s no one else there.”
Reed, born in Brooklyn in 1942, grew up in a middle-class family and went on to study at Syracuse University, where he was mentored by the famed poet Delmore Schwartz. His staunch interest in Beat literature and classic soul and doo-wop was perhaps underutilized in his job as staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York, but the for-hire tunesmithing sharpened his affinity for writing simple two- or three-chord melodies. “I wanted to be a writer, always did,” he once said. “Ever since elementary school I was writing songs, and I’ve essentially been able to survive by writing. I consider myself really, really lucky.”
That gift flourished in the Velvets, where he wrote such future classics as “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Sweet Jane” and “Pale Blue Eyes.” In the mid-’60s, he befriended Cale, a classically trained musician from Wales, who brought a cutting-edge sense of harmonics and texture to Reed’s melodies. Cale in turn was astounded by Reed’s skill with lyrics. “I’d never met anyone like Lou who could put words together like that. He would create these dangerous scenarios in the songs, in part because we were finding ourselves in these strange, dangerous scenarios all the time in New York.”
At a time when rock music was only just beginning to grapple with deeper subjects, Reed’s songs put society’s misfits, outcasts and pariahs at the center, and not in a judgmental way. The epic “Heroin,” its dire scene set by the ebb and surge of the guitars and Cale’s viola, focused on a junkie. As shocking as the subject matter was when Reed and his bandmates began performing it in New York City clubs in 1965, “Heroin” was a nuanced and tragic first-person portrayal of addiction. It’s a song about free will as much as drugs, about how a desperate person might try to escape or erase a world that he no longer comprehends. The junkie lives for his fix, even as he realizes that it will some day “nullify” him.
“I don’t think I’ve backed away from any subject,” Reed told the Tribune. “Though I look back at some of it and say, ‘Whoa!’ I try to play fair. If I write that way about you, then when it comes to me, I have to write that way, too. ... All the way back to ‘Heroin,’ the idea was to tell stories from different points of view, with conflicting opinions. Some of it can seem very personal, or at least it comes across that way, because you’re acting. And then you can write something equally personal that’s completely at odds with what the first person said. Any great novel has lots of ‘personal things’ floating through it, whatever the character you’re writing about.”
The Velvets were embraced by Andy Warhol, who made the band part of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol would project his art films on the band, dressed all in black, while dancers writhed and, in some cases, cracked whips. Reed’s lyrics looked at transgressive subjects, whether sadomasochism (“Venus in Furs”) or drug dealing (“Waiting for the Man”), with a storyteller’s eye for detail and a poet’s flair for wordplay. The music could be ferociously violent or deeply sensitive, expanding the vocabulary of the rock quartet to include Eastern, European, classical and experimental impulses.
But the band was never widely understood in its time, and Reed left at the start of the ‘70s to pursue a solo career. His work was soon championed by a new wave of bands out of England and New York, including the New York Dolls, Sex Pistols and Patti Smith, and Reed became the “godfather of punk.” The Bowie-produced “Walk on the Wild Side” single and “Transformer” album in 1972 became key moments in the gender-bending glam movement.
Along the way, Reed went from a widely misunderstood, even reviled underground figure into an international man of letters, published author and respected artist. In Europe, the Velvets music became central to the so-called “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia during the late ‘80s, and Reed was later lionized by the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, for contributing to the democratic shift. His solo albums became more elaborate, conceptual works, such as the much-praised 1989 release “New York”; his 1990 collaboration with Cale in tribute to their late benefactor Warhol, “Songs for Drella”; and his deep dive into the work of Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven” (2003). His last major project was a deeply divisive collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.” It was in keeping with a history that includes its share of controversial releases, such as the all-instrumental noise album “Metal Machine Music” in 1975 and the brutal rock opera “Berlin” in 1973. The latter “didn’t get one positive review and was considered a disaster” when it first came out, Reed once remarked, “and now people think it’s a masterpiece” upon its reissue several decades later. “I’ve learned it takes people time to figure out what I’m up to.”
Embedded within this cycle of reluctant acceptance was Reed’s defiant, sometimes downright icy public persona. He was notorious for chewing up interviewers who did not properly defer to him. His jousting with the late critic Lester Bangs is one of the great chapters in the rock-media civil war. But Reed once showed a different side when a Tribune reporter tried to interview him backstage at the 1990 Farm Aid concert in Indianapolis. Reed, hiding behind shades and giving mono-syllabic answers, was in no apparent mood to talk when the journalist sat down with him. Then the writer’s tape recorder inexplicably stopped working.
“Here, let me take a look at that,” Reed offered. “Let’s reload these batteries ... Have you checked the pause button?”
Then Reed took off his shades and peered up from the balky machine. “You know,” he said, “we’re just going to have to improvise.”
10 ESSENTIAL LOU REED ALBUMS
With the Velvet Underground:
• “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (1967): No rock album of the ‘60s pushed more boundaries simultaneously in sound and subject matter. Abrasive and beautiful, shocking and surreal, poetic and punishing, each of its songs opened up a new way of looking at the world and in some cases initiated entire musical movements.
• “White Light/White Heat” (1968): The guitars sound like cyclones invading flower-power country.
• “The Velvet Underground” (1969): With John Cale gone, Reed reinvents the Velvets as a subversive folk-rock band.
• “Loaded” (1970): “Sweet Jane,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and a batch of should-have-been hits.
Lou Reed solo:
• “Transformer” (1972): David Bowie transforms his idol into a glam-rock star, but the songs often surpass the pose.
• “Berlin” (1973): In the rock-opera era, this is among the bleakest and best.
• “Street Hassle” (1978): Reed’s version of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.”
• “The Bells” (1979): The title track is among Reed’s greatest creations.
• “The Blue Mask” (1982): Robert Quine’s guitar kickstarts Reed’s finest post-Velvets band.
• “New York” (1989): The rocker tours the city that defined him, for better or worse.