Lou Reed, who has died aged 71, was the lynchpin behind the Velvet Underground and a music icon with a career spanning almost 50 years.
One of New York City’s most valued and respected musicians, Reed’s influence on modern popular culture cannot be overstated. With the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol he is credited with bringing the avant-garde to the mainstream, and as a solo artist in the 1970s his music and aesthetic provided an immeasurable influence on glam, punk, noise rock, indie and beyond. Today, Reed’s legacy is still vast, while his collaborations and association with Warhol, David Bowie and Iggy Pop at the creative peak of his life have helped cement his reputation as one of rock and roll’s most legendary and seismic figures.
Lewis Allan ‘Lou’ Reed was born in Brooklyn in 1942. Growing up in a conservative Jewish household in Brooklyn, Reed’s childhood was strict. When he was aged 17, he was given electroshock treatment after his parents sent him to a psychiatrist to cure him of having homosexual feelings – a process which he later told Punk magazine co-founder Legs McNeil had a huge effect on his state of mind.
“They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.”
For Reed, who already had aspirations to become a writer, the effect of the treatment was devastating, and he spent much of the following year in a daze. Nevertheless, around 1963 he began writing songs while at New York’s Syracuse College, after learning to play the guitar from listening to and obsessing over rhythm and blues, doo wop and jazz records on his radio in the mid-1950s. Syracuse proved a lifeline for Reed, enabling him to escape the clutches of his parents and also mix with a renegade group of fellow students. Among them was Sterling Morrison, who he would later recruit to join The Velvet Underground.
Reed’s involvement with drugs began at Syracuse, where he sold as well as used marijuana, LSD and heroin. He graduated from the college in June 1964 with a BA and a clutch of his own songs, including the epic future Velvets track ‘Heroin’, before moving back to his parents’ house. There, Reed took a short-lived job writing songs for Pickwick Records. It was at Pickwick that he first met his Velvet Underground collaborator John Cale, after bosses assembled a band including the Welshman to play Reed’s song ‘The Ostrich’.
The two bonded quickly and formed the genesis of what would become The Velvet Underground. With Reed’s song subjects chiefly concerning his drug use, S&M and the darker, seedier side of New York life in the 1960s, the band’s commercial appeal was always going to be limited. But upon falling in with the upper Manhattan scene helmed by Warhol – who came on board as the band’s ad-hoc manager and something of a mentor to Reed – they found themselves at the epicentre of the city’s most vibrant artistic hotbed.
Despite a revolving door of line-up changes until Reed quit the band in August 1970, the Velvets released some of the most influential music of all time, with The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) consistently voted among the top albums ever in polls (last week it was named as the fifth greatest record of all time by NME). The album’s meagre sales at the time and subsequent cult status prompted Brian Eno, speaking in 1982, to state that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band” – and artists from The Strokes to David Bowie have spoken of its influence.
Bowie, in particular, would be a huge asset to Reed’s fledgling solo career in the early 1970s, co-producing his 1972 classic ‘Transformer’ and covering many of Reed’s songs live around the same time. It was this patronage that brought Reed to the attention of the record-buying masses in the UK, propelling him to superstar status with songs such as ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and ‘Satellite Of Love’.
Never one to toe the line, Reed turned alienating his fans into an art-form throughout his solo career, with the likes of ‘Metal Machine Music’ – a barrage of guitar feedback and abrasive effects that is now praised and loathed in equal measure – released in 1975 off the back of the chart-friendly ‘Sally Can’t Dance’, which was at that point his most successful and mainstream release. This penchant for the absurd continued right up until Reed’s later years, with his 2011 album with Metallica, ‘Lulu’ widely ridiculed upon its release.
Throughout the 1970s Reed continued to live out the hell-raising lifestyle, but in 1982 he married Sylvia Morales and began to calm, continuing to release new music with varying degrees of success. He also reunited with Cale for the first time since The Velvets’ split for ‘Songs For Drella’, a concept album dedicated to Warhol after his death in 1987.
The Velvets reunited properly in the mid 1990s for a successful European tour, and were inducted into the Rock’N’Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996. Meanwhile, Reed continued to live up to his persona for being equal parts enigmatic and difficult – whether by grilling journalists in interviews, or bringing his Tai Chi instructor onstage with him during performances. A multi-artist cover of ‘Perfect Day’, conversely, was a huge mainstream success, reaching Number One in the UK charts in 1997 after being released to raise money for Children In Need.
The turn of the century saw The Velvets and Reed re-introduced to a new generation, thanks to patronage from bands like The Strokes and The Libertines (the latter’s ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ is a tribute to ‘Ride Into The Sun’, while The Strokes and Reed conducted press interviews together). Antony Hegarty from Antony & The Johnsons was another collaborator, working with Reed on several projects including his 2003 release ‘The Raven’. The album also features contributions from Bowie and Reed’s second wife, the musician and performing artist Laurie Anderson, with whom he had been with since the late 1990s.
A heavy drinker and drug user for years, Reed had a liver transplant in May 2013. Soon after, he announced that he was aiming to get back to work quickly, stating, “I am a triumph of modern medicine,” and adding, “I look forward to being on stage performing, and writing more songs to connect with your hearts and spirits and the universe well into the future.”
It wasn’t to happen. Passionate and unpredictable until the end, one of the final things Reed did in public was to write a huge, sprawling review of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ record, praising it for its “moments of supreme beauty and greatness” while also chastising it for being the “same old shit” elsewhere. But it’s his music that he will be most fondly remembered for – the likes of ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Heroin’, ‘Venus In Furs’, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Candy Says’, ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Rock & Roll’, ‘Perfect Day’, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and many, many more of his tracks being among the most treasured, covered, praised and revered in all of modern rock music.
Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013. He is survived by his wife Laurie Anderson.