Lou Reed 1942-2013
Lou Reed, the punk poet of rock n’ roll who profoundly influenced generations of musicians as leader of the Velvet Underground and remained a vital solo performer for decades after, died Sunday at the age of 71.
Reed died in Southampton, N.Y. of an ailment related to his recent liver transplant, according to his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who added that Reed had been in frail health for months. Reed shared a home in Southampton with his wife and fellow musician, Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008.
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. No songwriter to emerge after Dylan so radically expanded the territory of rock lyrics. And no band did more than the Velvet Underground to open rock music to the avant-garde – to experimental theater, art, literature and film, to William Burroughs and Kurt Weill, to John Cage and Andy Warhol, Reed’s early patron.
“Lou Reed’s influence is one that there are really only a tiny handful of other figures who you can compare to him,” said Simon Vozick-Levinson, a senior editor at Rolling Stone.
“He spoke incredibly frankly about the realities of being an artist, being a person who lived life on one’s own terms. He didn’t prettify things. He didn’t sugarcoat things. He showed life as it really is and that’s something that made him a true original, and one of our great all-time artists,” he said.
Reed was a rock pioneer who went from record label songwriter to a member of the short-lived but innovative and influential Velvet Underground. The band and Reed’s solo work tackled taboo topics like drug addiction, paranoia and sexual deviancy in songs that were largely spare, muscular and often saturated in feedback.
Reed “was one of the first artists to experiment with guitar feedback on record and to show that sort of ugly noise can actually be quite beautiful and moving. He also, lyrically, wrote about all kinds of topics that were taboo before he started exploring them,” said Vozick-Levinson. 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 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.”
Nevertheless, Rolling Stone ranks the group’s debut album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” as the 13th greatest of all time. Tunes like “Sweet Jane,” and “Rock And Roll” from the group’s 1970 album “Loaded,” have become rock standards.
Reed’s trademarks were a monotone of surprising emotional range and power; slashing, grinding guitar; and lyrics that were complex, yet conversational, designed to make you feel as if Reed were seated next to you. Known for his cold stare and gaunt features, he was a cynic and a seeker who seemed to embody downtown Manhattan culture of the 1960s and ’70s and was as essential a New York artist as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Reed’s New York was a jaded city of drag queens, drug addicts and violence, but it was also as wondrous as any Allen comedy, with so many of Reed’s songs explorations of right and wrong and quests for transcendence.
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.”
He had one top 20 hit, “Walk On the Wild Side,” and many other songs that became standards among his admirers, from “Heroin” and “Sweet Jane” to “Pale Blue Eyes” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Raised on doo-wop and Carl Perkins, Delmore Schwartz and the Beats, Reed helped shape the punk ethos of raw power, the alternative rock ethos of irony and droning music and the art-rock embrace of experimentation, whether the dual readings of Beat-influenced verse for “Murder Mystery,” or, like a passage out of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” the orgy of guns, drugs and oral sex on the Velvets’ 15-minute “Sister Ray.”
He was one of rock’s archetypal tough guys, but he grew up middle class – an accountant’s son raised on Long Island. Reed was born to be a suburban dropout. He hated school, loved rock n’ roll, fought with his parents and attacked them in song for forcing him to undergo electroshock therapy as a supposed “cure” for being bisexual. “Families that live out in the suburbs often make each other cry,” he later wrote.
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. On “Heroin,” Cale’s viola screeched and jumped behind Reed’s obliterating junkie’s journey, with his sacred vow, “Herrrrrr-o-in, it’s my wife, and it’s my life,” and his cry into the void, “And I guess that I just don’t know.” 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.
“‘Heroin’ is the Velvets’ masterpiece – seven minutes of excruciating spiritual extremity,” wrote critic Ellen Willis. “No other work of art I know about has made the junkie’s experience so horrible, so powerful, so appealing; listening to ‘Heroin’ I feel simultaneously impelled to somehow save this man and to reach for the needle.”
His real break began in college. At Syracuse University, he studied under Schwartz, whom Reed would call the first “great man” he ever encountered. He credited Schwartz with making him want to become a writer and to express himself in the most concrete language possible. Reed honored his mentor in the song “My House,” recounting how he connected with the spirit of the late, mad poet through a Oiuja board. “Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore,” he sang.
Reed moved to New York City after college and traveled in the pop and art worlds, working as a house songwriter at the low-budget Pickwick Records and putting in late hours in downtown clubs. One of his Pickwick songs, the dance parody “The Ostrich,” was considered commercial enough to record. Fellow studio musicians included a Welsh-born viola player, John Cale, with whom Reed soon performed in such makeshift groups as the Warlocks and the Primitives.
They were joined by a friend of Reed’s from Syracuse, guitarist-bassist Sterling Morrison; and by an acquaintance of Morrison’s, drummer Maureen Tucker, who tapped out simple, hypnotic rhythms while playing standing up. They renamed themselves the Velvet Underground after a Michael Leigh book about the sexual subculture. The Velvets were embraced by Andy Warhol. By the mid-1960s, they were rehearsing at Warhol’s “Factory,” a meeting ground of art, music, orgies, drug parties and screen tests for films that ended up being projected onto the band while it performed, part of what Warhol called the “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.
“Warhol was the great catalyst,” Reed told BOMB magazine in 1998. “It all revolved around him. It all happened very much because of him. He was like a swirl, and these things would come into being: Lo and behold multimedia. There it was. No one really thought about it, it was just fun.”
Before the Velvets, references to drugs and sex were often brief and indirect, if only to ensure a chance at radio and television play. In 1967, the year of the Velvets’ first album, the Rolling Stones were pressured to sing the title of their latest single as “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” instead of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” when they were performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The Doors fought with Sullivan over the word “higher” from “Light My Fire.”
The Velvets said everything other bands were forbidden to say and some things other bands never imagined. Reed wrote some of rock’s most explicit lyrics about drugs (“Heroin,” ”Waiting for My Man”), sadomasochism (“Venus in Furs”) and prostitution (“There She Goes Again”). His love songs were less stories of boy-meets-girl, than ambiguous studies of the heart, like the philosophical games of “Some Kinda Love” or the weary ballad “Pale Blue Eyes,” an elegy for an old girlfriend and a confession to a post-breakup fling:
It was good what we did yesterday
And I’d do it once again
They fact that you are married
Only proves you’re my best friend
But it’s truly, truly a sin
At Warhol’s suggestion, they performed and recorded with the sultry, German-born Nico, a “chanteuse” who sang lead on a handful of songs from their debut album. A storm cloud over 1967’s Summer of Love, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” featured a now-iconic Warhol drawing of a (peelable) banana on the cover and proved an uncanny musical extension of Warhol’s blank-faced aura. The Velvets juxtaposed childlike melodies with dry, affectless vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “Femme Fatale.”
Reed made just three more albums with the Velvet Underground before leaving in 1970. Cale was pushed out by Reed in 1968 (they had a long history of animosity) and was replaced by Doug Yule. Their sound turned more accessible, and the final album with Reed, “Loaded,” included two upbeat musical anthems, “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane,” in which Reed seemed to warn Velvets fans – and himself – that “there’s even some evil mothers/Well they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt.”
He lived many lives in the ’70s, initially moving back home and working at his father’s office, then competing with Keith Richards as the rock star most likely to die. He binged on drugs and alcohol, gained weight, lost even more and was described by critic Lester Bangs as “so transcendently emaciated he had indeed become insectival.” Reed simulated shooting heroin during concerts, cursed out journalists and once slugged David Bowie when Bowie suggested he clean up his life.
Reed called one song “Growing Up in Public” and his career was an ongoing exhibit of how any subject could be set to rock music – the death of a parent (“Standing On Ceremony), AIDS (“The Halloween Parade”), some favorite movies and plays (“Doin’ the Things That We Want To”), racism (“I Want to be Black”), the electroshock therapy he received as a teen (“Kill Your Sons”).
Reviewing Reed’s 1989 topical album “New York,” Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote that “the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery – plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff. Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation – all that’s missing is a disquisition on real estate.”
In 1982, Reed told The New York Times that his goal wasn’t just to make music, but create literature.
“People say rock ‘n’ roll is constricting, but you can do anything you want, any way you want,” he said. “And my goal has been to make an album that would speak to people the way Shakespeare speaks to me, the way Joyce speaks to me. Something with that kind of power; something with bite to it.”
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 (Syracuse University), 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.”
“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.”
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.
His albums in the ’70s were alternately praised as daring experiments or mocked as embarrassing failures, whether the ambitious song suite “Berlin” or the wholly experimental “Metal Machine Music,” an hour of electronic feedback. But in the 1980s, he kicked drugs and released a series of acclaimed albums, including “The Blue Mask,” ”Legendary Hearts” and “New Sensations.”
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, he played some reunion shows with the Velvet Underground and the Velvets music became central to the so-called “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia during the late ’80s. 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”. He continued to receive strong reviews in the 1990s and after for such albums as “Set the Twilight Reeling” and “Ecstasy” and he continued to test new ground, whether a 2002 concept album about Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” or his last major project, 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.”
An outlaw in his early years, Reed would eventually perform at the White House, have his writing published in The New Yorker, be featured by PBS in an “American Masters” documentary on his career up to that point. which won a Grammy in 1999 for Best Long Form Music Video.
The rock band the Pixies wrote on their Twitter page, “R.I.P. LOU REED….A LEGEND.” Iggy Pop wrote simply: “Devastating news.”
Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy, called him “an exceptionally gifted singer, songwriter, and musician who has had a profound impact on rock music and our culture,”
The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1996 and their landmark debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” was added to the Library of Congress’ registry in 2006. “We have lost a true visionary and creative leader, and his groundbreaking work will forever hold its rightful place in music history,” Portnow said.
Compiled with gratitude from web reports on Reed’s passing.