Story by the Associated Press; curated by Dave Urbanski
NEW YORK (AP) — Lou Reed — the avant-garde poet of hipster, urban-tinged rock n’ roll who profoundly influenced generations of musicians as the 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.
No songwriter to emerge after Bob Dylan so radically expanded the territory of rock lyrics. And no band did more than the Velvet Underground to open rock music to experimental theater, art, literature and film, to William Burroughs and Andy Warhol, Reed’s early patron.
Indie rock essentially begins in the 1960s with Reed and the Velvets; the punk, New Wave and alternative rock movements of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s were all indebted to Reed, whose songs were covered by R.E.M., Nirvana, Patti Smith and countless others.
“The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years,” Brian Eno, who produced albums by Roxy Music and Talking Heads among others, once said. “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
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.
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.”
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 and win a Grammy in 1999 for Best Long Form Music Video. 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.
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. 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.
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 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.”
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”).
Away from the Factory, the Velvets and were all too ahead of their time, getting tossed out of clubs or having audience members walk out. The mainstream press, still seeking a handle on the Beatles and the Stones, was thrown entirely by the Velvet Underground.
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.
Reed made just three more albums with the Velvet Underground before leaving in 1970. Their sound turned more accessible, and the final album with Reed, “Loaded,” included two upbeat musical anthems, “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane.”
He lived many lives in the ’70s. Reed simulated shooting heroin during concerts, cursed out journalists and once slugged David Bowie when Bowie suggested he clean up his life.
He played some reunion shows with the Velvet Underground and in 1990 teamed with Cale for “Drella,” a spare tribute to Warhol. 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 a 2011 collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.”
Here’s Reed onstage singing one of his hits, “Sweet Jane” with Metallica, a performance that helped spawn their album team-up two years ago: