Obituary: Lou Reed, singer-songwriter

Lou Reed. Picture: Getty
Lou Reed. Picture: Getty
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Born: 2 March, 1942, in Brooklyn, New York. Died: 27 October, 2013, in New York, aged 71

Lou Reed was 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. He died of an ailment related to his recent liver transplant.

Reed never approached the commercial success of such superstars as the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but 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 theatre, art, literature and film, to William Burroughs and Kurt Weill, to John Cage and Andy Warhol, Reed’s early patron.

Indie rock essentially began 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 REM, Nirvana, Patti Smith and countless others. “The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years,” Brian Eno 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.

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 US 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.

An outlaw in his early years, Reed would eventually perform at the White House, have his writing published in the New Yorker 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.

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.

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. Reed honoured his mentor in the song My House, recounting how he connected with the spirit of the late, mad poet through a Ouija board.

Reed moved to New York City after college and travelled 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, the 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 on to the band while they performed.

“Warhol was the great catalyst,” Reed said 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, sadomasochism and prostitution. His love songs were less stories of boy-meets-girl, than ambiguous studies of the heart.

Away from the Factory, the Velvets were 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. The New York Times at first couldn’t find the words, calling the Velvets “Warhol’s jazz band” in a January 1966 story and “a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and Egyptian belly-dance music” just days later.

At Warhol’s suggestion, they performed and recorded with 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. On Heroin, Cale’s viola screeched and jumped behind Reed’s obliterating junkie’s journey.

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.

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 and once slugged David Bowie when he suggested Reed clean up his life.

“Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock ‘n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity and suicide,” wrote Bangs, a dedicated fan and fearless detractor, “and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke … mumbling punch lines that kept losing their punch.”

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.

He played some reunion shows with the Velvet Underground and in 1990 teamed with Cale for Drella, a tribute to Warhol. He continued to receive strong reviews in the 1990s 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.

He is survived by his second wife, musician Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008.