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Lou Reed, the enlightened singer-songwriter whose walk on rock and roll’s wild side included fronting the iconic 1960s group The Velvet Underground and taking on unsavory subjects in a fascinating solo career, died Sunday. He was 71.
In June, shortly after he canceled a gig at Coachella, it was announced that Reed had undergone a liver transplant operation at the Cleveland Clinic. “I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry. I am bigger and stronger than ever,” he wrote on his website.
Reed and photographer Mick Rock appeared in New York City on Oct. 3 to promote the launch of their book Transformer, filled with photos of Reed that included his days in the 1970s as a glam-rock paragon in the mold of David Bowie.
Reed married performance artist and electronic music pioneer Laurie Anderson in 2008. She survives him.
With The Velvet Underground — which started out as the house band for Andy Warhol‘s mixed-media studio The Factory — Reed sang and wrote such landmark songs as “Heroin,” “Sister Ray,” “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” “Venus in Furs,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “What Goes On” and “Lisa Says.”
After exiting the group in 1970, the acidic Reed perfected his sparse, trademark monotone in delivering such hits as “Perfect Day,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Satellite of Love” and “Dirty Blvd.”
Rolling Stone once described his voice as “a confrontational blend of dry intonation and hard New York-native attitude that suited the dark, frank songs he wrote about sex, drugs and lost souls.”
“Maybe listening to my music is not the best idea if you live a very constricted life. Or maybe it is,” Reed said in a cantankerous 2010 interview with Spin magazine. “I’m writing about real things. Real people. Real characters. You have to believe what I write about is true or you wouldn’t pay any attention at all. Sometimes it’s me, or a composite of me and other people. Sometimes it’s not me at all.”
His final album was Lulu, a 2011 collaboration with Metallica, the last in a lifetime of unexpected turns.
Born in Brooklyn on March 2, 1942, Reed grew up on Long Island and was an English major at Syracuse University, where he was mentored by poet and instructor Delmore Schwartz. He graduated in 1964, then moved to New York City and landed a job as a songwriter for the low-budget Pickwick Records, imitating hits of the day.
He met Welshman John Cale, who played viola and had come to the U.S. to study classic music, and in 1964 they formed The Velvet Underground, with Reed’s college friend Sterling Morrison on guitar and Maureen Tucker on drums. Warhol saw them play at Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village and became the band’s manager.
Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, released in March 1967, was radio-unfriendly and barely dented the list of the top 200 albums on the charts. Yet the avant-garde masterpiece would become one of the most influential LPs of all time, with Rolling Stone placing it No. 13 on its top 500 list in 2003.
Musical innovator Brian Eno once said that while the Velvets’ first effort might have sold only 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Fueled by Reed’s intimate introspection, the album explored such topics such as drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and sexual deviancy.
The Velvets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Reed, however, is not in as a solo artist.
After four albums, Reed quit the bohemian band in August 1970 (Cale lasted just two albums before being ousted in a rift with Reed) and worked as a typist in his father’s accounting business. He signed with RCA Records and recorded an eponymous album of unreleased Velvet tunes.
Reed’s solo breakthrough came with 1972’s Transformer, co-produced by Bowie and his guitarist-arranger, Mick Ronson, who were big fans of the Velvets. The album, with a cover photograph by Rock that showed Reed with a dash of eye makeup, included “Perfect Day,” “Satellite of Love” and, most famously, “Walk on the Wild Side,” his signature tale of misfits, hustlers and transvestites that peaked at No. 16.
A sample lyric:
Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side”
Reed, also an accomplished guitarist, followed with Berlin, a dark concept album about junkies in love with songs about domestic abuse, drug addiction, adultery and suicide.
“Lou is to rock and roll what Miles Davis is to jazz,” said Hal Wilner, the respected music producer and supervisor who worked extensively with Reed and considered him a close friend. “This guy has changed the way we look at rock and roll like half a dozen times and people have followed him. You have a lot of people who changed the way they looked, performed and approached music because of him. It’s unbelievable. He’s a true leader, a true king of rock and roll in every way.”
In 1974 and ’75, Reed recorded the album Sally Can’t Dance, two live records and a double disc of feedback loops, Metal Machine Music, that some critics called genius and many of his fans returned to the record store after a listen.
John Holmstrom, the former editor of the now defunct Punk magazine who interviewed Reed for the fanzine’s first issue in 1976, described Metal Machine Music’s impact this way: “MMM is one of the greatest records of all time. It kicked off the whole punk movement. I mean, it nearly destroyed Lou’s career. How much more punk can you get than that?”
Subsequent albums included the mellower Coney Island Baby (1976); the raw, punk-era Street Hassle (1978); the compelling The Blue Mask (1982), his first effort after overcoming alcohol and drug addictions; the classic New York (1989), a series of sketches about the city’s decay; and The Raven (2003), drawn from his obsession with kindred spirit Edgar Allan Poe.
It was a love of the literary that guided Reed’s career.
He told Spin: “Hubert Selby. William Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg. Delmore Schwartz. To be able to achieve what they did, in such little space, using such simple words … I thought if you could do what those writers did and put it to drums and guitar, you’d have the greatest thing on Earth. You’d have the whole pie. It’s a simple thought. There’s nothing complicated about me. I’m as straight as you can get.”
Mitch Myers contributed to this report.
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