Feature

Lou Reed, 1942–2013

The dark visionary who reshaped rock ’n’ roll

Lou Reed was the poet laureate of urban lowlifes. Pale, sullen, and almost always dressed in black, he eulogized the denizens of New York City’s underworld in his two-chord songs and introduced taboo subjects like cross-dressing, drug abuse, and sadomasochism into the American pop repertoire. His gritty writing—with his celebrated 1960s band the Velvet Underground and in his four-decade solo career—came from firsthand experience. He binged on drink and drugs for much of his adult life, and between his first and second marriages lived openly with a transvestite named Rachel. When he arrived in Sydney for an Australian tour in 1974, a reporter asked him, “Are you a transvestite or a homosexual?” Reed replied, “Sometimes.”

Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn, the son of a tax accountant and a former beauty queen. “It wasn’t a happy childhood for him or his family,” said the Los Angeles Times. Reed played his electric guitar loudly and suffered wild mood swings. At age 17 he was sent to a psychiatric hospital for electroshock therapy, which was intended to cure him of his hostility to his parents and what they believed to be his latent homosexuality.

He studied English at Syracuse University and after graduating headed to New York City, where he met the Welsh-born John Cale, a classically trained viola player. Seeking to combine primitive rock music with the avant-garde, the two formed the Velvet Underground together with guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. Their abrasive art rock caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who included the band in his multimedia show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The pop artist also produced the group’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which was filled with screaming feedback and matter-of-fact descriptions of drug use and S&M. It was a commercial flop, as were the band’s three subsequent albums, “but had a profound impact on the high IQ, low virtuosity stratum of punk, alternative, and underground rock,” said The New York Times. “Joy Division, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, R.E.M., the Strokes, and numerous others were all descendants.”

Reed quit the band and in 1972 moved to London to record his self-titled first solo LP. It was a limited success, but its follow-up, the David Bowie–produced Transformer, “brought Reed the wide following he had never attracted with the Velvet Underground,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). It yielded his only hit single, “Walk on the Wild Side,” in which Reed reminisced over a soft, jazzy backing about the hustlers and transvestites in Warhol’s entourage, even slipping a reference to oral sex past radio censors. “Yet, in what was to become a career trademark, Reed retreated from the commercial success of Transformer to make the darker, less accessible concept album Berlin,” said The Times (U.K.). When that LP about an abusive relationship between two drug-addled American expats failed to sell, Reed punished the public with Metal Machine Music—an impenetrable double album of guitar feedback.

Reed mellowed in the 1980s, said RollingStone.com, releasing a series of well-received albums, including 1982’s The Blue Mask and 1989’s New York. Though he gave up drugs and alcohol for tai chi and coffee, his past caught up with him earlier this year when he had to get a liver transplant. To the end, Reed reveled in his music’s simplicity. “One chord is fine,” he once said. “Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

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