Colossal in his influence and rare in his approach, Lou Reed exemplified a true artist and icon, with the struggles and stardom to match. Regarded as a rock pioneer and subversive idol, Reed is best known for his illustrious catalog and renowned singles during his nearly 5 decade long solo career, as well as the chief songwriter for The Velvet Underground. Yet it was not just Reed’s sound that made him emblematic of a cultural revolution but his vision as an artist and his purpose to show all sides of beauty, no matter how dark or discomforting. Radical shifts in his personality and musical style signified the turbulence of the human experience, something Reed would revel in, all while enduring the pain that accompanied it.
Moving to New York city in 1964 upon completion of his studies at Syracuse, Reed befriended Welch musician John Cale, whom he lived with on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The two would collaborate musically in what would ultimately become the basis for The Velvet Underground. Having quickly developed a passionate following on the avant garde music scene, The Velvet Underground was approached by a young Andy Warhol who wished to recruit them as a house band for his art studio as well as become their professional manager. Warhol would later press for the inclusion of German singer Christa Päffgen, or more commonly referred to by her stage name Nico, before they had begun work on their inaugural album. Simply titled, The Velvet Underground & Nico is an album more commonly recognized by the cover art of a banana on a white background, that was painted by none other than Andy Warhol. This album, although not commercially explosive, is the beginning of the underground era, where mainstream success is not indicative of impact. It showed that music could be made bare and simplistic, focusing on the hazards and hardships of life, dissecting concepts that are otherwise uncomfortable to discuss. This stimulated an entire movement of young musicians to experiment with hollow sounds and deep messages of desperation, all counter to the feel-good-hippie movement of the time. Having only made it to 171 on the U.S. Billboard Top 200 chart truly shows the lack of attention this album received upon its release when looking at the weight of its legacy. The Velvet Underground would go on to release three more studio albums, all underwhelmingly received, as the group became more fragmented and strained, eventually disbanding in 1971.
In a testament to his potential, Lou Reed continued his career as a solo musician, and with no lack of acclaim. After his widely overlooked debut album, which was recorded with several members from the band Yes, Reed found success in his sophomore release Transformer. Co-produced by David Bowie and his longtime studio guitarist Mick Ronson, Transformer was certified Platinum in the U.K. and featured Reed’s only entry on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, by way of his most recognized piece “Walk on the Wild Side”, which peaked at number 16. In true Lou Reed fashion, the lyrics and approach to this song were raw and sincere, capturing a moment in time, remembrance conveyed through music. Singing of the bohemians and offbeat outsiders who once surrounded Warhol in the late '60s, “Walk on the Wild Side” was a collection of memories, with each verse characterizing a distant relationship he once shared during that time. Although initially conceived for a play of the same name which never manifested, “Walk on the Wild Side” introduced a style that was atypical of Reed’s earlier works, with jazz-based melodies and string ensembles giving a more dynamic sound to the album as a whole.
Growth was not only found in the structure of his music but also in his lyrics, maintaining a focus on the harsh struggles of reality. After the success of Transformer in 72’ Reed became dependent on alcohol and, by many accounts, would often become violent and belligerent. This prompted the exit of Bowie and would see Reed release his first concept album Berlin in 73’. The story of two lovers in a big city, fueled by amphetamines, Berlin delves into concepts which involve domestic violence, drug addiction, prostitution, adultery, and suicide. The album brings to life Reed's most somber and troubling tracks to date. Despite peaking at number 7 on the UK Album charts Berlin was deemed as a critical and commercial failure, which plagued Reed with doubt and contempt, leading him to lean on more addictive vices such as methamphetamine and opioids. Reed released several more albums during the mid-1970s which included Rock N’ Roll Animal in 74’, an ill-fated revival of old Velvet tracks, Metal Machine Music in early 75’, an album filled with growling guitar effects and altered feedback loops, and Coney Island Baby in late 75’, a love letter to his transgender partner, Rachel Humpherys. Although these albums are minor blips in his long and successful career they would accurately convey the thoughts, feelings, and experiences Reed was going through at the time, as he struggled to find an identity that did not linger in his past.
It was during this time that the punk movement really began to take hold of American culture, which was something Reed was largely responsible for. Such an aggressive counter-culture in the form of punk could be seen as a result of Reed’s work with The Velvet Underground, as well as his direct and genuine form of lyricism which encompassed everyday strifes and nonconforming lifestyles. Reed looked upon this new, emerging genre with vigilance and antipathy, yet still drew an immense amount of inspiration from punk artists and the notorious New York venue, CBGB. This influence was reflected in several of his upcoming albums, including the 78’ release of Live: Take No Prisoners and the 82’ masterpiece The Blue Mask, both of which received generally positive reviews. Despite this push forward into new artistic territory history pulled him back, when the winter of 87’ saw the passing of Warhol, resulting in the reunification of Reed and John Cale. The two worked on pieces that focused on the loss of loved ones which would later spark The Velvet Underground reunion in 93’.
In 89’ Reed would release New York an album focused on crime, AIDS, and several prominent active political figures, in an evolution that saw Reed become less of a misfit and the focus of enigmatic culture and more of an observer of culture itself. This led to many of his later works to be heavily reliant on a social message being conveyed through spoken word. The most popular releases of this collection are his 2003 release of The Raven, which had electronic compositions supporting rewritten texts of Edgar Allan Poe pieces as well as Lulu, a collaboration with famed metal group Metallica that was released in 2011. Although clean from his vices since the early 80s, age catches everyone, even legends. So on October 27, 2013, Reed passed due to liver disease at his home in East Hampton, New York, at the age of 71. A career championed by innovations and influence, a man revered by the underground, and mourned by the world.
Although gone, Reed is not forgotten. Having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a member of The Velvet Underground in 1996 and again as a solo act in 2015, Reed has cemented his legacy as one of the most prolific artists in the history of rock n’ roll. Celebrated as the father of the underground movement, Lou Reed will forever be remembered for his distinct tone, crude style, and organic expressions and observations of himself and the world around him. An entity of his own, an empowering symbol of truth and acceptance, and a leader for so many more powerful artists yet to come.
Written by: Dylan Borsos