Few rock artists have been more influential without achieving superstardom than Lou Reed. While he flirted with mainstream success between 1970 (when he left the Velvet Underground) and 2013 (when he succumbed to liver disease), he most often played to a large cult following that only occasionally expanded into mainstream visibility. However, his songwriting — unusually literate and often embracing themes that flouted society’s conventions, especially in terms of drugs and sex — broke fresh ground that other artists would follow, and his willingness to confront his audience made him a vitally important precursor to the punk revolution of the mid- to late ’70s. (He often said that his goal was to apply the freedom and creative sensibility of literature to rock music.) Reed was not as celebrated as a guitarist, but the energetic report of his rhythm playing and the noisy grace of his leads and solos made him a hero to musicians who valued passion and feel over chops. And in his catalog, he covered a remarkable amount of stylistic ground — introspective singer/songwriter (Lou Reed), glam (Transformer), art rock (Berlin), hard rock (Rock N' Roll Animal), noise (Metal Machine Music), confessional proto-punk (Street Hassle), jazz-infused rock (The Bells), upbeat pop/rock (New Sensations), social commentary (New York), and ambitious literary adaptations (The Raven). For all his creative shape-shifting, however, he never failed to sound like Lou Reed, with his ineffable downtown cool and dour outlook informing it all.
Lewis Allan Reed was born on March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York. His family moved to Freehold, New York on Long Island when he was nine years old, and he didn’t adapt well to his new surroundings; by the time he was in junior high, he was regularly targeted by bullies. He developed a variety of phobias and anxieties, and at the age of 16 he started to experiment with drugs. Hoping to deal with his problems, Reed’s parents followed the advice of a psychiatrist and submitted him to electroconvulsive therapy; many years later, he would write about the traumatic effects of the treatments in his song “Kill Your Sons.”
Reed would find solace in music, embracing early rock & roll, doo wop, rhythm & blues, and jazz, and by the time he was in high school, he was playing in bands and gigging professionally. One of his earliest groups, the Jades, cut a single when he was 16 years old, “So Blue” b/w “Leave Her for Me,” with Lou playing guitar and singing backing vocals; legendary session musician King Curtis sat in on sax. The single flopped and it was their only release, but Reed kept writing songs, and in 1962, while attending Syracuse University, he cut a pair of tracks for producer Bob Shad, who released the Jades single, “Merry Go Round” and “Your Love.” They were not released at the time, but Norton Records would issue them and the Jades single on a 2000 EP titled All Tomorrow's Dance Parties. After graduating from Syracuse, Reed moved to New York and took a job with Pickwick Records, a cut-rate record company who specialized in budget-price compilation albums. To fill out their LPs, Reed wrote and recorded songs following popular trends in music and teen culture. One of his compositions was a noisy would-be dance number called “The Ostrich,” which among other things featured him playing a guitar with all the strings tuned to the same note. Pickwick thought the song had commercial possibilities and released it as a single under the group name the Primitives. Pickwick arranged for the Primitives to play some live dates to promote the disc, and while rounding up a band, Reed met John Cale, a Welsh musician who had come to New York on a scholarship from Aaron Copland and was playing in an avant-garde ensemble with LaMonte Young. Cale wasn’t much impressed with “The Ostrich,” but he was intrigued by Reed’s alternate tuning, which was the same as one he was using with Young for his drone pieces, and when Reed wanted to form a band to play his own music that fell outside the boundaries of what Pickwick would release, Cale joined him.
Reed recruited a friend from his days at Syracuse, Sterling Morrison, to play guitar in the new band, with Cale on bass and viola and Reed on guitar and vocals. After briefly working with percussionist Angus MacLise, the group brought in Maureen Tucker to play drums. They adopted the name the Velvet Underground from a sensational paperback about the sexual revolution one of them found on the street, and after they were discovered by Andy Warhol in 1966, he became their manager and made them part of his pioneering multi-media show the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. With an aggressive sound at once primitive and adventurous, and lyrics that boldly dealt with sex, drugs, and the challenges of contemporary life, the Velvet Underground became one of the most controversial and talked-about bands of their day, and they released four studio albums (1967′s The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1968′s White Light/White Heat with Cale, 1969′s The Velvet Underground, and 1970′s Loaded with his replacement, Doug Yule) that sold modestly but would be regarded as influential classics in the years after the band broke up. In the summer of 1970, as the band was recording Loaded, they played a residency at Max’s Kansas City in New York, and Reed, growing weary with the demands of the group and their lack of success, quietly dropped out of the VU in August 1970; while lineups of the group led by Doug Yule would stagger on until 1973, for most fans Reed’s departure marked the end of the band.
Uncertain where to go next, Reed moved back to Long Island, staying with his parents and working as a typist at his father’s accounting firm. By 1971, he was ready to make music again, and he landed a contract with RCA Records; he flew to London and cut his self-titled solo debut with a studio band that included Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman from Yes. Lou Reed was dominated by songs he wrote during his days in the Velvet Underground but didn’t release, and the album came and went with little notice. He had significantly better luck with his second solo effort; David Bowie, who was in his first flush of superstardom after the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, was an outspoken Velvet Underground fan, and he and Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson stepped in to produce 1972′s Transformer. With Bowie’s support, Reed embraced the trappings of glam rock and came up with a far stronger album that was a commercial success. The song, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” became an international hit single, and “Perfect Day” would go on to become one of his most beloved songs. Reed used the success of Transformer to persuade RCA to bankroll a far more ambitious and elaborate follow-up. The grandiose Berlin, issued in 1973, was glossy and richly arranged and produced, but the unrelentingly depressing tone of the song cycle about a decadent love affair put off Reed’s new fans and the album was a severe commercial disappointment.
Eager to win back his audience’s good graces, he assembled a new band centered on the guitar team of Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter, with Reed confining himself to vocals. The new band approached Reed’s tunes as crowd-pleasing hard rock, and 1974′s Rock N' Roll Animal was a live album that showed off the strength of the material while making it more accessible and thus a success. Reed toured extensively in the wake Rock N' Roll Animal, and later the same year released Sally Can't Dance, a set of half-hearted glam-leaning tunes hardly up to the standards of his best work (except for the savage and personal “Kill Your Sons”). While a weak effort, it became Reed’s highest-charting release to date. His next studio album, 1975′s Metal Machine Music, was an unrelenting and uncompromised exercise in guitar-generated noise that alienated nearly everyone who came into contact with it and was seen by many as a deliberate act of career sabotage. He did an about face with 1976′s Coney Island Baby; except for the unnerving “Kicks,” most of the album was warm, gentle rock & roll, with the moving title track informed by the doo wop music he loved as a youth.
Coney Island Baby finished off Reed’s deal with RCA, and he signed with Clive Davis’ Arista label for 1976′s Rock and Roll Heart, a largely upbeat but unremarkable effort that attracted little notice. However, with the rise of punk rock in New York and London, Reed was frequently cited as a hero and inspiration to many acts on the scene (especially his work with the Velvet Underground), and the attention emboldened him to make 1978′s Street Hassle, a bitter and often deliberately offensive album in which he took an unblinking look at himself and his music. The album was too harsh to break through to mainstream listeners, but it earned strong reviews and signaled a new commitment to his muse after his uneven work since going solo. Though 1978′s Live: Take No Prisoners was devoted more to Reed’s acid-tongued stage banter than music, 1979′s The Bells and 1980′s Growing Up in Public found him dealing with personal issues and demonstrated a growing maturity in his writing. Growing Up in Public closed out Reed’s deal with Arista, and it coincided with a period in which he finally overcame a longtime addiction to liquor and drugs, he married his girlfriend Sylvia Morales after years of publicly identifying as gay or bisexual, and moved from New York City to a farmhouse in New Jersey where he had peace and a chance to focus. He began working with former Richard Hell guitarist Robert Quine, who encouraged Reed to recommit himself to playing electric guitar, and after signing a new deal with RCA, they recorded The Blue Mask, an intense, revealing, and literate effort that was his most impressive music in years.
Reed and Quine worked together again on 1983′s Legendary Hearts, another critical success, but at the last minute, Reed chose not to use him on 1984′s New Sensations, instead multitracking lead and rhythm parts himself. The album was a relatively positive and accessible effort, and included “I Love You Suzanne,” which became a minor hit. For the first time since he got clean, Reed toured extensively in support of the album, with Quine returning to his road band; a show from the New Sensations tour was documented on 1984′s Live in Italy. He once again handled all the guitars on 1986′s Mistrial, an uneven effort that closed out his second run on RCA. However, Reed soon struck a new deal with Sire Records, and rebounded with 1989′s New York, an album full of political commentary and observations on his spiritual home town that won rave reviews and earned him a gold record. The final track, “Dime Store Mystery,” was written in memory of his late friend and mentor Andy Warhol. Warhol’s passing also brought Reed together with John Cale; the two had been on frosty terms since Reed’s contentious departure from the Velvet Underground. The former bandmates teamed up to create a song cycle about Warhol’s life and work, and 1990′s Songs for Drella marked their first work together since 1968′s White Light/White Heat. Later that year, Reed and Cale were invited to perform Songs for Drella as part of a celebration of Warhol’s life and legacy staged by Foundation Cartier in Jouy-En-Josas, France. Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker were also invited to attend the event, and as an encore to the concert, the four original members of the Velvet Underground performed an impromptu version of “Heroin.”
1992′s Magic and Loss was a somber concept album about the death of two of Reed’s close friends that received positive reviews but didn’t match New York’s sales or acclaim. Since the spontaneous performance in Jouy-En-Josas, rumors circulated that the Velvet Underground would reunite, and in June and July of 1993, Reed and his bandmates staged a tour of Europe that was rapturously received by fans, though reaction from critics was mixed. A string of American dates and an appearance on MTV Unplugged were to follow, but tensions in the band once again boiled over, and by the time Live MCMXCIII (recorded during a three-night stand in Paris) appeared the following October, the group was once again history, which became permanent after the death of Sterling Morrison in 1995. (The following year, the Velvets were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Reed, Cale, and Tucker performed a song they wrote in tribute to Morrison, “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend.“) Not long after the VU reunion tour, Reed and Sylvia Morales divorced.
Reed returned to duty as a solo artist with 1996′s Set the Twilight Reeling, an album that focused on the joys and challenges of relationships; it appeared as Reed and musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson entered into a romantic relationship. (They married in 2008 and would remain together for the rest of his life.) A semi-acoustic appearance at the 1997 Meltdown Festival in London was recorded for the 1998 release Perfect Night: Live in London. That same year, Reed’s life and art were celebrated in a television documentary for the PBS series American Masters, Lou Reed: Rock & Roll Heart, which was subsequently released on home video. Reed also collaborated with playwright and director Robert Wilson for his play Timerocker, penning songs for the piece. In 2000, Reed moved from Sire to Reprise Records (both offshoots of Warner Bros.), and released Ecstasy, a set of lyrically challenging, poetically informed songs set to rough rock & roll guitars. Reed collaborated with Robert Wilson again for a show informed by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, POE-try, and much of the material for the play was revisited on Reed’s 2003 album The Raven, which included readings from Willem Dafoe and Steve Buscemi. Reed staged an intimate concert tour following the release of The Raven, and a show at Los Angeles’s Wiltern Theater was recorded for the 2004 album Animal Serenade.
In 2006 and 2007, Reed revisited the album Berlin in a series of concerts in which he performed the album in full, with original producer Bob Ezrin leading a small orchestra. Shows at St. Ann’s Warehouse were filmed and recorded, and the album Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse came out in 2008. Reed also took a fresh look at Metal Machine Music when the German avant-garde ensemble Zeitkratzer created arrangements that allowed the LP’s soundscapes to be performed on-stage. Reed and his frequent guitar foil Mike Rathke joined the group for several performances of the piece, one of which was released as Metal Machine Music: Live at the Berlin Opera House. And in 2007, Reed brought out Hudson River Wind Meditations, a collection of ambient pieces he created to accompany his tai chi exercises. In 2009, he performed several songs at an event honoring the 25th anniversary of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in New York City. He was accompanied by the iconic heavy metal band Metallica, and the collaboration inspired Reed to invite the band to work with him on his next album. Based on the work of playwright Frank Wedekind, 2011′s Lulu was an aggressively confrontational and uncompromising work that received largely negative reviews and seemed to rub both Reed’s and Metallica’s fans the wrong way. A tour in support of the album never came to be, and the following year, Reed, who had been treated for hepatitis in the past, was diagnosed with a severe liver disease. He underwent a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in April 2013, and although he subsequently proclaimed his strength and intention to return to performing and songwriting, he died of end-stage liver disease at the home in East Hampton, New York that he shared with Anderson in late October of that year. In September 2020, Rhino Records brought out an expanded edition of New York; in addition to a remastered version of the original album, it included a bonus disc of rough mixes, work tapes, and alternate versions, as well as a complete live performance of the album from 1989.
While sorting through material from Reed’s office with the cooperation of Laurie Anderson, archivists Don Fleming and Jason Stern discovered an unopened package Reed had mailed to himself in 1965. It contained a five-inch reel of tape featuring rough recordings of a number of songs Reed had postmarked as a “poor man’s copyright,” including tunes he would record with the Velvet Underground and others that were previously undocumented. (A few also boasted accompaniment from John Cale.) Anderson partnered with Light in the Attic Records to release the newly discovered recordings, and Words & Music, May 1965 was issued in September 2022; LITA and the Lou Reed Archives revealed it was the first in a series of albums that would be drawn from Reed’s extensive collection of unreleased material. ~ Mark Deming