Born into a wealthy New York Jewish family, Lewis Allen Reed’s parents were not best pleased when he began to forsake academia for pop music. Somewhat drastically, they sectioned the 18-year-old for electro-shock treatment. Rather than “cure” him it merely turned Lewis into Lou.
Six years later, Reed made 1967’s supremely influential The Velvet Underground and Nico, reinventing the rock ‘n’ roll wheel as much through his Dylan-on-smack sneer and poetic New York street jive as its cacophonic melee of feedback and viola.
Had he never drawled another note, that one record would still have made him a role model for everyone from David Bowie (who wrote Queen Bitch for his album Hunky Dory in tribute) to Joey Ramone and Patti Smith.
By contrast, 1969’s third (self-titled) Velvet Underground LP was a more sensual affair, setting a wistful vocal template that innumerable 80s indie bands would strive in vain to emulate.
Reed left the Velvet Underground in 1970 with the bitter taste of defeat and animosity. New York had been cold and unappreciative and London now seemed where the action was.
Reed moved to England and debuted on RCA with a failed self-titled solo album concocted with Velvet’s leftovers rehashed by non-empathetic studio musicians.
For many, Transformer (1972) is Lou Reed’s ‘Greatest Hits’. He and producer David Bowie unveiled Perfect Day, Satellite Of Love and his lone American hit, Walk On The Wild Side. Complete with a transvestite, a male prostitute and a speed casualty – not to mention explicit oral sex – Walk On The Wild Side is the stencil of deviance against which all other solo Lou Reed songs were measured.
His songwriting masterpiece came with Berlin (1973) – a harrowing diary of a junkie couple’s collapse amid prostitution and domestic violence, sung in a voice that had seemingly lived its protagonist’s pain many times over. while in order to listen to Metal Machine Music (1975) you have to love feedback. So much that you want nothing else for 64 minutes!
RCA were apparently so annoyed with the album that Reed recorded 1976’s Coney Island Baby to atone for it.
In 1980, Reed got married and things changed (he named wife Sylvia as his fount of joy on 1982’s The Blue Mask). By 1990 he had patched things up with former Velvet Underground colleague John Cale to the point that they recorded the album Songs For Drella together.
The album was a tribute to their late media mentor, Andy Warhol (the name ‘Drella” was a Warhol nickname combining Dracula and Cinderella).
The new millennium found the 58-year-old Reed diving into divorce, drugs and a dozen shades of dark beyond on Ecstasy.
A trio of songs referred graphically to ejaculation as something unsatisfying at best and humiliating at worst while Rock Minuet presented a noir story of Oedipal rage, self-destruction, and sexual assault.
In later years, Reed was less likely to sing than to recite – as illustrated on 2003’s Edgar Allan Poe homage, The Raven. Perhaps that is fitting, though, for a man cited by the New York Times as the city’s “unofficial poet laureate”
Lou Reed underwent a liver transplant in May 2013 at the Cleveland Clinic. He later wrote on his website that he was feeling “bigger and stronger” than ever – but on 27 October 2013, Reed died from liver disease at his home in Southampton, New York. He was 71.