Only after their disbandment in 1970 did The Velvet Underground achieve the near-idolatrous respect they had long coveted, and over the next decade they came to be seen as the seminal art rock band. Their influence is detectable in artists as diverse as David Bowie, Roxy Music and Talking Heads; and punk rock also owed much to the Velvets’ raw, anarchic sound.
Lou Reed with Andy Warhol (REDFERNS)
The son of a successful accountant, Louis Alan Reed was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 2 1942 and brought up in the affluent Long Island town of Freeport, where he acquired a taste for rock and roll and teenage rebellion.
When not immersed in depression — which one doctor attempted to cure with electroconvulsive therapy — Reed spent his formative years perfecting three-chord rock and roll on rhythm guitar with high school bands including Pasha and The Prophets, LA, the Eldorados and the Shades. In 1957, with the latter band renamed the Jades, Reed cut his first record, So Blue, a song about teenage heartache.
His musical interests broadened at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, when he hosted a jazz programme on the campus radio station, a post which he was later obliged to relinquish after he was heard to belch loudly during a public service announcement about muscular dystrophy.
Military training, then compulsory at American universities, was treated by Reed with similar irreverence. He engineered his dismissal from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and escaped the ensuing commitment to two years’ military service by threatening to shoot his commanding officer.
While studying English and Modern Philosophy at Syracuse, Reed came under the influence of the poet and critic Delmore Schwartz, whose writings provided a literary model for Reed’s alienated bohemian persona.
On his graduation in 1964, Reed took a job with Pickwick Records, writing and recording derivative ditties about surfing and hot rods, which would then be piled high and sold cheap in supermarkets. One of his compositions, The Ostrich, enjoyed near-chart success for The Primitives.
But Reed’s real interests lay elsewhere. When not forcing out songs about summer good times, Reed worked on much bleaker numbers like Heroin, a detailed and dispassionate account of the pleasures of shooting up (“Cause when the smack begins to flow, Then I really don’t care anymore”).
In 1965 he joined the equally disillusioned John Cale, a classically-trained Welsh viola player, to form a band which would play their kind of music. With the guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, they formed The Velvet Underground — named after the title of a pornographic novel.
Reed’s dirty vocals — half sung, half spoken — and doomy lyrics, Cale’s aggressive, sawing electric viola, and the band’s use of “grungy” guitar and shrieking feedback were remarkable at a time when American rock music was dominated by such West Coast bands as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, singing harmoniously about peace and love.
Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), for example, covered such topics as heroin abuse (Waiting for My Man, Heroin), cocaine addiction (Run, Run, Run) and sado-masochism (Venus in Furs).
The band’s cult credentials were reinforced by the patronage of Andy Warhol, who had discovered them performing at the sleazy Greenwich Village night spot the Café Bizarre in 1966 and recruited them for his multimedia show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, showing films over the band as they played. Warhol combined the group with the mannered German chanteuse Nico, who sang on some of Reed’s more wistful compositions.
Warhol’s imprimatur helped secure the band’s recording contract with MGM/Verve, and he was credited as The Velvets’ producer. As Reed recalled on Songs for Drella (1990), which he made with Cale as a musical obituary of their old mentor, Warhol encouraged them to work much harder, and would say things such as: “The songs with the dirty words — make sure you record them that way.” Warhol also provided the celebrated “Banana” cover, which made the debut album a collector’s item.
A year later Reed broke with Warhol in an attempt to shake off the band’s cult following and gain a wider audience. But the three albums which followed — White Light, White Heat; The Velvet Underground; and Loaded — enjoyed no more commercial success than the first. Cale left the band in 1968 and Reed himself quit in 1970. He passed the next two years in what he called “exile and pondering”. In fact, he was working as a typist in his father’s company, before moving to London for a few months in 1972 and then recording his first solo album, Lou Reed. The record enjoyed a limited success, but he followed it with what is generally considered his finest solo album, Transformer.
The cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’ album
Produced by David Bowie (then an up-and-coming “glam rocker”), Transformer brought Reed the wide following he had never attracted with The Velvet Underground and yielded his first hit single, Walk on the Wild Side. The song’s lyrics were no less salacious than those in earlier works, concerned as it was with homosexual prostitution; but the anticipated radio ban failed to materialise because the producers did not understand street idioms such as “giving head”.
But, with typical perversity, Reed followed Transformer with an album so morbid and pretentious that few radio stations were prepared to give it much airtime. Berlin (1973) describes an uneasy love affair between a young American expatriate and a German woman, Caroline. The couple become addicted to amphetamines, and Caroline ends up killing herself.
Although Reed later gave up listening to Berlin because it made him “too taut and nervous”, he insisted that the melancholy views expressed in it were not an artistic pose. “If people don’t like Berlin,” he said in 1974, “it’s because it’s too real. It’s not like a TV programme, where all the bad things that happen to people are tolerable. Life isn’t that way.”
Reed’s bleak vision was epitomised in his early 1970s stage act. Hair shaved in the shape of an Iron Cross, his eyes darkened with make-up and his lips and fingernails painted black, Reed liked to enhance his performance of Heroin by pretending to “shoot up” on stage. His louche demeanour was reflected in his private life, spent in a Greenwich Village apartment with his transvestite lover Rachel.
Disappointed with the public’s indifferent reaction to Berlin, Reed responded with Rock’n’Roll Animal (1974), recorded from a live performance at the Academy of Music in New York. This capitalised on the increasing popularity of old songs like Sweet Jane and proved his bestselling album to that date.
Reed’s oeuvre throughout the rest of the 1970s was at best undistinguished, but it is agreed to have reached its nadir with Metal Machine Music (1975). This two-disc set of ill-advised experimental electronic material, played on a primitive Moog, was, explained Reed, “unrestrained” by considerations of “tempo or key”.
In the first few days of its release, it sold enough copies to earn itself a modest chart entry, but shortly afterwards it went on to gain a record for number of copies returned to point of sale for a refund.
The albums which followed — Coney Island Baby (1976), Sally Can’t Dance (1977), Street Hassle (1978) and The Bells (1979) — served only to confirm the general view that Reed had failed to live up to his early promise and that he was determined to confuse his fans by swinging from almost self-parodic commercialism to indigestible experimentation.
But in 1982 Reed marked the turning point of his career with his redemptive album about the pleasures of being “an average guy”, The Blue Mask. Now happily ensconced in a rustic New Jersey retreat with the British writer Sylvia Morales, whom he had married on St Valentine’s Day in 1980, Reed bade farewell to his depraved persona of the 1960s and 1970s and set about promoting his new “caring” image. His marriage to Sylvia, whom he described as his best critic, and his fruitful association with the guitarist Robert Quine, led to three further successful albums, Legendary Hearts (1983), New Sensations (1984) and Mistrial (1986).
With stability came a more intense social conscience, which Reed articulated in 1989 on the most successful album of his career, New York. The subject matter — metropolitan sleaze — had changed little since Transformer, but his tone was now elegiac rather than celebratory. Halloween Parade, for example, was Reed’s memorial to those of his friends who had died of Aids.
Reed had always insisted that, had he not liked rock and roll so much, he would have liked to have written the Great American Novel . In later life he eschewed the vices for which he had become so famous in his youth. He gave up drugs and drinking in the early 1980s .
But if it seemed a miracle that he had lived long enough to make such sacrifices, Reed himself always insisted that his reputation for excess was greatly exaggerated. His stock response to questions about the autobiographical content of songs like Heroin was: “I couldn’t still be around if I had done everything I am reputed to have done.”
In his later years Reed practised Tai-Chi. He continued to make music, and in 2005 released The Raven, a double-CD based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Subsequent recordings included Hudson River Wind Meditations (2007) and Lulu (2011), on which he collaborated with Metallica. He underwent a liver transplant in May.
Lou Reed, who was briefly married and divorced in 1972, was also divorced from Sylvia Morales, and in 2008 he married the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson.