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Lou Reed: New York City rock pioneer dies at 71
Question of the Day
Lou Reed was a pioneer for countless bands who didn’t worry about their next hit single.
Mr. Reed, who died Sunday at age 71, radically challenged rock’s founding promise of good times and public celebration. As leader of the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, he was the father of indie rock, and an ancestor of punk, New Wave and the alternative rock movements of the 1970s, ‘80s and beyond.
He influenced generations of musicians from David Bowie and R.E.M. to the Talking Heads and Sonic Youth.
“The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years,” Brian Eno, who produced albums by Roxy Music and Talking Heads among others, once said. “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
Mr. Reed and the Velvet Underground opened rock music to the avant-garde — to experimental theater, art, literature and film, from William Burroughs to Kurt Weill to Andy Warhol, Mr. Reed’s early patron.
Raised on doo-wop and Carl Perkins, Delmore Schwartz and the Beats, Mr. Reed helped shape the punk ethos of raw power, the alternative rock ethos of irony and droning music and the art-rock embrace of experimentation, whether the dual readings of Beat-influenced verse for “Murder Mystery,” or, like a passage out of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” the orgy of guns, drugs and oral sex on the Velvet Underground’s 15-minute “Sister Ray.”
Mr. Reed died in Southampton, N.Y., of an ailment related to his recent liver transplant, according to his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who added that the musician had been in frail health for months. Mr. Reed shared a home in Southampton with his wife and fellow musician, Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008.
His trademarks were a monotone of surprising emotional range and power; slashing, grinding guitar; and lyrics that were complex, yet conversational, designed to make you feel as if Mr. Reed were seated next to you.
Known for his cold stare and gaunt features, he was a cynic and a seeker who seemed to embody downtown Manhattan culture of the 1960s and ‘70s and was as essential a New York artist as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. His New York was a jaded city of drag queens, drug addicts and violence, but it was also as wondrous as any Allen comedy, with so many of Mr. Reed’s songs explorations of right and wrong and quests for transcendence.
He had one top 20 hit, “Walk On the Wild Side,” and many other songs that became standards among his admirers, from “Heroin” and “Sweet Jane” to “Pale Blue Eyes” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”
An outlaw in his early years, Mr. Reed would eventually perform at the White House, have his writing published in The New Yorker, be featured by PBS in an “American Masters” documentary and win a Grammy in 1999 for Best Long Form Music Video. The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1996 and their landmark debut album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” was added to the Library of Congress’ registry in 2006.
Mr. Reed called one song “Growing Up in Public” and his career was an ongoing exhibit of how any subject could be set to rock music — the death of a parent (“Standing On Ceremony), AIDS (“The Halloween Parade”), some favorite movies and plays (“Doin’ the Things That We Want To”), racism (“I Want to be Black”) and the electroshock therapy he received as a teen (“Kill Your Sons”).
Reviewing Mr. Reed’s 1989 topical album “New York,” Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote that “the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery — plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff.
“Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation — all that’s missing is a disquisition on real estate,” he said.
Mr. Reed was one of rock’s archetypal tough guys, but he grew up middle class — an accountant’s son raised on Long Island. He was born to be a suburban dropout — hating school, loving rock ‘n’ roll, fighting with his parents and attacking them in song for forcing him to undergo electroshock therapy for bisexuality.
“Families that live out in the suburbs often make each other cry,” he later wrote.
Mr. Reed moved to New York City after college and traveled in the pop and art worlds, working as a house songwriter at the low-budget Pickwick Records and putting in late hours in downtown clubs. Fellow studio musicians included a Welsh-born viola player, John Cale, with whom Mr. Reed soon performed in such makeshift groups as the Warlocks and the Primitives.
They were joined by a friend of Mr. Reed’s from college, guitarist-bassist Sterling Morrison; and by an acquaintance of Mr. Morrison’s, drummer Maureen Tucker, who tapped out simple, hypnotic rhythms while playing standing up. They renamed themselves the Velvet Underground after a Michael Leigh book about the sexual subculture.
By the mid-1960s, they were rehearsing at Warhol’s “Factory,” a meeting ground of art, music, orgies, drug parties and screen tests for films that ended up being projected onto the band while it performed, part of what Warhol called the “Floating Plastic Inevitable.”
Before the Velvets, references to drugs and sex were often brief and indirect, if only to ensure a chance at radio and television play. The Velvets said everything other bands were forbidden to say and some things other bands never imagined. Mr. Reed wrote some of rock’s most explicit lyrics about drugs (“Heroin,” “Waiting for My Man”), sadomasochism (“Venus in Furs”) and prostitution (“There She Goes Again”).
His love songs were less stories of boy-meets-girl, than ambiguous studies of the heart, like the philosophical games of “Some Kinda Love” or the weary ballad “Pale Blue Eyes,” an elegy for an old girlfriend and a confession to a post-breakup fling.
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