As the lead singer and songwriter of the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, Lou Reed helped invent punk rock and while writing about femme fatales, black angels and heroin. In the process, he also brought a stormy dissonance to the foreground, helping to expand the vocabulary of the electric guitar. For the next 40 years, during periods both inspired and hollow, Reed tried his hand all sorts of artsy and evocative music. He loves to mess with his persona (his first big commercial splash came in the guise of glam rock) and in the process he's explored all sorts of unexpected tangents.
Reed (b. Lewis Alan Reed, Mar. 2, 1942, Brooklyn, NY) grew up in Freeport, Long Island, and attended Syracuse University, studying poetry (under Delmore Swartz, to whom Reed dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground album) and journalism. Reed's poems were published in Fusion magazine. (In 1977 he earned an award from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his poem "The Slide" and in 1992 was awarded France's Order of Arts and Letters.) After leaving Syracuse, Reed returned to New York and worked for Pickwick Records, taking part in the studio group that recorded various Reed-penned songs. During this period he met the musicians with whom he would subsequently form the Velvet Underground. With future VU member John Cale he formed a band called the Primitives, which then became the Warlocks; they made one record. In the mid-1960s, Reed and Cale connected with Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker to form the Velvet Underground. The band recorded four classic, highly influential albums between 1966 and 1970, investigating life's darker side positioning themselves as an East Coast antidote to the West Coast sunshine of the hippie era.
Reed's 1970 departure from the Velvet Underground was bitter; he did not even stay to complete their fourth album, Loaded, though songs from that project ("Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll") would become cornerstones of his live show and reputation. He became a virtual recluse for nearly two years, until moving to England and beginning a solo career in 1972 with a potent self-titled debut that sustained the intensity of his Velvets work (and used a few left-over songs he'd written during his Velvets tenure). Transformer (Number 29, 1972) was his pop breakthrough, however. Produced by David Bowie, it yielded Reed's only Top Twenty hit to date, "Walk on the Wild Side" (Number 16, 1973), an ode to the denizens of Andy Warhol's 1960s films. With Bowie's aid, Reed made the transition to the glitter rock of the period, camping up fashion sense with bleach-blond hair and black fingernail polish. Glam rock was the rage at the time, and Reed was one of its central figures. In what was to become a common shifting of tone, his 1973 follow-up Berlin was as grim as Transformer had been playful.
Reed's recordings have continued to flaunt this kind of unpredictability. A pair of live albums drawn from the same set of concerts (including Rock 'n' Roll Animal, Number 45, 1974) featured heavy-metal versions of Velvet Underground tunes, while a later tour was built on theatrics. For example, he pretended to shoot up while performing the song "Heroin." The critically panned Sally Can't Dance (Number Ten, 1974) was repudiated by Reed himself — almost upon release. After another live album, he followed with Metal Machine Music, a double album of grating, vocal-less dissonance. It's been seen from two perspectives: a genuine attempt at high art that was worthy of RCA's classical division, and a cagey gambit to get off the label by proffering obnoxiousness.
After a final RCA album, Coney Island Baby (Number 41, 1976), Reed moved to Arista where he made impeccably produced, harrowing music like the title cut of Street Hassle (Number 89, 1978), as well as relatively peaceful outings typified by album titles like Rock and Roll Heart (Number 64, 1976), The Bells (1979) and Growing Up in Public (1980). He married Sylvia Morales on Valentine's Day 1980, and his songs about the seamy side of life began to appear alongside essays on domestic contentment — "I'm an average guy," he sang on his critically acclaimed 1982 album The Blue Mask. The record introduced a trilogy that reminded fans just how powerful Reed could be when firing on all cylinders. With a band that found him trading guitar lines with Robert Quine (of Richard Hell and the Voidoids fame), his new music became sleek yet ornery. On Legendary Hearts (1984) and New Sensations (1985) his lyrics were more pointed, candid, and articulate. When the band wrapped up its run with a bulldozing live disc (they had toured the world twice), one thing was obvious. The Quine years were some of Reed's sharpest. The guitarist parted ways with his boss for Mistrial (1986), but that wasn't the only thing that made the disc a serious step down from its predecessors. Reed's material was meager compared to the trilogy tunes. Mistrial was a snooze.
Its follow up wasn't. Switching labels to Sire, he seemed reborn yet again as he filled the masterful New York (Number 40, 1989) with character sketches and insightful musings about his home. Artistically he'd always been associated with the city's push 'n' shove personality, and the portraits that comprised this disc — made with a new band that featured guitarist Mike Rathke and bassist Rob Wasserman — were piercing. Here was Lou the pundit commenting on everything from AIDS to the Pope.
His next two discs were a walk on the sentimental side. A gentle valentine to Andy Warhol also found him in cahoots with VU associate John Cale. Songs For Drella (1990) had some lovely moments from both singers, with Reed speaking directly to his old pal on "Hello It's Me." On Magic & Loss (1990) it was his dear friend and famed R&B songwriter Doc Pomus that he mourned. This time around, the eulogy was able to bring some turbulence with it. Reed found a way to shed a tear and rock out at the same time.
1990 also saw the near-impossible happen. The Velvet Underground reunited in France to play a benefit, and it opened the door to conversations about more gigs. By 1993 Reed, Cale, Moe Tucker, and Sterling Morrison sorted out their headaches long enough to tour Europe, sharing shows with U2. It didn't last as long as they'd hoped, though. A keenly anticipated swing through America was cancelled without any particular reason given. That, in turn, put the kibosh on a scheduled taping of MTV Unplugged. A strong document of their reunion tour work was released in 1993 as Live: MCMXCIII. The band united once more 1996 when it was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; their performance was dedicated to Morrison, who died the previous year. The same year Reed put his heart into Set The Twilight Reeling, a sometimes overlooked disc that had several minor pleasures.
Reed published a book of his lyrics, Between Thought and Expression, in 1991; a box set of his work for RCA showed up around the same time. Divorced from his wife Sylvia, he began to pal around with performance artist Laurie Anderson. It was soon obvious that they were in a serious relationship; they're still together now.
Reed collaborated with Robert Wilson for projects that met with mixed reception. Time Rocker was a modern opera produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the New York Times groused that "profundity eludes Mr. Reed's words and the thoughts behind them." In 2000 they reunited for something a bit more palatable, a romp through Edgar Allen Poe's work, entitled Poe-try. Three years later Reed recorded the project, releasing it as the impressive double album, The Raven.
The intimate concert album Perfect Night: Live in London (1998) featured a setlist stretching from the Velvets' "I'll Be Your Mirror" to New York's "Dirty Boulevard." Ditto for Animal Serenade another performance-based overview of his career. The era's studio disc, Ecstasy (2000), also turned out to be a keeper.
By the time Metal Machine Music was reissued in 2000, its reception was far more positive that on original release. Seven years later Lou Reed's Inner Spaces went the opposite way: it was lilting ambient music that Reed recommended for Tai Chi workouts.
In 2008, Reed connected with Julian Schnabel to stage the 33-year-old Berlin in Brooklyn as a multi-media show that featured a chorus and strings. Schnabel filmed the event for a DVD released.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.
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