One night in the mid-seventies, Patti Smith was finishing a set at New York’s CBGB with a Lou Reed song, “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” when she and her band suddenly veered into the frat-rock anthem “Louie, Louie.” At the end, as she walked off the stage, Smith ran into Reed, a hero and acquaintance of hers, leaning against a wall. Smith said hi. Reed, who had written the former song when he was the singer-guitarist in the Velvet Underground, coolly replied, “So I heard that. What was your intention?”
“I said, ‘Respect,'” recalls Smith, who saw the Velvets live in 1970. She is telling this story the day after Reed’s death, at 71 of liver disease on October 27th. “He looked at me, then he said, ‘OK.’ That was it. We were fine.” She laughs. “I think he secretly had a little laugh out of that segue. It came from a heartfelt place.” But, she noted, “he was checking on me.”
Reed, who underwent a liver transplant in April, died at his home in Amagansett, New York, after a half-century of composing, recording and touring: first in the mid- and late Sixties with the Velvet Underground, arguably the most misunderstood and prophetic band of that decade in its fusion of severe avant-garde drive and Reed’s frank, gripping songcraft; then across more than two dozen consistently provocative solo albums. His run of work just through the mid-Seventies was an extraordinary, unpredictable seesaw of grace and danger: the 1972 glam-rock breakthrough, Transformer; the harrowing ’73 operetta, Berlin; the arena-rock muscle of 1974’s Rock N’ Roll Animal; the 1975 shotgun gift of Metal Machine Music, a double album of improvised guitar feedback; and Coney Island Baby, a song cycle about growing up lonely and wrong, infused with Reed’s love of Fifties street-harmony R&B.
It was a lifetime in which Reed consistently challenged the rock & roll song’s capacity for extremes in dissonance, propulsion, vulnerability and blunt lyric trauma. Armed with a B.A. in English from Syracuse University and a passion for contemporary, transgressive American writers such as Hubert Selby Jr. and William Burroughs, Reed honed his love of the direct physical and emotional jolts in rockabilly, doo-wop and Motown into pioneering explorations of sexual taboo, emotional alienation and drug addiction: the explosive Velvets songs “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/ White Heat”; the elegant-misfit parade in his risque 1973 hit “Walk on the Wild Side”; the sex, death and hard candor in 1978’s urban-noir epic “Street Hassle.”
“Rock does this thing to you: You get directly to somebody, unfiltered,” Reed told me in 1987, during one of our many interviews over nearly three decades. “This person doesn’t have to go to a movie theater. This person will be listening, alone, maybe at five in the morning. “The other idea,” he said of his song-writing in another conversation, “was the music matched the words. If the words were scary, the music would get scary. If the words were sad, the music would get very sad. You think, ‘Yeah, why would anyone want to buy despondency?'” Reed did his version of a grin — a thin smile of iron conviction. “I thought there was a certain kind of aloneness going on, and I felt I wasn’t the only one feeling that.”
Reed was “his own contradiction,” says U2 singer Bono, a friend since the mid-Eighties and a fan since adolescence, when he first heard Transformer. “Then he stretched that contradiction to the limit, that daring to say something simple and beautiful, then putting the right sonic landscape around that.
“Lou,” Bono says, “was the genius of black beauty.”
Reed was only an intermittent pop star. “Walk on the Wild Side,” co-produced by an early disciple, David Bowie, for the Transformer album, was Reed’s sole Top 20 single. His only gold album was 1989’s ode to home, New York. Reed’s singing — a dry, conversational monotone, capable of both great tenderness and cool, cutting fury — was too raw even for Bob Dylan fans. “It was a writer’s voice,” says Bono. “And it gave him great intimacy.”
The influence of that closeness, paired with the raw, enthusiastic assault of Reed’s guitar playing, has run deep and constant for the past four decades, through glitter rock, punk and virtually every subsequent strain of alterative rock; in peers and students as successful and varied as Bowie, the Stooges, the Smiths, R.E.M., Nirvana and the White Stripes’ Jack White. Reed never doubted his worth. “My week beats your year,” he famously wrote in the liner notes to Metal Machine Music. On the 1978 album Live: Take No Prisoners, Reed dismissed rock criticism with an imperious flourish: “Fuck you! I don’t need you to tell me I’m good.”
As recently as August, in our last interview, Reed characterized the Velvets’ 1968 distortion-and-feedback classic, White Light/White Heat — the second and last album by the lineup of Reed, viola player/bassist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker — as “the Statue of Liberty of punk, with the light on top.” He complained about its reception at the time: two weeks on the Billboard album chart at 199. “No one listened to it. But there it is, forever.” And, Reed added proudly, “No one goes near it.”
In 2008, he was a little more sanguine about his lack of conventional acclaim and reward. “I’m not big-time,” Reed admitted to me. “I’ve always been on the outside, and I still am. And maybe that’s why I’m still here.”
“He was to rock & roll what Miles Davis was to jazz — the guy has changed the music a number of times,” says producer Hal Willner, who first worked with Reed in the mid-Eighties and became a trusted collaborator and confidante. “Whatever he was feeling at the time, he wrote.” Among the records Reed made with Willner over the past decade: 2000’s Ecstasy, a rumination of relationships and marriage; The Raven, a 2003 concept album based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, one of Reed’s favorite writers; and 2011’s titanic, controversial Lulu, adapted from Reed’s score to a Robert Wilson opera and recorded with the speed-metal band Metallica.
“It’s not that he didn’t care what people thought,” Willner adds. “He cared. But it wasn’t going to change what he did.”
Reed “liked to pick from the mainstream — he thought that was as confrontational as doing something weird,” says rock writer and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, another friend who reviewed Reed and the Velvets for Rolling Stone and other magazines in the late Sixties and early Seventies. “That sense of doo-wop harmony and the romanticism that came with it – that was an important part of Lou. But he liked to put people on edge, to see how far he could go and have people come along with him.” In person, especially in interviews, Reed could be as grim, harsh and unpredictable as his songs. He treated talking to journalists like combat, berating them for not doing their homework before they walked in the room or just freezing the poor bastards with one-word answers. He was a master of deflecting questions about his personal life. “Nobody could be here now, having done all the things I’m supposed to have done,” Reed said in 1980, referring to his widely reported personal history with heroin and amphetamines in the Sixties and Seventies. By the late Eighties, Reed had stopped drinking; he became as vigorous in his sobriety and health regimen — especially the practice of the Chinese martial art tai chi – as he was in his work.
“If I wanted to know where I was at a particular time of my life, I’d just find out what album was out that year,” Reed said. “They say the acorn’s not far from the tree? The record isn’t far from me.” The corrosive epic “Sister Ray,” on White Light/White Heat, was named after a real-life drag queen Reed and Cale met in Harlem. Another, more personal example: At the end of Coney Island Baby‘s poignant title track, Reed dedicates the song to “Lou and Rachel” — a fond reference to another drag queen, Rachel, with whom Reed lived for a time in the Seventies.
“Faulkner had the South, Joyce had Dublin,” Reed once said when asked about his continual narrative return to New York and its demimonde. “Drugs, violence, New York, all this stuff. I was in the right place at the right time, falling into Warhol’s thing” — a reference to the Velvets’ pivotal time with pop artist Andy Warhol and his mad retinue at the Factory, during Warhol’s mid-Sixties spell as the group’s mentor and manager. “What a setup.”
“As a man, he was complicated,” Smith says of Reed. “I can remember us having” — she pauses carefully — “words with each other. But then I see pictures of us at CBGB. We’re talking in such a caring manner. I step back and remember all the times he has been so warm and supportive — or sad. I’ve known other men like this. Their beauty or sorrow is so deep that they have to have a very strong mask.”
Smith cites “Walk on the Wild Side,” Reed’s sympathetic roll call of the starlets and outcasts who passed through the Factory, as an example of the singer’s humanity. “It takes a poet to elevate these people,” she says. Reed could be “so tough yet infinitely compassionate and open to all the deviants, their fragile aspects.
“He was taking these people up a notch,” Smith continues, “saying, ‘They have an elegance you will never know — kings and queens of the streets.'”
Lewis Allan Reed was born on March 2nd, 1942, in Brooklyn, the first of Sidney and Toby Reed’s two children. When Lou was 11, Sidney, a tax accountant, moved the family to Freeport, on Long Island. Lou had a difficult adolescence. He was prone to mood swings and at war with his parents, who detected what they considered worrying signs of homosexuality in their teenage son. Twice in his late teens, Sidney and Toby sent Lou to Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens for electroshock therapy, an experience Reed recalled, with vivid bitterness, in the song “Kill Your Sons,” on 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance.
Shortly before his death, Reed told artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel a story from his childhood. “He was standing with his father,” Schnabel says. “He put his hand near his father, and his father kind of smacked him. He never got over that. He felt the cruelty of that.”
Music was his relief. In his 1989 speech inducting Dion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Reed reminisced about listening to doo-wop groups like the Paragons and the Diablos on the radio as he hunched over his high school geometry books. He got into the game early as well, as a singer and guitarist on a 1958 single with the Jades. Reed’s later songs and records were littered with direct homages to the classic soul, Fifties rock and R&B-harmony records that were his salvation as a troubled young man. (The late Sterling Morrison claimed that the feathery vocal harmonies in Reed’s “I Found a Reason,” on Loaded, were inspired by a 1958 single, “Chanson D’Amour,” by Art and Dotty Todd. “Lou knew the song,” Morrison said. “The harmony notion is identical.”)
At Syracuse, Reed pursued twin interests in free jazz — an influence on his turbulent guitar work in the Velvets — and modern literature. He became especially close to one of his teachers, the brilliant, alcoholic poet Delmore Schwartz. “The Day John Kennedy Died,” on Reed’s stark, introspective masterpiece, 1982’s The Blue Mask, was set in the Syracuse campus bar where Reed often met Schwartz — “him talking and me listening,” as Reed later said.
“I wanted to write a novel,” he confessed in 1987. “At the same time, I was in rock & roll bands. It doesn’t take a great leap to say, ‘Gee, why don’t you put the two together?'” Reed was soon working on embryonic versions of “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” — a radical application of adult themes and literacy in, as Lenny Kaye puts it, “a form that was resolutely adolescent.”
After graduation, Reed got a job at a Queens record label, Pickwick, churning out tunes for pop-knockoff LPs sold in supermarkets. When Reed helped put together a band to promote “The Ostrich,” a 1964 single about an imaginary, surrealist dance craze, a friend recommended Cale, a Welsh-born composer active in New York’s Fluxus-art and early, minimalism undergrounds. By the fall of’65, Reed, Morrison (a Syracuse classmate) and Cale had recorded their first demo tape as the Velvet Underground. They were also, in various combinations with percussionist Angus MacLise, providing live, improvised scores to experimental films.
“Lou was interested in how the avant-garde worked,” Cale told me this past summer. “But there was close competition with Dylan — listening to what he was doing, getting inside people’s heads. We thought we could do that.”
Reconciling that duality — meticulously designed craft and total freedom, often at crushing volume — was the Velvets’ defining gift to rock. Maureen Tucker, who replaced MacLise in time for the Velvets’ first paying gig, at a New Jersey high school in December 1965, loved Reed’s guitar playing, especially the lacerating feedback: “It was stunning how he could use that to make a solo.” Many nights, she adds, “I couldn’t hear anything but his guitar. I would watch his mouth to see where he was in the songs, especially ‘Heroin,’ to see where he sang, ‘And I guess I just don’t know,’ because I had to stop there.”
“If it works out, it might be very glamorous,” Andy Warhol said on New York public television in February 1966, announcing his association with the Velvets only a few weeks after seeing the band for the first time, at the Cafe Bizarre. Warhol quickly fashioned a multimedia revue around the Velvets, Exploding Plastic Inevitable, foisting Nico, a German actress-model, on the group as a guest vocalist and icy-blond eye candy. He also funded the Velvets’ first studio sessions before even looking for a record deal. The eventual historic result, The Velvet Underground & Nico, may well be the first true indie-rock album.
“Andy made it possible for us to exist,” Reed said this past summer, a favor he and Cale repaid to moving effect in their 1990 requiem, Songs for Drella, made after Warhol’s death in 1987. The artist challenged Reed to continually work at his gift and never compromise it. “Andy was always saying how lazy I was, because he was 24 hours a day. If he went to a party with us, he was still taking pictures or tape-recording.” Reed would take that lesson to heart, issuing 13 studio and live solo albums just between 1972 and 1980.
Tucker claims that the Velvets’ commercial frustrations didn’t bother Reed. “The rejections were negated by regular people who weren’t critics, who liked us and came to the shows.” But by mid-1968, personal and creative tensions between Reed and Cale had flared beyond repair; that September, Cale was forced out of the group he co-founded.
Reed and Cale remained estranged, with periodic thaws like Drella and a brief European tour of the classic reunited Velvets in 1993, until just before Reed’s death. In a statement after Reed’s passing, Cale wrote of how the two put “the best of our fury” on record “for the world to catch a glimpse. The laughs we shared just a few weeks ago will forever remind me of all that was good between us.”
Cale’s replacement, bassist-singer Doug Yule, remembers Reed as both “warm and friendly” and someone who “didn’t forgive easily.” But the hardness “protected his core, the gentleness that comes out in a lot of his work.” Reed would hand some of his finest romantic portraiture to Yule to sing, including “Candy Says” and the faded-Hollywood ballad “New Age.” “It was a different voice — innocent, naive-sounding,” Yule says. “It was useful to him as a tool and as a deflector of attention.”
Reed disappeared entirely in August 1970 during the Velvets’ extended residency at New York’s Max’s Kansas City, their first prominent local engagement in three years. Kaye saw the group at Max’s that summer. “It was a rock & roll show,” he recalls. “There was none of the malevolence. It was incredible, like going to a party with a great house band.” But after the late show on August 23rd, “we had two days off,” Yule says. “Everybody went home. We showed up for work the next week, and I found out, ‘Lou won’t be coming in. He quit the band.'” While the Velvets, suddenly fronted by Yule, gamely finished their Max’s shows, Reed was back on Long Island, working as a typist in Sidney Reed’s accounting office.
Reed later described his life in the immediate aftermath of the Velvets as “exile and great pondering” — asking himself a lot of questions about “the next move…Did I want to do it myself? Did I want to have a band? Did I just want to do songwriting, not even get onstage? I’m the last person in the world I’d have thought should be on a stage. Some people really like having a spotlight on them. I don’t. What I like is the song.” And, he added, “doing it for people — who like it.”
Two years after he left the Velvet Underground, Reed was busy getting serious about his solo career in London. He was working with David Bowie on Transformer. And Reed was playing live again. “What I’m giving the audience is the benefit of the trips I’ve been through to get them off,” he said during that trip, in a Rolling Stone interview with the British photographer Mick Rock. “When they go home from one of my performances, I don’t want them ever to be the same again.”
Reed would specialize in the unexpected — and demand your full attention all the way — for the rest of his career. He did some of his most affecting work far past his cult-figure heyday in the mid- and late Seventies. The 1992 album Magic and Loss is a prescient examination of mourning and the gift of memory — the indelible presence one can leave behind if you work hard enough — inspired by the loss of two close friends, one of them the great early rock & roll and R&B songwriter Doc Pomus. “There’s a bit of magic in everything,” Reed sang in the title song. “And then some loss to even things out.”
He stayed busy and challenging in recent years: publishing two books of his photography; recording an album of ambient music (2007’s Hudson River Wind Meditations); fronting an improvising group, Metal Machine Trio; and performing in another free-music trio with his wife, violinist and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and the saxophonist John Zorn. Reed and Anderson had met in the early Nineties and married in 2008. (Reed was previously married to Sylvia Morales, who inspired some of his most romantic songs of the Eighties.)
“They were a perfect couple,” Willner says of Reed and Anderson. “They shared the same views on life, on work, but from very different backgrounds.
“And they were accessible — he was out there, in the city,” Willner emphasizes. “They were almost like the John and Yoko of their time. People would say, ‘I’ve just seen Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Now I know I’ve been to New York.'”
This summer, Reed completed the remastering of his Seventies and Eighties solo catalog for a comprehensive box set to celebrate his 72nd birthday next year. “There was nothing like listening to music with him,” Willner says. “That’s what he lived for, that beauty. It was so much fun watching him listen to the strings and vocals on Transformer, going, ‘No one could write background parts like David.'” But Willner alludes to “the pain Lou was going through” during the sessions for Lulu. In early October, six months after his liver transplant, Reed appeared at the John Varvatos store in New York, in the former CBGB, for a launch party promoting Transformer, a deluxe book of Mick Rock’s iconic Reed images, going back to the early Seventies.
“He was fragile,” admits Rock. “I went out to greet him and Laurie, and he was shuffling, leaning on her arms.” Still, “once Lou got warmed up, he was strong. There was a bit of racket going on while we were talking. He yelled, ‘Shut up!’ He could still get very feisty.”
“We all knew he was sick — he was pretty open about it,” says producer Tony Visconti, who practiced tai chi with Reed on Sundays at a class in New York’s West Village. “He studied tai chi mainly to keep his strength up. There are recent photos I’ve seen on Facebook where he looks absolutely ripped — he has musculature that would be the envy of a 30-year-old.”
“When he wasn’t feeling too good,” Rock says, “I’d tell him, ‘I know you, Lou. You’re a gladiator.’ And he was.”
“Like Bette Davis, I hate cheap sentiment,” Reed told me in 1987 when I asked him to look back over his work to that point, to explain what had driven him — musically, spiritually. Then he answered the question at length. “If you thought of it as a book, then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter,” he said. “It tells you all about me, of growing up in the Sixties, Seventies and now the Eighties. That’s what it was like for one person, trying to do the best he could, with all the problems that go along with everybody. Except mine took place in public. And I wrote about that too.”
Reed would add more than a dozen chapters to that novel, in new studio and live albums, before coming to the end. “That’s the great thing about some one who spent his life making stuff for other people,” Bono says gratefully. “We still have the stuff.”