On Sunday 27 October 2013, founder of the VELVET UNDERGROUND and respected solo performer, Lou Reed, passed away at the age of 71 due to liver disease. He died at his home in Southampton, New York. In May 2013 he had a liver transplant and claimed on his website shortly after to be ‘bigger and stronger’ than ever.
Born Lewis Allan Reed on 2 March 1942 in Brooklyn, Reed’s parents (Toby and Sidney Joseph Reed) were Jewish and he grew up in Freeport, Long Island. He learned guitar from listening to the radio and made his recording debut on a single by Doo-Wop band The Jades in 1958.
Two years earlier, Reed, who was bisexual, went through electro-convulsive therapy. A method used to cure homosexual feelings, Reed went onto comment about the experience in the book, Please Kill Me and it also provided inspiration for his 1974 song, ‘Kill Your Sons’.
Come 1960, Reed was enrolled at Syracuse University studying journalism, creative writing and film directing. Displaying early signs of subversion - something his future work in VELVET UNDERGROUND in particular would be noted for - Reed was dismissed from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps after reaching the status of Platoon Leader after he held an unloaded gun to his superior’s head. The following year he began hosting a late night radio show, playing Doo-Wop, Jazz and Free Jazz.
It was at Syracuse University that Reed discovered Delmore Schwartz - a poet who Reed studied under and who he called, "the first great person I ever met." Schwartz inspired some of Reed’s future work too, with ‘European Son’ from the VELVET UNDERGROUND’s first album being dedicated to Schwartz and in 1982, ‘My House’ was recorded as a tribute to Schwartz.
In 1964, Reed moved to New York City and became the in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records, scoring a minor hit with the single ‘The Ostrich’. Recorded as a mimicry of popular dance songs of the era, the song inspired the formation of a band history has come to overlook, but a band which became the nucleus of rock ‘n’ roll history - a band called THE PRIMITIVES. In this band was a Welsh man who had travelled to NYC to study music - one John Cale. Reed apparently already had an early version of ‘Heroin’ in his song-arsenal. Impressed, Cale and Reed’s partnership progressed.
Sharing an apartment on the Lower East Side, a guitarist named Sterling Morrison and a drummer named Maureen Tucker - both college friends of Reed’s - joined the band and so became VELVET UNDERGROUND.
From here, the rest is history that can be read in books, magazines, blogs and in film in any part of the planet. With Reed, the band recorded four classic albums, had close association with Andy Warhol and, whilst achieving little success during their tenure, went onto become one of the most influential bands of all-time, having big influence in the Punk scene, and more specifically the post-Punk scene and all the bands that splintered from that.
Reed quit VELVET UNDERGROUND in 1970, taking the decidedly un-Rock ‘n’ Roll job of a typist at his father’s accountancy firm. It was short-lived however as in 1971 Reed signed to RCA to record his self-titled debut album. A career spanning another 25 albums followed, including a reunion of the VELVET UNDERGROUND in 1993.
As stated, Reed’s history from the VELVET UNDERGROUND onwards is easily accessible to anyone who wants to read it. I am not going to suggest I was Reed’s biggest fan - far from it in fact. I only own three VELVET UNDERGROUND albums (and that includes the live set ‘MCMXCIII’ recorded in Paris when the band reformed and is highly recommended), and of Reed’s solo work, I have about six or seven. I never saw the man live, although seriously considered seeing him in the early 90s when he seemed to go through a bit of a creative high with the excellent albums ‘New York’ from 1989 and 1992’s ‘Magic And Loss’.
No doubt Reed will be remembered chiefly for his work in the VELVET UNDERGROUND, to the wider public for the hit single ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and thanks to the film, Trainspotting, ‘Perfect Day’ which was also recorded by a star-studded line-up for the Children In Need charity.
Two solo albums define his career, ‘Transformer’, his second solo album, released in 1972 is considered to be the classic of his solo career and features both of those tracks. Conversely, ‘Metal Machine Music’ is a double album and is considered by many as one of the worst albums ever, consisting only of guitar feedback and guitar noise. I’ve never heard it - and don’t really want to.
However, the follow-up to ‘Transformer’, 1973’s ‘Berlin’ is for me, Reed’s musical masterpiece. It’s a concept album, based around a doomed couple and takes its themes from drug use, depression, domestic violence, prostitution and suicide. It’s a heavily orchestrated album and, as you can imagine, a sombre album but one that gets better with age. It has also been playing while I write this.
In more recent years, Reed played for Pope John Paul II at the Great Jubilee Concert in Rome 2000, while the following year incorrect reports of his death from a drug overdose surfaced. 2003 and 2006 saw books of Reed’s photography published while 2008 saw him debut a new band that would become known as METAL MACHINE TRIO.
In 2011, Reed released his final album, a rather ill-received job that was recorded with METALLICA.
Reed is survived by his wife, Laurie Anderson, who he married in 2008.