OCTOBER 27, 2013 – Velvet Underground frontman LOU REED (b. Lewis Allan Reed on March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York) died at the age of 71. An admitted hard drinker and drug user for many years, he underwent a liver transplant in Cleveland in April 2013.Reed was born at Beth El Hospital (now Brookdale) in Brooklyn and grew up in Freeport, Long Island. Contrary to some sources, his birth name was Lewis Allan Reed, not Louis Firbanks, a name that was coined as a joke by Lester Bangs in Creem magazine. Reed was the son of Toby (née Futterman) and Sidney Joseph Reed, an accountant. His family was Jewish, and although he said that he was Jewish, he added, “My God is rock’n’roll.
It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.”Having learned to play the guitar from the radio, he developed an early interest in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and during high school played in several bands. His first recording was as a member of a doo wop-style group called the Jades. In 1956, Reed, who was bisexual and still a teenager, received electroconvulsive therapy, which was intended to cure his bisexuality; he wrote about the experience in his 1974 song, “Kill Your Sons.”Reed began attending Syracuse University in 1960, studying journalism, film directing, and creative writing.
He was a platoon leader in ROTC and later expelled from the program for holding an unloaded gun to his superior’s head. In 1961 he began hosting a late-night radio program on WAER called “Excursions On A Wobbly Rail.” Named after a song by pianist Cecil Taylor, the program typically featured doo wop, rhythm and blues and jazz, particularly the free jazz developed in the mid-1950s. Many of Reed’s guitar techniques, such as the guitar-drum roll, were inspired by jazz saxophonists, such as Ornette Coleman. Reed graduated with honors from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in June 1964.While enrolled at Syracuse University, he studied under poet Delmore Schwartz, who he said was “the first great person I ever met”, and they became friends. He credited Schwartz with showing him how “with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights.” Reed dedicated the song “European Son” from the Velvet Underground’s debut album, to Schwartz. In 1982, Reed also recorded “My House” as a tribute to his late mentor.
He later said that his goals as a writer were “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music” or to write the Great American Novel in a record album.In 1964, Reed moved to New York City and began working as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. In 1964, he scored a minor hit with the single “The Ostrich,” a parody of popular dance songs of the time, which included lines such as “put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it.” His employers felt that the song had hit potential, and arranged for a band to be assembled around Reed to promote the recording. The ad hoc group, called “The Primitives,” included Welsh musician John Cale, who had recently moved to New York to study music and was playing viola in composer La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, along with Tony Conrad. Cale and Conrad were both surprised to find that for “The Ostrich,” Reed tuned each string of his guitar to the same note, which they began to call his “ostrich guitar” tuning. This technique created a drone effect similar to their experimentation in Young’s avant-garde ensemble.
Disappointed with Reed’s performance, Cale was nevertheless impressed by Reed’s early repertoire (including “Heroin”), and a partnership began to evolve.Reed and Cale lived together on the Lower East Side, and after inviting Reed’s college acquaintances guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to join the group, they formed the Velvet Underground. Though internally unstable (Cale left in 1968, Reed in 1970), and without commercial success, the band has a long-standing reputation as one of the most influential in rock history.The group soon caught the attention of artist Andy Warhol. One of Warhol’s first contributions was to integrate them into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol’s associates inspired many of Reed’s songs as he fell into a thriving, multifaceted artistic scene. Reed rarely gave an interview without paying homage to Warhol as a mentor. Conflict emerged when Warhol had the idea for the group to take on a chanteuse, the European former model and singer Nico. Despite his initial resistance, Reed wrote several songs for Nico to sing, and the two were briefly lovers (as were Nico and Cale later). “The Velvet Underground & Nico” reached #171 on the charts.The album is now widely considered one of the most influential rock albums ever recorded. Rolling Stone has it listed as the 13th greatest album of all time.
Brian Eno once famously stated that although few people bought the album, most of those who did were inspired to form their own band. Václav Havel credited this album, which he bought while visiting the US, with inspiring him to become president of Czechoslovakia.By the time the band recorded “White Light/White Heat,” Nico had quit and Warhol had been fired, both against Cale’s wishes. Warhol’s replacement as manager, Steve Sesnick, convinced Reed to drive Cale out of the band. Morrison and Tucker were discomfited by Reed’s tactics but continued with the group. Cale’s replacement was Doug Yule, whom Reed would often facetiously introduce as his younger brother. The group now took on a more pop-oriented sound and acted more as a vehicle for Reed to develop his songwriting craft. The group released two albums with this line up: 1969’s “The Velvet Underground” and 1970’s “Loaded.” The latter included two of the group’s most commercially successful songs, “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane.”
Reed left the Velvet Underground in August 1970; the band disintegrated as core members Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker departed in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Yule continued until early 1973, and one more studio album “Squeeze” was released under the Velvet Underground name.After the band’s move to Atlantic Records’ Cotillion label, their new manager pushed Reed to change the subject matter of his songs to lighter topics in hopes of commercial success. “Loaded” had taken more time to record than the previous three albums together, but had not broken them through to a wider audience. Reed briefly retired to his parents’ home on Long Island.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” (#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” (#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 continued to flaunt this kind of unpredictability. A pair of live albums drawn from the same set of concerts (including “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,” #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” (#10, 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” (#41, 1976), Reed moved to Arista where he made impeccably produced, harrowing music like the title cut of “Street Hassle” (#89, 1978), as well as relatively peaceful outings typified by album titles like “Rock and Roll Heart” (#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” (#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.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 “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.In May 2013, Reed underwent a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic. Afterwards, on his website, Reed wrote of feeling “bigger and stronger” than ever, but on October 27, 2013, he died from liver disease at his home in Southampton, New York, at the age of 71.David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, David Bowie, Morrissey, Iggy Pop, Courtney Love, Lenny Kravitz, Miley Cyrus, Samuel L. Jackson, Kanye West, Ricky Gervais, Ryan Adams, Elijah Wood, Howard Stern and many others paid tribute to Reed. Pearl Jam dedicated their song “Man of the Hour” to Reed at their show in Baltimore and then played “I’m Waiting for the Man.” On the day of his death, the Killers dedicated their rendition of “Pale Blue Eyes” to Reed at the Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas. Phish opened their show in Hartford with “Rock & Roll” after which Trey Anastasio asked the audience for a moment of silence for “one of the greatest artists who’ve [sic] ever lived.”Former Velvet Underground members Maureen Tucker and John Cale made statements on Reed’s death, and others from outside the music industry paid their respects on Twitter, including Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and Salman Rushdie.On November 14, 2013, a three hour public memorial was held near Lincoln Center’s Paul Milstein Pool and Terrace.
Billed as “New York: Lou Reed at Lincoln Center,” the gathering centered around recordings of Reed’s selected by his family and friends. That same month, it was reported that a biography is being written by Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis.On December 16, 2013, UK’s BBC Four broadcast Lou Reed Remembered, an hour-long tribute with contributions from friends and colleagues. The following day, a memorial featuring friends and collaborators of Reed was held at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Organized by Laurie Anderson, the event included performances by Patti Smith, Antony Hegarty, Debbie Harry, Paul Simon, John Zorn, Philip Glass, and Maureen Tucker, to name a few.