By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK: Lou Reed was a pioneer for countless bands who didn’t worry about their next hit single.
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 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!”
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, Reed’s early patron. Raised on doo-wop and Carl Perkins, Delmore Schwartz and the Beats, 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 buffet of guns, drugs and sex on the Velvet Underground’s 15-minute Sister Ray.
Reed died in Southampton, N.Y., of an ailment related to his recent liver transplant, said his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who added that Reed had been in frail health for months. He received the transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in May. Reed shared a home in Southampton with his wife and fellow musician, Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008. Tributes to Reed came Sunday from such friends and admirers as Salman Rushdie and former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale, who mourned his “school-yard buddy.”
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 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. Reed’s New York was a jaded city of drag queens, drug addicts and violence, but it was also as wondrous as any Allen comedy.
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.
Akron native and guitarist Robert Quine played with Reed in the early 1980s. Quine, who died in 2004, appeared on Reed’s The Blue Mask. Quine is related to Dan Auerbach, the guitarist/vocalist of the Black Keys of Akron.
Reed was one of rock’s archetypal tough guys, but he grew up middle class — an accountant’s son raised on Long Island. Reed was born to be a suburban dropout. He hated school, loved rock ’n’ roll, fought with his parents and attacked them in song for forcing him to undergo electroshock therapy as a supposed “cure” for being bisexual.
His real break began in college. At Syracuse University, he studied under Schwartz, whom Reed would call the first “great man” he ever encountered. He credited Schwartz with making him want to become a writer and to express himself in the most concrete language possible.
Reed moved to New York City after college and traveled in the pop and art worlds, and by the mid-1960s was a fixture at Warhol’s eclectic “Factory.”
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.