In 1964, shortly after graduating from Syracuse University, Lou Reed found a job in the music industry. Reed — who’d played covers in a college band called LA & the Eldorados (his given name was Lewis Allen Reed) — had a passionate connection to early rock’n’roll, and having already tried his hand at doo-wop as a teenager, wanted to make his way as an in-house songwriter at Pickwick Records, housed in a cinder-block building in Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Like his soon-to-be mentor Andy Warhol, his goal was the crossroads of inspiration and factory work, but with pop music instead of pop art.
The legend is that Reed — aided by chemical inspiration — took to the Pickwick studio one night to record several of his tracks, including a dance-instruction song called “The Ostrich.” (Sample lyric: “You take a step forward/You step on your head/Do the Ostrich!”) Pickwick pressed a single, and the band put together to promote it would eventually become the Velvet Underground. Working with John Cale, a classically trained violist who’d logged time in the emerging world of New York minimalism, Reed found a sound that linked R&B rhythm guitar and avant-garde drone, and which refused to recognize a distinction between repetition and revelation. It opened up an ocean of possibilities, as inexhaustible as the R&B verities than Reed had grown up on.
Released in 1967, the first Velvet Underground album is known for its impact, which was more immediate than first thought (Mick Jagger once said the Rolling Stones swiped the sound of that first LP for “Stray Cat Blues” on 1968’s “Beggars Banquet”) and which continues today. As influential as the world-conquering groove of Motown or the popcraft of the Beatles, the transgression and transcendence that the Velvet Underground mapped on four studio albums from 1967 to 1970 shaped generations of musicians that followed, some who remained outliers like the Velvets themselves, and others — like David Bowie, R.E.M. and U2 — who took what they learned to the top of the charts.
That was not the case for the Velvets. That 1967 debut album climbed no higher than No. 171 on the Billboard 200. In the summer of love, the Velvet Underground had — as a later song put it — fleft the sunshine out and said hello to never. Much has been made of Reed’s lyrical exploration of drug use, S&M and the sort of feelings most people didn’t want to know about, though Reed himself saw it more simply: If you could talk about drugs and sex in literature or the movies, why not in rock’n’roll? (He laid out his literary pantheon in an introduction to “Street Hassle” on the 2004 live album “Animal Serenade”: “William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, Nelson Algren — maybe a little Raymond Chandler.”) Reed’s fusion of high-art language and tough-guy street talk — which, like his exploration of emotional turmoil and the redemption of love, continued throughout the four-plus decades of his career — was as startling as it was stark.
When he left the Velvet Underground in 1970, Reed retreated to his parents’ house on Long Island, working as a typist for his father, a tax accountant. His first solo album in June 1972 was a muddled recasting of songs that never made it onto Velvet Underground albums, but Transformer — produced by acolyte Bowie — arrived six months later. A crucial document of glam rock, it contained two of Reed’s most enduring songs: “Walk on the Wild Side,” which put the hustlers, transvestites and speed freaks of Warhol-presented movies like “Trash” to music, and “Perfect Day,” which, as NPR’s Ann Powers has pointed out, has become Reed’s equivalent of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — beloved and often covered, with its agonies sometimes overlooked. Metric’s Emily Haines told Rolling Stone that when she sang it for Reed he told her, “You have to bring more pain to it. You’re not singing about a fucking picnic.” (And that was a version he liked.)
“Walk on the Wild Side” became Reed’s sole Billboard Hot 100 entry, climbing to No. 16, with “Transformer” logging a peak of No. 29. Reed followed the album with a pained song cycle about drug addiction, prostitution and child abuse called “Berlin.” It was a move many interpreted as perverse, crushing any potential commercial momentum, though it was a cycle of contradiction that Reed would play out through his career, and perhaps less than intentional. Years later he told Bill Bentley, his publicist during his years at Sire, that he knew people were always waiting for the next “Walk on the Wild Side.” “He would say, ‘Billy B, I’d write it if I could,'” Bentley told NPR’s Terry Gross. “It was the truth. If he thought he could write another one, he would have.”
“The records were letters,” Reed once said of his work. “Real letters from me to certain people. Who had and still have, basically, no music, be it verbal or instrumental, to listen to.” (He said this, ironically, in the liner notes to “Metal Machine Music,” in some ways the least personal album he ever made, although part of the point was that the album’s 64 minutes of brutal instrumental feedback and drone constituted the soundtrack to a life lived outside the boundaries.) Through the ’70s, he took swings at both commercial and experimental albums, sometimes swinging wildly.
But in 1982, at age 40, he began a renaissance that carried him forward for the rest of his career. Married to Sylvia Morales, who was also his manager, he turned away from drugs and alcohol to his guitar. In this he was encouraged by Robert Quine, a devoted Velvet Underground fan (whose personal bootlegs of the band would be released as a three-disc set in 2001) who’d helped birth New York punk when he played guitar for Richard Hell & the Voidoids. On three remarkable records — “The Blue Mask,” “Legendary Hearts” and “New Sensations” — Reed established a sound that was equally warm and brutal. Guided by the subtle bass playing of Fernando Saunders, he pursued it for the next 31 years.
In 1990, Reed and Cale reunited to pay tribute to Warhol on “Songs for Drella.” Three years later, at a Warhol exhibit in Paris, the Velvet Underground staged a spontaneous reunion, taking the stage to use another band’s instruments to play “Heroin.” A tour and a live album followed. By this point, Reed had merged the worlds of high culture and rock’n’roll, as he’d always believed was possible. Hyperion published a hardcover book of his lyrics (which held up well on the page), he collaborated on a theater project with avant-garde director Robert Wilson, and Vaclav Havel told him that he wouldn’t have become president of Czechoslovakia without him. At the same time, he issued one of his strongest albums, 1996’s “Set the Twilight Reeling” (a love offering to performance artist Laurie Anderson, with whom he’d become involved after his marriage to Morales dissolved, and whom he married in 2008), and his influence was evident on successive waves of rock bands, from Nirvana (which covered the Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now”) to the Strokes (who based the title track of their debut album, “Is This It,” on the Velvets’ “I Found a Reason”).
In the 46 years of his recording career, Reed placed 23 albums on the Billboard 200 (and five with the Velvet Underground). He sold 1.6 million albums in the Nielsen SoundScan era (since 1991), with the Velvets accounting for another 2.1 million. His last chart entry was a collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.” It was released in 2011 and debuted at No. 36 on the Billboard 200, his highest-charting album since 1974’s “Sally Can’t Dance” reached No. 10 — his highest-charting effort overall.
In June it was revealed that Reed had undergone a liver transplant in April. “I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry. I am bigger and stronger than stronger than ever,” Reed wrote on his Facebook page. “I look forward to being onstage performing, and writing more songs to connect with your hearts and spirits and the universe well into the future.” But in recent months things took a turn for the worse. He died Oct. 27 at his home in Amagansett, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 71.
“I want some magic to keep me alive, I want a miracle,” Reed sang in “The Magician,” one of the many songs he wrote about death and loss. For Reed, that miracle is his music, the same thing he once said saved his life in a song called “Rock & Roll” that he acknowledged was autobiographical. And the music continues: On Dec. 3, Universal will release a three-disc expansion of the Velvet Underground’s second album, “White Light/White Heat.”