Lou Reed on November 14, 2012 (Photo: Eric Feferberg/Getty)
He was the lead singer of the Velvet Underground and one of the most pioneering figures in rock music. Rolling Stone reports that Lou Reed has passed away at the age of 71. No cause of death has been released, but Reed underwent liver transplant surgery in May.
The importance and influence of Reed's work is tough to overstate. As Rolling Stone writes in his obit, "glam, punk and alternative rock are all unthinkable without his revelatory example."
Growing up on Long Island, Reed taught himself to play guitar by listening to the radio. In the fall of 1960, he started attending Syracuse University, where he hosted a late-night radio show, spinning jazz, doo wop and rhythm and blues. Some of those influences were evident in his later musical compositions.
He got his start as a musician as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York, where he wrote a novelty song called "The Ostrich". The record company formed a band to record the tune, and one of the members was a young Welsh musician named John Cale. The pair would go on to form the Velvet Underground in the mid-'60s, along with Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison.
Although VU would go on to be considered one of the most important and influential bands in rock, they never achieved real commercial success during their original run: their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, only made it to number 171 on the Billboard charts. In 2003, Spin named the record one of the 15 most influential albums of all time, and Brian Eno famously said that while not many people bought the album, every person who did was inspired to form a band.
Here's "Sunday Morning" from that album:
That first album was overseen by Andy Warhol and featured European singer Nico. By the time White Light/White Heat, their second record, came out, Reed had fired both Warhol and Nico, against Cale's objections. The band's new manager, Steve Sesnick, convinced Reed to push Cale out of the band as well, replacing him with Doug Yule.
Reed recorded two more albums with VU, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, but left the band in 1970 after their last album failed to break through commercially. He moved back to his parents' house on Long Island and took a job as a typist at his father's tax accounting firm.
But he soon got a new record contract with RCA, releasing a self-titled solo album which was largely ignored, and then his most successful solo work, 1972's Transformer. The album, which was co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, helped introduce him to a wider audience, especially in the U.K. But it would also cast a long shadow over his subsequent work.
Check out the whole of Transformer below:
Following the success of Transformer, Reed made a whole career out of defying expectations. He followed that album with the dark junkie narrative album Berlin, then put out Sally Can't Dance, which featured soul horns and flashy guitar work. His next studio album was the all-noise record Metal Machine Music, which was controversial on its release, with thousands of copies returned to stores in the weeks after its release.
By the '80s, Reed's public persona and musical approach had mellowed somewhat. He got married to Sylvia Morales (they later divorced), released an album about married life called The Blue Mask in 1984, and ended the decade with New York, a record that won practically universal critical praise.
In 1994, the Velvet Underground reunited for a series of successful shows in Europe, and in 1996 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Later that decade, Reed became involved with musician and multimedia/performance artist Laurie Anderson. They were married in 2008.
Reed didn't slow down through the 2000s, releasing his own albums, like 2007's Hudson River Wind Meditations, and collaborating with other artists, including the Killers, Gorillaz, Metric and Metallica, with whom Reed recorded a full-length album called Lulu.