Lou Reed died today of complications after his liver transplant earlier this year. He was 71.
The singer and guitarist first attracted attention as the leader of the Velvet Underground, a group that began as an Andy Warhol project in the mid 1960s, which combined a sense of the avant-garde with pop music. With Reed’s poetic lyrics and the Velvets’ always experimental (and sometimes dissonant) approach, they arguably serve as the starting point for alternative rock music. Reed was among the first lyricists to openly sing about sex and drugs in his songs.
Though the band were not commercially successful, their influence was widespread, historically on the left-of-center, resulting in the oft-quoted adage that though not many people bought the band’s first album, everybody who did ended up starting a band. The Velvets were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
In one version of his classic song, “Sweet Jane,” he would indirectly sum it up thusly…
Anyone who’s ever had a dream
Anyone who’s ever played a part
Anyone who’s ever been lonely
and anyone who’s ever split apart
After the Velvets, Reed went on to collaborate with David Bowie in the 1970s, finding chart success with “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” and carving out a niche for himself in the glam rock movement.
But as an artist, Reed was never content to compromise or to even do what his growing fanbase expected. Over the years he released many albums that listeners and critics alike had difficulty with, such as 1975’s “Metal Machine Music,” which consisted of more than an hour of feeding back guitars that sounded like what its title implies. Other projects were also met with fierce criticism, such as his 2003 Edgar Allen Poe-inspired “The Raven” and his final release, a 2011 collaboration with Metallica entitled “Lulu.”
But for every unexpected left turn his muse took, Reed remained a figurehead for the movement he started and his tours were always successful. He also stayed invested in the arts until his death, mentoring younger artists and even taking the time to write a review of Kanye West’s “Yeezus” on The Talkhouse website.
For a time Reed was infamous for his substance abuse, but he had cleaned up in his later years, finding new inspiration in Tai Chi and his third wife, artist Laurie Anderson. After he underwent a liver transplant in May Anderson was quoted as saying it was “as serious as it gets. He was dying.”
His legacy will live on in the songs he has left behind, in his own magnificent versions and in cover versions by the likes of U2, Joy Division, Nirvana and David Bowie.
Click below for a playlist of our favorite Lou Reed songs.