Lou Reed, the godfather of punk rock, died in New York on Sunday (October 27) at the age of 71. According to Rolling Stone, the hugely influential guitarist and songwriter best known for genre-defining hits such as “Rock & Roll,” “Sweet Jane” and “Walk on the Wild Side,” died of undisclosed causes, six months after undergoing a liver transplant in May.
Beginning with his work with the Velvet Underground in the late 1960s, Reed created a new blueprint for rock and roll, incorporating elements of avant garde music, dark poetry and subject matter that pushed the envelope for rock, including songs about sadomasochism and homosexuality.
Though VU were not huge sellers in their time, it was often said that everyone who bought one of the 30,000 copies initially sold of the band’s 1967 debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico went on to form a band. In the subsequent years, everyone from David Bowie to Iggy Pop, the Pixies, Nirvana, the Cure, R.E.M., U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins have paid homage to Reed and his renegade style. And, it’s fair to say, the road would have been even harder for Lady Gaga and Kanye West if Reed had not smashed down the musical barriers between music and art for them.
In addition to serving as a beacon for so many bands, Reed also played a role in passing the torch at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards, where he took the stage with Jack White to perform a revved-up version of the VU’s “White Light/White Heat” with the Raconteurs.
Lewis Allan Reed was born on March 2, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, and gained his early education in music by listening to doo-wop and early rock and roll icons from the 1950s. After having marginal success after college, he hooked up with classically trained violist John Cale in the mid-sixties, forming the Velvet Underground with guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker in 1964.
Legendary pop art provocateur Andy Warhol made the VU the house band of his studio, the Factory, as well as designing the iconic peeling banana cover of their debut album. The group set itself apart thanks to Reed’s nihilistic lyrics and story songs full of drug and S&M references, which made some of the dark output from the Rolling Stones seem tame by comparison. Reed also helped bring the use of feedback and distortion to the fore for rock bands, inspiring countless bands to step out of the shackles of traditional melody and meter and explore noisier, more difficult territory.
The band’s final album, 1970’s Loaded, contained two of their most beloved songs, “Rock & Roll” and “Sweet Jane.”
Though they only last until 1970 in their original incarnation, the VU is still considered one of the most influential rock bands of all time. After leaving the group, Reed went solo and released the Transformer album in 1972, continuing his fascination with exploring the dimly lit corners of street life on songs such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” which explored such previously taboo subjects as transsexuality, oral sex and male prostitution. Despite that offbeat lyrical content, the song hit #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and has became one of Reed’s most well-known tracks.
He followed with a concept album about two junkies in love called Berlin, and with a series of other late 1970s albums that met with increasingly less commercial success, including 1975’s legendary double album of noisy feedback, Metal Machine Music. He continued to record and tour in the 1980s, reconnecting with Cale in 1987 for a tribute to late mentor Warhol entitled Songs for Drella.
After nearly two decades together, he married performance artist Laurie Anderson in 2008.
The VU were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and Reed was nominated as a solo artist in 2000 and 2001 but has not yet made it in for his non-VU work. His final solo album, Hudson River Wind Meditations, was released in 2007. He collaborated with Metallica on the album Lulu in 2011, a difficult, chaotic album with typically in-your-face lyrics that, in classic Reed fashion, drew starkly different reactions from both fans and critics.