Lewis Allan Reed (March 2, 1942 – October 27, 2013) was an American musician, singer, songwriter and poet. He was the lead guitarist, singer and principal songwriter for the rock band the Velvet Underground and had a solo career that spanned five decades. The Velvet Underground was not a commercial success during its existence, but became regarded as one of the most influential bands in the history of underground and alternative rock music.
After leaving the band in 1970, Reed released twenty solo studio albums. His second, Transformer (1972), was produced by David Bowie and arranged by Mick Ronson, and brought mainstream recognition. After Transformer, the less commercial Berlin reached No. 7 on the UK Albums Chart. Rock 'n' Roll Animal (a live album released in 1974) sold strongly, and Sally Can't Dance (1974) peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200; but for a long period after, Reed's work did not translate into sales, leading him deeper into drug addiction and alcoholism. Reed cleaned up in the early 1980s, and gradually returned to prominence with New Sensations (1984), reaching a critical and commercial career peak with his 1989 album New York.
Reed participated in the reformation of the Velvet Underground in the 1990s, and made several more albums, including a collaboration album with John Cale titled Songs for Drella which was a tribute to their former mentor Andy Warhol. Magic and Loss (1992) would become Reed's highest-charting album on the UK Albums Chart, peaking at No. 6.
He contributed music to two theatrical interpretations of 19th century writers, one of which he developed into an album titled The Raven. He married his third wife Laurie Anderson in 2008, and recorded the collaboration album Lulu with Metallica. He died in 2013 of liver disease. Reed's distinctive deadpan voice, poetic lyrics and experimental guitar playing were trademarks throughout his long career.
Lewis Allan Reed was born on March 2, 1942 at Beth El Hospital (later Brookdale) in Brooklyn and grew up in Freeport, Long Island.[nb 1] Reed was the son of Toby (née Futterman) (1920–2013) and Sidney Joseph Reed (1913–2005), an accountant. His family was Jewish; his father had changed his name from Rabinowitz to Reed. Reed said that although he was Jewish, his real god was rock 'n' roll.
Reed as a high school senior, 1959
Reed attended Atkinson Elementary School in Freeport and went on to Freeport Junior High School. His sister Merrill, born Elizabeth Reed, said that as an adolescent, he suffered panic attacks, became socially awkward and "possessed a fragile temperament" but was highly focused on things that he liked, mainly music. Having learned to play the guitar from the radio, he developed an early interest in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and during high school played in several bands.
He began experimenting with drugs at the age of 16. His first recording was as a member of a doo-wop band called the Jades. His love for playing music and his desire to play gigs brought him into confrontation with his anxious and unaccommodating parents. His sister recalled that during his first year in college he was brought home one day, having had a mental breakdown, after which he remained "depressed, anxious, and socially unresponsive" for a time, and that his parents were having difficulty coping. Visiting a psychologist, Reed's parents were made to feel guilty as inadequate parents, and consented to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Reed appeared to blame his father for the treatment to which he had been subjected. He wrote about the experience in his 1974 song, "Kill Your Sons". Reed later recalled the experience as having been traumatic and leading to memory loss. He believed that he was treated to dispel his feelings of homosexuality. After Reed's death, his sister denied the ECT treatments were intended to suppress his "homosexual urges", asserting that their parents were not homophobic but had been told by his doctors that ECT was necessary to treat Reed's mental and behavioral issues.
Upon his recovery from his illness and associated treatment, Reed resumed his education at Syracuse University in 1960, studying journalism, film directing, and creative writing. He was a platoon leader in ROTC; he said he was later expelled from the program for holding an unloaded gun to his superior's head.
In 1961, he began hosting a late-night radio program on WAER called Excursions on a Wobbly Rail. Named after a song by pianist Cecil Taylor, the program typically featured doo wop, rhythm and blues, and jazz, particularly the free jazz developed in the mid-1950s. Reed said that when he started out he was inspired by such musicians as Ornette Coleman, who had "always been a great influence" on him; he said that his guitar on "European Son" was his way of trying to imitate the jazz saxophonist. Reed's sister said that during her brother's time at Syracuse, the university authorities had tried unsuccessfully to expel him because they did not approve of his extracurricular activities. At Syracuse University, he studied under poet Delmore Schwartz, who he said was "the first great person I ever met", and they became friends. He credited Schwartz with showing him how "with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights." One of Reed's fellow students at Syracuse in the early 1960s (who also studied under Schwartz) was the musician Garland Jeffreys; they remained close friends until the end of Reed's life.
Jeffreys recalled Reed's time at Syracuse: "At four in the afternoon we'd all meet at [the bar] The Orange Grove. Me, Delmore and Lou. That would often be the center of the crew. And Delmore was the leader - our quiet leader." While at Syracuse, Reed was also introduced to intravenous drug use for the first time, and quickly contracted hepatitis.Sterling Morrison was not attending Syracuse at the time, but met Reed while he was visiting mutual friend Jim Tucker, the older brother of Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, who was attending school there. Reed later dedicated the song "European Son", from the first Velvet Underground album, to Schwartz. In 1982, Reed recorded "My House" from his album The Blue Mask as a tribute to his late mentor. He later said that his goals as a writer were "to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music" or to write the Great American Novel in a record album. Reed graduated from Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A.cum laude in English in June 1964.
1964–70: Pickwick and the Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground, 1968
In 1964, Reed moved to New York City to work as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. That year he wrote and recorded the single "The Ostrich", a parody of popular dance songs of the time, which included lines such as "put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it". His employers felt that the song had hit potential, and assembled a supporting band to help promote the recording. The ad hoc band, called "the Primitives", included Welsh musician John Cale, who had recently moved to New York to study music and was playing viola in composer La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music, along with Tony Conrad. Cale and Conrad were surprised to find that for "The Ostrich", Reed tuned each string of his guitar to the same note, which they began to call his "ostrich guitar" tuning. This technique created a drone effect similar to their experimentation in Young's avant-garde ensemble. Disappointed with Reed's performance, Cale was nevertheless impressed by Reed's early repertoire (including "Heroin"), and a partnership began to evolve.
Reed and Cale (who played viola, keyboards and bass guitar) lived together on the Lower East Side, and invited Reed's college acquaintance guitarist Sterling Morrison and Cale's neighbor drummer Angus MacLise to join the band, thus forming the Velvet Underground. When the opportunity came to play their first paying gig at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey, MacLise quit because he believed that accepting money for art was a sellout and did not want to participate in a structured gig. He was replaced on drums by Moe Tucker, initially for that one show, but she soon became a full-time member with her drumming an integral part of the band's sound, despite Cale's initial objections. Though it had little commercial success, the band is considered one of the most influential in rock history. Reed was the main singer and songwriter in the band.
Had he accomplished nothing else, his work with the Velvet Underground in the late sixties would assure him a place in anyone's rock & roll pantheon; those remarkable songs still serve as an articulate aural nightmare of men and women caught in the beauty and terror of sexual, street and drug paranoia, unwilling or unable to move. The message is that urban life is tough stuff—it will kill you; Reed, the poet of destruction, knows it but never looks away and somehow finds holiness as well as perversity in both his sinners and his quest. ... [H]e is still one of a handful of American artists capable of the spiritual home run.
The band soon came to the attention of Andy Warhol. One of Warhol's first contributions was to integrate them into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol's associates inspired many of Reed's songs as he fell into a thriving, multifaceted artistic scene. Reed rarely gave an interview without paying homage to Warhol as a mentor. Warhol pushed the band to take on a chanteuse, the German former model and singer Nico. Despite his initial resistance, Reed wrote several songs for Nico to sing, and the two were briefly lovers.
The Velvet Underground & Nico reached No. 171 on the charts. Much later, Rolling Stone listed it as the 13th greatest album of all time; Brian Eno once stated that although few people bought the album, most of them were inspired to form their own bands.Václav Havel credited the album, which he bought while visiting the US, with inspiring him to become president of Czechoslovakia.
By the time the band recorded White Light/White Heat, Nico had quit and Warhol had been fired, both against Cale's wishes. Warhol's replacement as manager was Steve Sesnick. In September 1968, Cale left the band at Reed's behest. Morrison and Tucker were discomfited by Reed's tactics but continued with the band. Cale's replacement was Boston-based musician Doug Yule, who played bass guitar, keyboards and who would soon share lead vocal duties in the band with Reed. The band now took on a more pop-oriented sound and acted more as a vehicle for Reed to develop his songwriting craft. They released two studio albums with this line-up: 1969's The Velvet Underground and 1970's Loaded. Reed left the Velvet Underground in August 1970. The band disintegrated after Morrison and Tucker departed in 1971.
1970–75: Glam rock and commercial breakthrough
After leaving the Velvet Underground, Reed moved to his parents' home on Long Island, and took a job at his father's tax accounting firm as a typist, by his own account earning $40 a week ($258 in 2018 dollars). In 1971, he signed a recording contract with RCA Records and recorded his first solo album at Morgan Studios in Willesden, London with session musicians including Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman from the band Yes. The album, Lou Reed, contained versions of unreleased Velvet Underground songs, some of which had originally been recorded for Loaded but shelved.[nb 2] This album was overlooked by most pop music critics and did not sell well, although music critic Stephen Holden, in Rolling Stone, called it an "almost perfect album. ... which embodied the spirit of the Velvets." Holden went on to compare Reed's voice with those of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan and to praise the poetic quality of his lyrics.
Reed's commercial breakthrough album, Transformer, was released in November 1972. Transformer was co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, and it introduced Reed to a wider audience, especially in the UK. The single "Walk on the Wild Side" was a salute to the misfits and hustlers who once surrounded Andy Warhol in the late '60s and appeared in his films. Each of the song's five verses describes a person who had been a fixture at The Factory during the mid-to-late 1960s: (1) Holly Woodlawn, (2) Candy Darling, (3) "Little Joe" Dallesandro, (4) "Sugar Plum Fairy" Joe Campbell and (5) Jackie Curtis. The song's transgressive lyrics evaded radio censorship. Though the jazzy arrangement (courtesy of bassist Herbie Flowers and saxophonist Ronnie Ross) was musically atypical for Reed, it eventually became his signature song. It came about as a result of a commission to compose a soundtrack to a theatrical adaptation of Nelson Algren's novel of the same name; the play failed to materialize. "Walk on the Wild Side" was Reed's only entry in the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, at number 16.
Ronson's arrangements brought out new aspects of Reed's songs. "Perfect Day", for example, features delicate strings and soaring dynamics. It was rediscovered in the 1990s and allowed Reed to drop "Walk on the Wild Side" from his concerts.
Bowie and Reed fell out during a late-night meeting which led to Reed hitting Bowie. Bowie had told Reed that he would have to "clean up his act" if they were to work together again.[nb 3] Reed hired a local New York bar-band, The Tots, to tour in support of Transformer and spent much of 1972 and early 1973 on the road with them. Though they improved over the months, Reed (with producer Bob Ezrin's encouragement) decided to recruit a new backing band in anticipation of the upcoming Berlin album. He chose keyboardist Moogy Klingman to come up with a new five-member band on barely a week's notice.
Reed married Bettye Kronstad in 1973. She later said he had been a violent drunk when on tour.Berlin (July 1973) was a concept album about two junkies in love in the city. The songs variously concern domestic violence ("Caroline Says I", "Caroline Says II"), drug addiction ("How Do You Think It Feels"), adultery and prostitution ("The Kids"), and suicide ("The Bed"). Reed's late 1973 European tour, featuring lead guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, mixed his Berlin material with older numbers. Response to Berlin at the time of its release was negative, with Rolling Stone pronouncing it "a disaster". Reed found the poor reviews it received very frustrating. Since then the album has been critically reevaluated, and in 2003 Rolling Stone included it in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.Berlin made number 7 in the UK charts.
Following the commercial disappointment of Berlin, Reed befriended Steve Katz of Blood, Sweat & Tears (who was the brother of his then-manager Dennis Katz), who suggested Reed put together a "great live band" and release a live album of Velvet Underground songs. Katz would come on board as producer, and the album Rock 'n' Roll Animal (February 1974) contained live performances of the Velvet Underground songs "Sweet Jane", "Heroin", "White Light/White Heat", and "Rock and Roll". Wagner's live arrangements, and Hunter's intro to "Sweet Jane" which opened the album, gave Reed's songs the live rock sound he was looking for, and the album peaked at #45 on the Top 200 Billboard Chart for 28 weeks and soon became Reed's biggest selling album.[nb 4] It went gold in 1978, with 500,000 certified sales.
Sally Can't Dance which was released later that year (in August 1974), became Reed's highest-charting album in the United States, peaking at number 10 during a 14-week stay on the Billboard 200 album chart in October 1974.
Metal Machine Music (1975) was an hour of modulated feedback and guitar effects. Critics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt, an attempt to break his contract with RCA or to alienate his less sophisticated fans. Reed claimed that the album was a genuine artistic effort, even suggesting that quotations of classical music could be found buried in the feedback. Lester Bangs declared it "genius", though also psychologically disturbing. The album was reportedly returned to stores by the thousands and was withdrawn after a few weeks.
Lou Reed doesn't just write about squalid characters, he allows them to leer and breathe in their own voices, and he colors familiar landscapes through their own eyes. In the process, Reed has created a body of music that comes as close to disclosing the parameters of human loss and recovery as we're likely to find. That qualifies him, in my opinion, as one of the few real heroes rock & roll has raised.
1975's Coney Island Baby was dedicated to Reed's then-partner Rachel, a transgender woman Reed dated and lived with for three years. Rachel also appears in the photos on the cover of Reed's 1977 "best of" album, Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. Rock and Roll Heart was his 1976 debut for his new record label Arista, and Street Hassle (1978) was released in the midst of the punk scene he had helped to inspire. Reed took on a watchful, competitive and sometimes dismissive attitude towards punk. Aware that he had inspired them, he regularly attended shows at CBGB to track the artistic and commercial development of numerous punk bands, and a cover illustration and interview of Reed appeared in the first issue of Punk by Legs McNeil.
Reed released his third live album, Live: Take No Prisoners, in 1978; some critics thought it was his "bravest work yet", while others considered it his "silliest".Rolling Stone described it as "one of the funniest live albums ever recorded" and compared Reed's monologues with those of Lenny Bruce. Reed felt it was his best album to date.The Bells (1979) featured jazz trumpeter Don Cherry. Around this time Reed also appeared as a sleazy record producer in Paul Simon's film One-Trick Pony. From around 1979 Reed began to wean himself off drugs.
In 1998, The New York Times observed that in the 1970s, Reed had a distinctive persona: "Back then he was publicly gay, pretended to shoot heroin onstage, and cultivated a 'Dachau panda' look, with cropped peroxide hair and black circles painted under his eyes." The newspaper wrote that in 1980, "Reed renounced druggy theatrics, even swore off intoxicants themselves, and became openly heterosexual, openly married."
On September 22, 1985, Reed performed at the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Illinois. He performed "Doin' the Things That We Want To", "I Love You, Suzanne", "New Sensations" and "Walk on the Wild Side" as his solo set, later playing bass for Roy Orbison during his set. In June 1986, Reed released Mistrial (co-produced with Fernando Saunders). To support the album, he released two music videos: "No Money Down" and "The Original Wrapper". In the same year, he joined Amnesty International's A Conspiracy of Hope short tour and was outspoken about New York City's political issues and personalities.
The 1989 album New York, which commented on crime, AIDS, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, then-President of Austria Kurt Waldheim and Pope John Paul II, became his second gold-certified work when it passed 500,000 sales in 1997. Reed was nominated for a Grammy Award for best male rock vocal performance for the album.
1990–99: Velvet Underground reunion and various projects
Reed met John Cale for the first time in decades at Warhol's funeral in 1987. They worked together on the album Songs for Drella (April 1990), a song cycle about Warhol. On the album, Reed sings of his love for his late friend, and criticizes both the doctors who were unable to save Warhol's life and Warhol's would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas. In 1990, the first Velvet Underground lineup reformed for a Fondation Cartier benefit show in France. In June and July 1993, the Velvet Underground again reunited and toured Europe, including an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival; plans for a North American tour were cancelled following a dispute between Reed and Cale.
Reed had released his sixteenth solo album, Magic and Loss, in January 1992. The album is preoccupied with mortality, inspired by the death of two close friends from cancer. In 1994, he appeared in A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who. In the same year, he and Morales were divorced. In 1995, Reed made a cameo appearance in the unreleased video gamePenn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors. If the player selects the "impossible" difficulty setting, Reed appears shortly after the game begins as an unbeatable boss who murders the player with his laser beam eyes. Reed then pops up on the screen and says to the player, "This is the impossible level, boys. Impossible doesn't mean very difficult, very difficult is winning the Nobel Prize, impossible is eating the sun."
In February 2000, Reed worked with Robert Wilson at the Thalia Theater again, on "Poe-Try", another production inspired by the works of a 19th-century writer, this time Edgar Allan Poe. In April 2000, Reed released Ecstasy. In January 2003, Reed released a two-CD set, The Raven, based on it. The album consists of songs written by Reed and spoken-word performances of reworked and rewritten texts of Edgar Allan Poe by the actors, set to electronic music composed by Reed. It features David Bowie and Ornette Coleman. A single disc CD version of the album, focusing on the music, was also released.[nb 5]
In 2003, Reed released a book of photographs, Emotions in Action. This comprised an A4-sized book called Emotions and a smaller one called Actions laid into its hard cover. In January 2006, he released a second book of photographs, Lou Reed's New York. A third volume, Romanticism, was released in 2009.
Reed played "Sweet Jane" and "White Light/White Heat" with Metallica at Madison Square Garden during the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on October 30, 2009. In 2010 Lou Reed featured on the song "Some Kind of Nature" with Gorillaz, from their album Plastic Beach. In October 2011, Metallica and Reed released the collaboration album Lulu. It was based on the "Lulu" plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind (1864–1918). The album received mixed and mainly negative reviews from music critics. Reed joked that he had no fans left. The album debuted at number 36 on the Billboard 200 with first-week sales of 13,000 copies.
In 2012, Reed collaborated with indie rock band Metric on "The Wanderlust", the tenth track on their fifth studio album Synthetica. This was to be the last original composition he worked on.