Despite Lou Reed’s recent liver transplant, news of his death on Sunday from associated ailments hit the music industry hard, because Reed rarely minced his words – he was the antithesis of the hype machine so prevalent in today’s music culture.
Recovering from the transplant in May, he declared himself “a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry. I am bigger and stronger than ever. I look forward to being on stage performing.”
Right, we thought, and chalked it all down to another of life’s challenges that Reed stared down with typical dismissiveness.
But the legendary artist is no more and to the rock community his death is akin to the loss of a cantankerous grandfather, one whose affection is not a strong point but with a legacy that will last. Without Reed, the rock landscape would not be as expansive as it is now.
Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Reed grew up in a middle-class family in Long Island. The standard white picket fence lifestyle of the suburbs chafed the young Reed, who found solace in teaching himself how to play the guitar and joining rhythm and blues groups in high school.
In 1964, Reed returned to New York City where he landed a gig as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. As well as a steady income, the gig was responsible for his initial meeting with John Cale, a Welshman who had recently arrived in New York to study music.
After hitting it off musically, the duo moved in together and recruited the guitarist Sterling Morrison and the drummer Maureen Tucker to form the group The Velvet Underground.
Catching the attention of Andy Warhol, the artist and Svengali recruited the group to be part of his groundbreaking 1966 showcase, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
The show was an aural and sensory treat – a multimedia event long before the term became a creative buzzword – where The Velvets introduced their brand of drone rock, while evocative and provocative imagery was projected on their black-clad bodies onstage and on a large screen behind.
Reed revelled in Warhol’s edgy arts community, its characters inspiring the songs on The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut.
The album’s sleazy content, including the classic I’m Waiting for the Man, and abrasive sounds (Cale’s obnoxious viola in Venus in Furs) resulted in instant bans from American stores and a radio blackout. But the lack of sales didn’t diminish the effect it had on generations of future bands.
Roxy Music’s Brian Eno summed up the album best: “It only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
After three more influential albums, the band broke up. Reed went solo and after a quiet debut LP, found his first taste of commercial success with his second album, 1972’s Transformer, which David Bowie co-produced.
Almost pathologically averse to mainstream acceptance, Reed continued to lose and gain new fans throughout a career of more than 20 albums that saw him explore the wilder shores of the avant-garde (the screeching feedback loops of the notorious Metal Machine Music, 1975), politics (New York, Reed’s love letter to his home city, 1988) and metal (Lulu, 2011, a collaboration with Metallica inspired by the plays of the German Frank Wedekind).
Reed died on Sunday at the age of 71. He is survived by his wife of five years, the American experimental artist Laurie Anderson. The tributes pouring in from generations of musicians – from Marianne Faithfull to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Strokes – underscore the influence Reed will always hold.
Of course, the irascible musician never entered the game for plaudits. His simple response to such an outpouring would have been: just get on with it.