Lou Reed, genius who inspired the stars, dies aged 71
Lou Reed, who died aged 71, enjoyed a decent dash of fame but it was his poetic, melodic music that influenced generations of top artists
Lou Reed never had the prominence or commercial sales of 1960s peers such as the Beatles or Bob Dylan - his only major commercial hit was Walk on the Wild Side. But his influence was just as vast, if not more so.
Punk, post-punk and most strains of underground music of the past 40 years would not exist without the one-of-a-kind merger of music and words pioneered by Reed and his groundbreaking band, the Velvet Underground.
He leaves behind one of the most profound musical legacies of any 20th-century artist. His lyrics suggested a new kind of street poetry, at once raw and literary. His music - conceived with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker in The Velvet Underground - merged primitivism with sophisticated avant-garde ideas. The Velvets made four landmark studio albums before crumbling in 1970, each a template for the underground music to follow.
The artists in their debt include R.E.M., David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, Roxy Music, U2 and Patti Smith, and stretch from Iceland (Bjork) to South America (Os Mutantes).
In an interview with the Tribune in 1990, Roxy Music founder Brian Eno reiterated his famous remark that "only a few thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a band", and embellished it with "I should know, I was one of those people".
Reed, born in Brooklyn in 1942, grew up in a middle-class family and went on to study at Syracuse University, where he was mentored by the famed poet Delmore Schwartz. His staunch interest in Beat literature and classic soul and doo-wop was perhaps underused in his job as staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York, but it sharpened his skills in writing simple two- or three-chord riffs.
"I wanted to be a writer, always did," he once said. "Ever since elementary school I was writing songs, and I've essentially been able to survive by writing. I consider myself really, really lucky."
That gift flourished in The Velvets, where he wrote such future classics as Rock 'n' Roll, Sweet Jane and Pale Blue Eyes. In the mid-60s, he befriended Cale, a classically trained musician from Wales, who brought cutting-edge harmonics and texture to Reed's melodies. Cale in turn was astounded by Reed's lyrics.
"I'd never met anyone like Lou who could put words together like that. He would create these dangerous scenarios in the songs, in part because we were finding ourselves in these strange, dangerous scenarios all the time in New York," he said.
At a time when rock music was only just beginning to grapple with deeper subjects, Reed's songs put society's misfits, outcasts and pariahs at the centre, and not in a judgmental way. The epic Heroin, its dire scene set by the ebb and surge of the guitars and Cale's viola, focused on a junkie. As shocking as it was when performed in New York City clubs in 1965, Heroin was a nuanced and tragic first-person portrayal of addiction.
The Velvets were embraced by Andy Warhol, who made the band part of his Floating Plastic Inevitable multimedia events. Warhol would project his art films on the band, dressed all in black, while dancers writhed and cracked whips.
Reed's lyrics looked at transgressive subjects, whether sadomasochism ( Venus in Furs) or drug dealing ( Waiting for the Man), with a storyteller's eye for detail and a poet's flair for words.
But the band was never widely understood in its time, and Reed left at the start of the 70s to pursue a solo career. His work was soon championed by a new wave of bands out of England and New York, including the New York Dolls, Sex Pistols and Patti Smith, and Reed became the "godfather of punk". The Bowie-produced Walk on the Wild Side single and Transformer album in 1972 were key moments in the gender-bending glam movement.
Along the way, Reed went from a widely misunderstood, even reviled underground figure into an international man of letters, published author and respected artist. In Europe, The Velvets music became central to the so-called velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia during the late 80s, and Reed was later lionised by the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, for contributing to the democratic shift.
Embedded in this cycle of reluctant acceptance was Reed's defiant, often downright icy public persona. He was notorious for chewing up interviewers who did not properly defer to him.
Reed is survived by his wife, the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson.