Obituary: Lou Reed / Rock 'n' roll pioneer spurred by Warhol

March 2, 1942-Oct. 27, 2013

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

Lou Reed, the singer-songwriter and guitarist whose Andy Warhol-sponsored work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s had an impact on generations of rock musicians, and who remained a powerful if polarizing force for the rest of his life, died Sunday at his home in Southampton, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 71.

The cause was liver disease, said Charles Miller of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where Mr. Reed had liver transplant surgery this year and was being treated again until a few days ago.

"I've always believed that there's an amazing number of things you can do through a rock 'n' roll song," Mr. Reed once told the journalist Kristine McKenna, "and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I've written about wouldn't be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie."

Mr. Reed played the sport of alienating listeners, defending the right to contradict himself in hostile interviews, to contradict his transgressive image by idealizing sweet or old-fashioned values in word or sound, or to present intuition as blunt logic. But his early work assured him a permanent audience.

The Velvet Underground, which showcased the songwriting of John Cale, as well as Mr. Reed, wrought gradual but profound impact on the high-IQ, low-virtuosity stratum of alternative and underground rock around the world.

During the mid-1960s, they were rehearsing at Warhol's "Factory," a meeting ground of art, music, orgies, drug parties and screen tests for films that ended up being projected onto the band while it performed, part of what Warhol called the "Floating Plastic Inevitable."

"Warhol was the great catalyst," Mr. Reed told BOMB magazine in 1998. "It all revolved around him. It all happened very much because of him. He was like a swirl, and these things would come into being: Lo and behold multimedia. There it was. No one really thought about it; it was just fun."

Away from the Factory, the Velvets and were all too ahead of their time, getting tossed out of clubs or having audience members walk out. The mainstream press, still seeking a handle on the Beatles and the Stones, was thrown entirely by the Velvet Underground. The New York Times at first couldn't find the words, calling the Velvets "Warhol's jazz band" in a January 1966 story and "a combination of rock 'n roll and Egyptian belly-dance music" just days later.

At Warhol's suggestion, they performed and recorded with the sultry, German-born Nico, a "chanteuse" who sang lead on a handful of songs from their debut album. A storm cloud over 1967's Summer of Love, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" featured a now-iconic Warhol drawing of a (peelable) banana on the cover and proved an uncanny musical extension of Warhol's blank-faced aura. The Velvets juxtaposed childlike melodies with dry, affectless vocals on "Sunday Morning" and "Femme Fatale." On "Heroin," Mr. Cale's viola screeched and jumped behind Mr. Reed's obliterating junkie's journey, with his sacred vow, "Herrrrrr-o-in, it's my wife, and it's my life," and his cry into the void, "And I guess that I just don't know."

Joy Division, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith, R.E.M., the Strokes and numerous others were direct descendants. The composer Brian Eno, in an often-quoted interview from 1982, suggested that if the group's first record sold only 30,000 records during its first five years -- a figure probably three or four times lower than the reality -- "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."

Many of the group's themes -- among them love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction, joy and spiritual transfiguration -- stayed in Mr. Reed's work through his long run of solo recordings. Among the most noteworthy of those records were "Transformer" (1973), "Berlin" (1973) and "New York" (1992). The most notorious, without question, was "Metal Machine Music" (1975).

Beloved of Mr. Reed and not too many others, "Metal Machine Music" was four sides of electric-guitar feedback strobing between two amplifiers, with Mr. Reed altering the speed of the tape recorder; no singing, no drums, no stated key. At the time it was mostly understood, if at all, as a riddle about artistic intent. Was it his truest self, was it a joke, or was there no difference?

Mr. Reed wrote in the liner notes that "no one I know has listened to it all the way through, including myself," but he also defended it as the next step after La Monte Young's early minimalism. "There's infinite ways of listening to it," he told the critic Lester Bangs in 1976.

"I was serious about it," Mr. Reed said of the album more than a decade later. "I was also really stoned."


Associated Press contributed.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here