Entertainment Music Lou Reed: a New York lifer

Lou Reed: a New York lifer

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Lou Reed, Musician. 1942-2013.

Lou Reed, who died October 27, 2013, aged 71, was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942.

Growing up he underwent shock therapy to curb what his parents deigned ‘homosexual tendencies’, and later digested influences ranging from American literary figure Delmore Schwartz – under whom he studied in the early 1960s – to avant-garde composers like Edgar Varese, and classic rock’n’roll.

Working as a songwriter at Pickwick Records in the mid 1960s, he met Welshman John Cale, who had studied music in New York under American composer Aaron Copeland.

Initially recruited by pop artists Andy Warhol to create a dissonant performance soundtrack for his travelling art event The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Reed and Cale formed The Velvet Underground, with guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker.

The Velvet Underground were utterly at odds with the spirit of the times: while middle class kids everywhere were dropping out, dropping acid, and putting flowers in their hair, the band sang about whips, chains, heroin and the dissolute New York downtown scene Warhol had partially helped create. In fact, Warhol nominally produced their first album, recruiting German chanteuse Nico in the process.

The Velvet Underground and Nico has remained a must-have classic, containing several Reed classics like Waiting for the Man, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Venus in Furs and Heroin.

The great Brian Eno-coined cliche about The Velvet Underground – undoubtedly correct – was that practically nobody bought their first album, but everyone who did formed a band.

Their short canon of work, including later albums White Light Heat, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, were all bona fide classics, their influence stretching through generations; everyone from David Bowie to Television to Sonic Youth to REM were shaped massively by this band.

Having departed The Velvet Underground in 1970, Reed’s solo career first found traction with his Bowie-produced Transformer album, containing the surprise UK top five hit Walk on the Wild Side (apparently nobody at the BBC knew what ‘giving head’ meant, ensuring wide radio airplay.)

After the live Rock’n’Roll Animal album turned a new generation of fans onto his older Velvet Underground songs, Reed became a solid 1970s favourite. Typically perverse, his Metal Machine Music album – two sides of feedback and noise – were designed to alienate both record company and perhaps his public, and it worked a treat.

Later Reed albums Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle (with Bruce Springsteen guesting on the title track, a three part story cycle) and The Blue Mask all found critical favour, and scant sales.

His career was in clover again by the late 1980s though, his New York album – not so much a love letter to the city but a snapshot of all its facets – was deservedly lauded as a comeback, and he swirly followed it up with his first work with John Cale since 1968, in the form of Songs for Drella, a tribute to their old friend Andy Warhol, who had died in 1987.

A sonic reunion as an artistic one, as Cale’s melodically thundering piano arrangements once again battled Reed’s protean guitar.

With Drella, Reed and Cale arguably captured on record what Warhol tried to so hard to hide – his real personality.

A short-lived Velvet Underground reunion in 1993 produced little new music, but helped seal their legacy as one of the most important bands ever.

In his later years Reed’s work showed no let up. The Raven was a brilliant, sprawling tribute to Edgar Allen Poe (featuring both Bowie and actor Willem Dafoe) while Set the Twilight Reeling contained some of his most powerful work in years.

Reed married American performance artist Laurie Anderson in 2008, and died of complications arising from a liver transplant he had undergone in May.

Always a highly confrontational, contrary interviewee, Reed’s blunt nature was often misunderstood; he was just a blunt New Yorker who always said what he thought.

If he hadn’t been so difficult, he wouldn’t have been Lou Reed. A complete original, the man will be greatly missed.

Five unmissable Reed tracks

1. I’m Waiting for the Man

2. Satellite of Love

3. Walk on the Wild Side

4. Perfect Day

5. Heroin

This article was courtesy of Stack