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 Mr. Reed and his groundbreaking band, the Velvet Underground.
Mr. Reed died Sunday at 71 in Southampton, N.Y., of an ailment related to a liver transplant he underwent in May, his literary agent said.
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, the Talking Heads, Roxy Music, U2 and Patti Smith, and stretch from Iceland (Bjork) to South America (Os Mutantes).
Roxy Music founder Brian Eno said of the Velvets: “Only a few thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them formed a band” — and embellished it: “I should know. I was one of those people.”
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In a 1992 interview, Mr. Reed explained his daring mix of high and low art. He wanted nothing to do with the middlebrow territory occupied by most rock music in the ’60s and beyond.
“I was an English major in college (Syracuse University), for chrissakes,” Mr. Reed said. “I ought to be able to put together a good lyric at the very least. It would be embarrassing if I couldn‘t. And I really like rock. It‘s party stuff, dance stuff and R&B stuff that we all grew up on and loved. But I wanted something that would engage you mentally, that you could listen to on another level. I just thought that would be the perfect thing in rock ’n’ roll. That 10 years from now you could still listen to one of my albums because it wasn‘t just a party record, but something that would engage you emotionally, intellectually, if not spiritually, on the level that a novel can. And because you also have music going on, you could do something that no other form could do, especially if someone is listening on headphones. You could really get their attention and really take them someplace. You’re joining the voice in their head with your voice — there‘s no one else there.”
Mr. 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 underutilized in his job as staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York, but the for-hire tunesmithing sharpened his affinity for writing simple two- or three-chord melodies. “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 a cutting-edge sense of harmonics and texture to Mr. Reed’s melodies. Cale, in turn, was astounded by Mr. Reed’s skill with 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.”
At a time when rock music was only just beginning to grapple with deeper subjects, Mr. Reed’s songs put society’s misfits, outcasts and pariahs at the center, 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 the subject matter was when Mr. Reed and his bandmates began performing it 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. Warhol would project his art films on the band, dressed all in black, while dancers writhed and, in some cases, cracked whips. Mr. 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 wordplay.
But the band was never widely understood in its time, and Mr. 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 Mr. Reed became the “godfather of punk.” The Bowie-produced “Walk on the Wild Side” single and “Transformer” album in 1972 became key moments in the gender-bending glam movement.
Along the way, Mr. 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 Mr. Reed was later lionized by the first president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, for contributing to the democratic shift.
His solo albums became more elaborate, conceptual works, such as the much-praised 1989 release “New York”; his 1990 collaboration with Cale in tribute to their late benefactor Warhol, “Songs for Drella”; and his deep dive into the work of Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” (2003). His last major project was a deeply divisive collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.” It was in keeping with a history that includes its share of controversial releases, such as the all-instrumental noise album “Metal Machine Music” in 1975 and the brutal rock opera “Berlin” in 1973.
“Berlin” “didn’t get one positive review and was considered a disaster” when it first came out, Mr. Reed once remarked, “and now people think it’s a masterpiece.”
Mr. Reed is survived by his wife, the musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson.