Cult musician Lou Reed who walked on wild side

After a long career one of rock music’s most influential alternative music figures has died aged 71

Lou Reed, one of rock music's most influential alternative music figures, died yesterday at the age of 71. The cause of death has not yet been released, although it is believed the singer-songwriter's death may have arisen from complications following a liver transplant he underwent earlier this year.

His death leaves a gaping hole in New York’s art music scene, not least due to the fact that he effectively founded it.

Born in Brooklyn in 1942, Lewis Allen Reed was initially taken with early rock 'n' roll and doo-wop, inspired in part by fellow New Yorker Dion Belmont (whom Reed inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989).

In parallel with rock 'n' roll, Reed was profoundly influenced by poetry – notably Delmore Schwartz and WB Yeats. At Syracuse University, he studied film directing, journalism and creative writing. After graduating with a BA, in the summer of 1964 Reed worked as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, but quickly tired of it.


Within two years, he had, along with classically trained violist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, formed the Velvet Underground. It is not an understatement to place the Velvet Underground in the pantheon of the most influential bands in rock music.

Artist Andy Warhol soon befriended the band, bringing them into his avant-garde and conceptual art community.

Reed’s songs began to reflect not only Warhol’s associates and hangers-on but also the scene within which they lived.

It was Reed’s determinedly honest descriptions of New York City’s shady bohemianism that highlighted the Velvet Underground’s differences.

Instead of being about pop music’s usual topics of love lost and gained, his songs contained stark references to hard drugs, bisexuality, homosexuality, transvestism and sado-masochism, encased in melodic guitar-drone music that offended some but galvanised others.

The Velvet Underground's core albums – including 1967's startling debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and 1969's avant-folk-influenced The Velvet Underground – were summarily ignored by the record- buying public of the 1960s and were left to languish until future generations of aspiring musicians picked them up in second-hand record shops. Reed left the band in 1970 and travelled to England.

Inarguably, David Bowie made Reed something of a household name by co-producing his 1972 album, Transformer. Featuring the international hit songs Walk on the Wild Side (a fond and personal recalling of Reed's involvement in Warhol's misfit art scene, whose references to oral sex went unheeded by the broadcasting authorities), Perfect Day and Satellite of Love (covered by U2, among others), Transformer became one of the bestselling albums of Reed's career.

Other albums did not fare so well – the likes of Berlin (1973), Sally Can't Dance (1974) and his all-guitar-feedback Metal Machine Music (1975).

Therein lay the dichotomy of Reed as a songwriter: he could, if he so wished, write perfectly fine pop/rock songs (to be found on 1982's The Blue Mask, 1984's New Sensations, and, notably, critically acclaimed 1989's New York), but he did only what he felt like doing.

The past two decades were creatively and personally nourishing for him (he married musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson in 2008), yet frustrating for all but his core audience.

He barely concealed his disdain for the media and dismissiveness of punk rock, the genre he had such a hand in influencing.

Yet Reed remained impulsively idiosyncratic, hardly a charming man by many accounts but one who followed his path and his path alone.

Working within the music industry but not necessarily of it, he offered singular works of spoken word, photography, poetry, concept works about Edgar Allan Poe, meditation music, improvisation, and collaborations on any music/art projects that took his fancy. Whether you liked them or not.

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea

Tony Clayton-Lea is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in popular culture