Lou Reed, who has died aged 71, was a singer-songwriter and guitarist whose work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s had a major influence on generations of rock musicians.
Reed brought dark themes and a mercurial disposition to rock music. "I've always believed that there's an amazing number of things you can do through a rock'n'roll song," he said, "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."
The Velvet Underground, which was originally sponsored by Andy Warhol and showcased the songwriting of John Cale as well as Reed, wrought gradual but profound impact on the high-IQ, low-virtuosity stratum of alternative and underground rock around the world. Joy Division, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, R.E.M., the Strokes and numerous others were direct descendants.
Many of the group's themes – love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction – stayed in Reed's work through his long run of solo recordings, among the most notable of which were Transformer (1972), Berlin (1973) and New York (1989), while the most notorious, without question, was Metal Machine Music (1975) four sides of electric-guitar feedback strobing between two amplifiers, beloved of Reed and not too many others.
Not too long after his first recordings, made at 16 with a doo-wop band, Reed started singing outside the song’s melody, as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating drone in a New York accent.
That sound, heard with the Velvet Underground on songs like Heroin, Sweet Jane and in his post-Velvet songs Walk on the Wild Side, Street Hassle and others, became one of the most familiar frequencies in rock.
Lewis Allan Reed was born in 1942, in Brooklyn, the son of Sidney Reed, a tax accountant, and his wife, Toby. Reed worried his parents enough that they agreed to a doctor's recommendation for weeks of electroshock therapy at a psychiatric hospital in Queens; in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment. After transferring to Syracuse University, he fell into the circle around the poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz, one of his English professors.
Reed's early profile is of an East Coast hipster, a suburban rebel in love with rock'n'roll, jazz and street-life writers: William S Burroughs, Hubert Selby jnr, Raymond Chandler, Allen Ginsberg. He clearly absorbed and, at least at times, admired Bob Dylan. ("Dylan gets on my nerves," he said in 1968. "If you were at a party with him, I think you'd tell him to shut up." But 21 years later he would tell Rolling Stone, "Dylan continuously knocks me out.")
Reed worked in New York as a staff songwriter for a budget label that capitalised on trends in popular music with releases by quickly assembled groups. Among his credits were Johnny Won't Surf No More and The Ostrich, written for a non-existent dance craze and sung by Reed himself.
After leaving Velvet Underground Reed worked for two years in his father's firm. His fortunes revived somewhat when he was taken up by David Bowie who performed Velvet Underground songs in concert and helped produce Reed's album Transformer in London. Walk on the Wild Side," a quiet, jazzlike single from the album about the hustlers and transvestites around Warhol at the Factory, introduced a new character in each verse and included a reference to fellatio that slipped past the censors; it was Reed's only top 40 hit.
In 1973 he married Bettye Kronstadt, a cocktail waitress, but the relationship was very brief. For several years after that he was romantically involved with a transvestite named Rachel, whose last name has long been uncertain.
Reed's look toughened in the mid-1970s, toward leather, bleached crew cuts and painted fingernails. He revisited his rickety, strange and vulnerable Velvet Underground songs on the live album Rock N Roll Animal, making them hard and slick and ready for a new order of teenage listeners. In 1980 he married Sylvia Morales, who became his manager and muse. Their relationship ended toward the end of the decade, and he met Laurie Anderson in the early 1990s. They married in 2008.
In middle age Reed became a kind of cultural elder, acting in films by Wim Wenders and Wayne Wang, befriending Václav Havel and creating multimedia stage productions with director Robert Wilson.
His own work moved between mature, elegiac singer-songwriter reports on grief, tenderness and age and wilder or more ambitious projects like The Raven, a play and album based on writings by Poe and "Lulu" a collaboration with Metallica based on the play by Wedekind.
Reed had a liver transplant in April at the Cleveland Clinic.
“I have never thought of music as a challenge – you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are,” he wrote this year.
“You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.”
His mother survives him, as does his sister, Merrill Weiner, and his wife, composer and musician Laurie Anderson.