A Rockapaedia Obituary
Band: Velvet Underground
Lou Reed died aged seventy-one on twenty-seventh of October 2013 from liver disease at his home in Southampton, New York, U.S.A. He had undergone a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic during the previous May.
Lou Reed was born on March 2nd 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, USA. and was the son of Toby and Sidney Joseph Reed. His family was Jewish, and although he said that he was Jewish, he added, "My God is rock'n'roll. It's an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar." Lou Reed attended Atkinson Elementary School in Freeport and went on to Freeport Junior High School, notorious for its gangs. His sister said that as a teenager, Lou suffered panic attacks, became socially awkward and "possessed a fragile temperament" but was highly focused on things that he liked – principally music.
Having learned to play the guitar from the radio, Lou developed an early interest in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and during high school played in several bands. Lou Reed began experimenting with drugs at the age of sixteen. His first recording was as a member of a doo-wop-style group called the Jades. His love for playing music and his desire to play gigs brought him into confrontation with his anxious and unaccommodating parents. His sister Merrill recalled that, during his first year in college, he was brought home one day in an unresponsive state, supposedly due to a mental breakdown, after which he remained "depressed, anxious, and socially unresponsive" for a time, and that his parents were having great difficulty coping with the situation. Visiting a psychologist, Lou's parents were made to feel guilty as inadequate parents, and consented to electroconvulsive therapy. Lou Reed appeared to blame his father principally for what he had been subjected to. He wrote about the experience in his 1974 song, "Kill Your Sons". In an interview, Lou Reed said of the experience:"They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That's what was recommended in Rockland County then to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can't read a book because you get to page seventeen and have to go right back to page one again."
After Lou Reed's death, his sister Merrill denied the ECT treatments were intended to suppress his "homosexual urges", asserting instead that their parents were told by his doctors that ECT was necessary to treat Lou Reed's mental and behavioral issues: she said; " Lou was depressed, weird, anxious, and avoidant. My parents were many things, but homophobic they were not. In fact, they were blazing liberals. They were caught in a bewildering web of guilt, fear, and poor psychiatric care. Did they make a mistake in not challenging the doctor’s recommendation for ECT? Absolutely. I have no doubt they regretted it until the day they died."
Upon his recovery from the bout of illness and associated treatment, Lou Reed resumed his education at Syracuse University in 1960, studying journalism, film directing, and creative writing. He was a platoon leader in ROTC and was later expelled from the program for holding an unloaded gun to his superior's head. In 1961, he began hosting a late-night radio program on WAER called Excursions On A Wobbly Rail. Named after a song by pianist Cecil Taylor, the program typically featured doo wop, rhythm and blues, and jazz, particularly the free jazz developed in the mid-1950s. Many of Lou Reed's guitar techniques, such as the guitar-drum roll, were inspired by jazz saxophonists, such as Ornette Coleman. Lou Reed's sister Merrill offered the following recollection of her brother's time spent at Syracuse: "Lou started a band, he had his own radio show. He reportedly libelled some student on his radio show; the kid's family tried to sue my father. And there were other extracurricular possibly illegal activities of which the university didn't approve. I believe they tried to kick him out. But he was a genius; what could they do? He stayed and he graduated." Lou Reed graduated with honors from Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in English in June 1964.
While enrolled at Syracuse University, Lou studied under poet Delmore Schwartz, who he said was "the first great person I ever met", and they became friends. He credited Schwartz with showing him how "with the simplest language imaginable, and very short, you can accomplish the most astonishing heights." ]
In 1964, Lou Reed moved to New York City and began working as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. In 1964, he wrote and recorded the single "The Ostrich", a parody of popular dance songs of the time, which included lines such as "put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it". His employers felt that the song had hit potential, and assembled a supporting band to help promote the recording. The ad hoc group, called "The Primitives", included Welsh musician John Cale, who had recently moved to New York to study music and was playing viola in composer La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music, along with Tony Conrad. Cale and Conrad were both surprised to find that for "The Ostrich", Lou Reed tuned each string of his guitar to the same note, which they began to call his "ostrich guitar" tuning. This technique created a drone effect similar to their experimentation in Young's avant-garde ensemble. Disappointed with Lou Reed's performance, Cale was nevertheless impressed by Lou's early repertoire and a partnership began to evolve.
Lou Reed and John Cale lived together on the Lower East Side, and invited Lou Reed's college acquaintance guitarist Sterling Morrison and Cale's neighbour drummer Angus MacLise to join the group, thus forming the Velvet Underground. When the opportunity came to play their first paying gig at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey, MacLise quit because he believed that accepting money for art was a sellout and also did not want to participate in a structured gig. He was replaced on drums by Maureen Tucker, initially for that one show, but she soon became a full-time member with her pounding style of drumming an integral part of the band's distinctive sound, despite the initial objections of Cale. Though internally unstable,Cale left in 1968, Reed in 1970, and without commercial success, the band has a long-standing reputation as one of the most influential in rock history.
The group soon caught the attention of artist Andy Warhol. One of Warhol's first contributions was to integrate them into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol's associates inspired many of Lou Reed's songs as he fell into a thriving, multifaceted artistic scene. Lou Reed rarely gave an interview without paying homage to Warhol as a mentor. Conflict emerged when Warhol had the idea for the group to take on a chanteuse, the European former model and singer Nico. Despite his initial resistance, Lou Reed wrote several songs for Nico to sing, and the two were briefly lovers. ]
By the time the band recorded White Light/White Heat, Nico had quit and Warhol had been fired, both against Cale's wishes. Warhol's replacement as manager was Steve Sesnick. In September 1968, Cale left the band at Lou Reed's behest. Morrison and Tucker were discomfited by Lou Reed's tactics but continued with the group. Cale's replacement was Boston-based musician Doug Yule, who played bass, keyboards and who would soon share lead vocal duties in the band with Lou. The group now took on a more pop-oriented sound and acted more as a vehicle for Lou Reed to develop his songwriting craft. The group released two albums with this lineup: 1969's The Velvet Underground and 1970's Loaded. The latter included two of the group's most commercially successful songs, "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane". After the band's move to Atlantic Records' Cotillion label, their new manager pushed Lou Reed to change the subject matter of his songs to lighter topics in hopes of commercial success. 'Loaded' had taken more time to record than the previous three albums together, but had not broken them through to a wider audience.
Lou Reed left the band in August 1970.
After quitting the Velvet Underground Lou Reed took a job at his father's tax accounting firm as a typist, by his own account earning $40 a week. In 1971, he signed a recording contract with RCA Records and recorded his first solo album in London with top session musicians including Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, members of the progressive rock group Yes. The album, 'Lou Reed', contained smoothly produced versions of unreleased Velvet Underground songs, some of which had originally been recorded by the Velvets for Loaded but shelved. This first solo album was overlooked by most pop music critics and it did not sell well, although music critic Stephen Holden, in Rolling Stone, called it an "almost perfect album. . . . which embodied the spirit of the Velvets."
Lou Reed's breakthrough album, 'Transformer', was released in November 1972. Transformer was co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, and it introduced Lou Reed to a wider audience, especially in the UK. The hit single "Walk on the Wild Side" was an ironic yet affectionate salute to the misfits and hustlers who once surrounded Andy Warhol.
Each of the song's five verses poignantly describes a person who had been a fixture at 'The Factory' during the mid-to-late 1960's. The song's transgressive lyrics evaded radio censorship. Though the jazzy arrangement,courtesy of bassist Herbie Flowers and saxophonist Ronnie Ross, was musically somewhat atypical for Reed, it eventually became his signature song. Mick Ronson's arrangements brought out new aspects of Reed's songs. "Perfect Day," for example, features delicate strings and soaring dynamics.
'Transformer' was Lou Reed's commercial and critical pinnacle, and he resented the shadow the record cast over the rest of his career. An argument between David Bowie and Lou Reed ended their working relationship for several years, though its subject is not known. The two reconciled some years later and Lou Reed performed with Bowie at the latter's 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997. They did not formally collaborate again until 2003's The Raven. Touring in support of 'Transformer' posed the challenge of forming a band for the first time since joining the Velvets. Reed hired an inexperienced bar band, the Tots, and spent much of 1972 and early 1973 on the road with them. Though they improved over the months, criticism of their still-basic abilities ultimately led Lou Reed to fire them mid-tour. He chose keyboardist Moogy Klingman to come up with a new five-member backing band on barely a week's notice. Thus the tour continued with a denser, bluesier and tighter sound.
Lou Reed followed 'Transformer' with the darker 'Berlin'. 'Berlin' is a concept album about two junkies in love in the city. The songs variously concern domestic violence, drug addiction, adultery and prostitution, and suicide. Lou Reed's late-1973 European tour, featuring dual lead guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, mixed his Berlin material with older numbers. Response to Berlin at the time of its release was decidedly negative, with Rolling Stone pronouncing it "a disaster". Since then the album has been critically reevaluated, and in 2003 Rolling Stone included it in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
After 'Berlin' came two albums in 1974, a live record Rock 'n' Roll Animal, and Sally Can't Dance; the former containing performances of the Velvet Underground songs "Sweet Jane" and "Heroin" and would go on to become his biggest selling album. 'Rock 'n' Roll Animal', featuring primarily Velvet Underground material, and its follow-up released in early 1975 'Lou Reed Live', its time divided primarily between Transformer and Berlin songs, with only one Velvet Underground song, were both recorded at the same show and kept Lou Reed in the public eye with strong sales.
As he had done with Berlin after Transformer, in 1975 Lou Reed responded to commercial success with a commercial failure, a double album of electronically generated audio feedback, 'Metal Machine Music'. Critics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt, an attempt to break his contract with RCA or to alienate his less sophisticated fans. Lou Reed claimed that the album was a genuine artistic effort, even suggesting that quotations of classical music could be found buried in the feedback. Lester Bangs declared it "genius", though also psychologically disturbing. The album was reportedly returned to stores by the thousands after a few weeks. Though later admitting that the liner notes' list of instruments is fictitious and intended as parody, Lou Reed continued to maintain that MMM was a serious album; though at the time he had taken it seriously, he was also "very stoned". In the 2000s it was adapted for orchestral performance by the German ensemble Zeitkratzer.
By contrast, 1975's 'Coney Island Baby' was mainly a warm and mellow album, though for its characters Lou Reed still drew on the underbelly of city life. At this time his lover was a transgender woman, Rachel, mentioned in the dedication of "Coney Island Baby" and appearing in the photos on the cover of Lou Reed's 1977 "best of" album, Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. While 'Rock and Roll Heart', his 1976 debut for his new record label Arista, fell short of expectations, 'Street Hassle' was a return to form in the midst of the punk scene he had helped to inspire. Lou Reed was dismissive of punk, and rejected any affiliation with it. .
In 1978 Lou Reed released his third live album, 'Live: Take No Prisoners', which some critics thought was his "bravest work yet," while others considered it his "silliest." Rolling Stone described it as "one of the funniest live albums ever recorded.
In 1990, following a twenty-year hiatus, the Velvet Underground reformed for a Fondation Cartier benefit in France. Lou Reed released his sixteenth solo record, 'Magic and Loss', in 1992, an album about mortality, inspired by the death of two close friends from cancer. In 1993, the Velvet Underground again reunited and toured throughout Europe, although plans for a North American tour were cancelled following another falling out between Reed and Cale. In 1994, Lou Reed appeared in 'A Celebration': The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who, also known as Daltrey Sings Townshend. This was a two-night concert at Carnegie Hall produced by Roger Daltrey in celebration of his fiftieth birthday. In 1994, a CD and a VHS video were issued, and in 1998 a DVD was released. Reed performed a radically rearranged version of "Now and Then" from Psychoderelict.
In 1996, the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, Lou Reed performed a song entitled "Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend" alongside former bandmates John Cale and Maureen Tucker, in dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, who had died the previous August.
Lou's 1996 album, 'Set the Twilight Reeling', and 2000's 'Ecstasy', both produced by Hal Willner, drew praise from most critics. In 1996, Lou Reed contributed songs and music to 'Time Rocker', an avant-garde theatrical interpretation of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine staged by theater director Robert Wilson. The piece premiered in the Thalia Theater, Hamburg, Germany and was later also shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
In 1998, the PBS TV show American Masters aired Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' feature documentary Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart. This film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. and at the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany went on to screen at over 50 festivals worldwide. In 1999, the film and Lou Reed as its subject received a Grammy Award for best long-form music video.
From the late 1990s, Lou Reed was romantically linked to the musician, multi-media and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and the two collaborated on a number of recordings together. Anderson contributed to "Call On Me" from Lou Reed's project 'The Raven', to the tracks "Baton Rouge" and "Rock Minuet" from Lou Reed's Ecstasy and to "Hang On to Your Emotions" from Reed's Set the Twilight Reeling. Reed contributed to "In Our Sleep" from Anderson's Bright Red and to "One Beautiful Evening" from her Life on a String. They married on April 12th 2008.
In May 2000, Lou Reed performed before Pope John Paul II at the Great Jubilee Concert in Rome. In 2000, a new collaboration with Robert Wilson called "POEtry" was staged at the Thalia Theater in Germany. As with the previous collaboration "Time Rocker, "POEtry" was also inspired by the works of a 19th-century writer: Edgar Allan Poe. Lou Reed became interested in Poe after producer Hal Willner suggested he read some of Poe's text at a Halloween benefit he was curating at St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. For this new collaboration, Lou Reed reworked and rewrote some of Poe's text and included some new songs based on the theme explored in the texts. In 2001, Lou Reed made a cameo appearance in the movie adaptation of Prozac Nation. On October 6th 2001, the New York Times published a Lou Reed poem called 'Laurie Sadly Listening' in which he reflects upon the September 11 attacks.
Incorrect reports of Lou Reed's death were broadcast by numerous American. radio stations in 2001, caused by a hoax email (purporting to be from Reuters) which said he had died of a drug overdose. In 2003, Lou released a 2-CD set. At the same time a single disc CD version of the album, focusing on the music, was also released.
A few months after the release of The Raven, a new 2-CD Best Of-set was released, entitled NYC Man (The Ultimate Collection 1967–2003), which featured an unreleased version of the song "Who am I" and a selection of career-spanning tracks that had been selected, remastered and sequenced under Lou Reed's supervision. In April 2003, Lou Reed embarked on a new world tour supporting both new and released material, with a band including cellist Jane Scarpantoni and singer Anohni. During some of the concerts for this tour, the band was joined by Master Ren Guangyi, Reed's personal tai chi instructor, performing t'ai chi movements to the music on stage. This tour was documented in the 2004 live double album Animal Serenade, recorded at the Wiltern in Los Angeles.
Lou Reed remained active doing benefits and composing music. He contributed vocals to the third Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, on the song "Some Kind of Nature", and co-wrote and performed backup music for a chen-style t'ai chi instructional DVD. Lou Reed also co-produced and created original music for a tai chi series entitled Power and Serenity. He had a co-production credit on Laurie Anderson's Homeland. In 2010 Lou Reed also appeared in Stephan Berwick's short film "Final Weapon".
In 2011, the American heavy metal band Metallica recorded a full-length collaboration album with Lou Reed entitled 'Lulu', released on November 1st in North America and October 31st everywhere else. Despite the negative response it received from critics, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich offered the following opinion of the album following Lou Reed's death in 2013: "We were both outsiders, we both never felt comfortable going down the same path that everyone else was doing. Lou Reed is the godfather of being an outsider, being autonomous, marching to his own drum, making every project different from the previous one and never feeling like he had a responsibility to anybody other than himself. We shared kinship over that."
On September 15th 2011, Lou performed "Who Am I? " and Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" as part of Dailymotion's Music In Motion: Hall Willner's Freedom Rides celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
In January 2012, Lou Reed and John Cale sued the Andy Warhol Foundation for the license to use the yellow banana image from Warhol's art for The Velvet Underground & Nico album.
In 2012, a bilingual (French and English) book 'Lou Reed: Rimes/Rhymes'' was published with a compilation of more than 300 photos of Lou Reed, with comments from co-author Bernard Comment.
On September 4th 2013 Lou Reed and Mick Rock were interviewed, in Soho, by Mark Beaumont of the New Musical Express about their new joint photobook Transformers. It was to be Lou Reed's last interview.