With a poetic sensibility, a street-level outsider mentality and a focus on dark themes, New York City-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed proved one of the most influential figures in Rock and Roll over a five-decade career.
A native of Long Island, NY, Reed sang in a Doo Wop group in high school, before attending Syracuse University in the early 1960s, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwarz. After a stint as a staff songwriter at Pickwick Records, Reed came to prominence in the mid-late 1960s as the leader of the Velvet Underground, whose raw, arty minimalism and noirish subject matter made them a kind of New York City antithesis of the hippie-ish West Coast bands of the era. While they met with little commercial success, the band’s influence runs wide and deep – from Punk to Indie Rock to Grunge, a countless number of musicians have pointed to the band and to Reed in particular as a key inspiration.
Reed left the band at the start of the 1970s, launching a long and prolific solo career that initially continued the transgressive, boundary-pushing direction he'd unveiled as the Velvets’ leader, and maintained his credentials as an insightful, articulate chronicler of such subject matter as drugs, sex, homosexuality and depression. By then, the rise of Glam Rock, whose embrace of decadent imagery and sexual ambiguity owed much to the Velvets' pioneering example, helped to win Reed new fans on both sides of the Atlantic. It didn't hurt that David Bowie, Glam's reigning superstar, offered to produce Reed's second solo album, 1972's Transformer. That album, and its subversively catchy Top 20 single "Walk on the Wild Side," proved a major commercial breakthrough, establishing Reed as a solo star. Characteristically, he followed that mainstream success with the decidedly uncommercial Berlin, a harrowing, partially orchestrated song cycle built around the doomed romance of two chemically dependent bohemians.
In the decades that followed, Reed continued to record prolifically, reinventing his music and his image numerous times, while maintaining a devoted worldwide audience. Although his output has gotten decidedly mixed reaction, Reed’s most esteemed solo work — e.g. 1974's live Rock 'n' Roll Animal, 1976's warmly introspective Coney Island Baby, 1978's ominous, minimalist Street Hassle, 1982's soul-baring The Blue Mask and 1989's vividly observational New York — is lauded for in its musical power and emotional clarity. Less celebrated releases — like 1975's Metal Machine Music, two LPs of dense, assaultive guitar noise, or Lulu, a widely panned collaboration with the band Metallica — at the least established Reed as an iconoclast unafraid to challenge his audience. In addition to Metallica, Reed colloborated with a wide range of artists over the years, from stage director Robert Wilson to the avante-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman to former Velvets partner John Cale, with whom he made the well-received Andy Warhol tribute Songs for Drella in 1990. Reed died of liver disease in October 2013, at 71.