One of the largest looming and most influential icons in the history of rock and roll, Lou Reed died on Sunday at the age of 71. No word has been received regarding the cause of Reed's death, though the "Walk on the Wild Side" songwriter underwent a liver transplant last May that nearly cost him his life.
While the name of Lou Reed isn't quite as universal as that of Bob Dylan, John Lennon or Elvis Presley, his artistic legacy is in league with those icons as the man who unearthed the seedy, urban side of rock culture and raised the bar of lyrical sophistication. Beginning with his Andy Warhol-sponsored '60s group, the Velvet Underground, Reed made an indelible mark on music through his partnership with avant-garde composer John Cale, in which the pair fused visceral lyrics (inspired by the debauched writings of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr.) with commercial pop structures and experimental instrumentation.
The band received little recognition in its time, selling few albums, frustrating its critics and producers to no end, though the legacy that grew in the wake of the Velvet Underground's inevitable split inspired the cultural revolution of punk rock and beyond. The simplicity of VU's three-chord song structures, combined with the group's enthusiasm for drugs, fashion, and art at any cost, infected a generations of songwriters, from Iggy Pop and Roxie Music to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, all the way down to R.E.M., U2, and the White Stripes.
Following the collapse of his seminal band, Reed continued on with a widely respected solo career. His David Bowie-produced 1972 album, Transformer, became a staple of the glam-rock scene, and birthed Reed's most universally recognized hit, "Walk on the Wild Side." While celebrated in the 1970s for romanticizing transgender identity and sexual deviance, Reed had reportedly undergone electroshock therapy as a child in attempt to "cure" his self-confessed bisexuality.
Never reaching the same heights of celebrity as David Bowie, his cross-dressing offspring, Lou Reed continued to deliver strong and, at times, emotionally challenging music on albums like Berlin, Rock and Roll Animal, and Coney Island Baby.
His 1975 release, Metal Machine Music, was a courageous abandoning of pop song structure in favor of more experimental horizons, blending over-modulated feedback and guitar affects, mixed by Reed at varying and unorthodox speeds. The album was dismissed by many critics as a cynical joke, rejected by fans who returned the album to record stores by the thousands, and cost the heroin-enthusiast songwriter whatever commercial momentum he'd built up in the previous ten years.