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.
Despite all the vitriol, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs titled his review of MMM as "The Greatest Album Ever Made," stating that "When you wake up in the morning with the worst hangover of your life, Metal Machine Music is the best medicine.. . . I once had this friend who would say, 'I take acid at least every two months & JUST BLOW ALL THE BAD SHIT OUTA MY BRAIN!' So I say the same thing about MMM. Except I take it about once a day, like vitamins." The record has gone on to be celebrated by punk innovators Sonic Youth, and is regarded as the progenitor of the "noise music" genre.
Probably the character whose rock legacy is tied the closest to drug use, penning classic odes to intoxicants like "White Light/White Heat," "Waiting for the Man," and the unmistakable "Heroin," Reed entered a state of sobriety in 1983, embracing Tai Chi meditation and eventually marrying his third wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson in Boulder. Reed's liver transplant last May was due to complications surrounding hepatitis C, which he'd most likely contracted during his longstanding love affair with intravenous drugs.
While rock music is littered with stories of aging rock stars getting sober and retreating to a quiet domestic life, Reed continued performing and releasing critically lauded albums throughout his golden years, recording a musical adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," in addition to collaborating with U2, Metallica, Antony Hegarty, and most recently on The Gorillaz' "Some Kind of Nature."
Continuing to surprise fans and industry insiders who felt they'd pegged the leather-jacket junkie, last summer Reed penned an enthusiastic review of controversial rapper Kanye West's Yeezus album. At one point comparing the unexpected sea change in West's new electro-punk style to the disappointment Reed fans expressed with Metal Machine Music, the 71-year-old musician wrote:
I have never thought of music as a challenge -- you always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are. You do this because you like it, you think what you're making is beautiful. And if you think it's beautiful, maybe they'll think it's beautiful. . . . You make stuff because it's what you do and you love it.
See also: - The Velvet Underground and Nico turns 45 today - Lou Reed Marries Laurie Anderson. Nick Forster from etown Officiates - Why the Velvet Underground matters whether you're hip or not - In concert, Lou Reed takes a walk on the mild side - Q&A With Laurie Anderson