Rock Legend Lou Reed Dies at 71

Rock Musician Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground)
Lou Reed. Photo credit: Barry Gordin

American rock legend Lou Reed has died at age 71.  He and his wife, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, had been living in East Hampton since 2009. According to The New York Times, Reed died at home. Best known for his 1973 hit and perennial favorite “Walk On The Wild Side,” Reed had a long and successful career and was until very recently still active as a songwriter and performer.

Reed was a unique figure in popular music: a committed rule-breaker, an experimentalist in a musical culture that expects adherence to fairly strict formulas.

In the mid-60s, Reed, a Long Island native who had studied poetry with Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, formed the band The Velvet Underground with violist John Cale.  The Velvet Underground’s music, with Lou Reed as principal songwriter, tended to be dark and discordant, with lyrics that explored then-taboo subjects like sado-masochism and drug addiction.

The Velvet Underground attracted the attention of famed artist Andy Warhol, who became their manager, incorporating them into his multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable and designing the now-classic cover of their first album, featuring a bright yellow banana.  Though now considered seminal, The Velvet Underground was at the time a commercial failure, and Reed left the band in 1970.

As a solo performer, Reed found his greatest success with the album Transformer.  Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, the album featured “Walk On The Wild Side”, Reed’s sly tribute to certain misfits in the Warhol entourage—the song used coded references to evade radio censorship.

With the late-70s emergence of punk rock came a rediscovery and critical re-evaluation of The Velvet Underground, with a consequent recognition of Lou Reed as a punk pioneer.

Reed leaves behind an enormous body of work—some of it frightening, some harshly dissonant, but all of it interesting.