Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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REED, Lou

(b Louis Firbank, 2 March 1943, NYC; d 27 October 2013, Southampton NY) Singer, songwriter, guitarist. He sang with doo-wop groups at age 16, and began singing outside the melody. He came to fame as a founder member of the Velvet Underground '65-70 after studying poetry and journalism at Syracuse (NY) U. His departure from the Velvets during sessions for Loaded was acrimonious; after a period of hibernation he distanced himself from the NYC scene which until then had fuelled his writing muse, but from then on his transgressive attitude and fluctuating monotone was influential for generations.

He went to England to make Lou Reed '72, but UK sessionmen Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and others were too smooth to be convincing and Reed's customary venom was lost. Transformer '72 made up in feeling what it lacked in slick playing: produced by David Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson, both longtime fans, it had decadence written all over it: his ode to transsexual pleasure 'Walk On The Wild Side' was a shock no. 10 UK/16 USA hit, despite a line about 'giving head' that the censors missed; the back cover saw female image staring back at Reed out of a mirror, while 'Make Up' struck a chord with the growing gay lib movement. Berlin '73 produced by Alice Cooper's Bob Ezrin bore signs of Cooper's over-the-top shock rock: totally lacking the self-mocking humour of Transformer, the concept album about the ill-fated relationship of two U.S. drug addicts failed to sell and was seen as a lost masterpiece.

Disillusioned by critical/public non-acceptance of Berlin, Reed went heavy metal for live Rock'n'Roll Animal '74 (revamped versions of old hits sold well) and disco-fied Sally Can't Dance '74. After Lou Reed Live '75, a concert set of similar vintage to Animal, he made a perverse two-disc set of white noise called Metal Machine Music '75: the contender for least listenable album ever won release from his RCA contract after the surprisingly warm Coney Island Baby '76 (stand-out tracks included the title song and 'Charley's Girl'). But Reed claimed that Metal Machine Music had been the next step after the minimalism of artists like La Monte Young; in 1976 he told Lester Bangs, 'I was serious about it. I was also really stoned.'

Albums for Arista lacked originality (Rock And Roll Heart '76, live Take No Prisoners and Street Hassle '78, The Bells '79) with the exception of title track 'Street Hassle', the tale of a drug OD victim later covered by Simple Minds. A second marriage '80 revitalized the muse: he collaborated with keyboardist Michael Fonfara on Growing Up In Public '80; Blue Mask '81 saw the return of a lyrical edge; Legendary Hearts '83 brought Richard Hell and ex-Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine on board; he resumed touring, released a fine slice of '80s rock in New Sensations '84 that spawned a deserved hit single in 'I Love You Suzanne'. Mistrial '86 was not reviewed as enthusiastically, but New York '89 has been described as his best. Songs For Drella '90 with John Cale ( a reunion with another ex-Velvet) was in memory of Andy Warhol. Reed's Magic And Loss '92 was full of depression and despair; after an ill-fated Velvet reunion '93 Set The Twilight Reeling '96 was stripped down to Reed and rhythm, cryptic but with quirky appeal.

Admirers included Bowie, Springsteen, etc; at its best his narrative songwriting is harrowing, and certainly unique. He had worked with Laurie Anderson (see her entry); she was the artistic director at London's Meltdown festival mid-'97, where he premièred music from 'Time-Rocker', a new song cycle directed by Robert Wilson. His live Perfect Night '98 was a record of a good concert. He had famously indulged in drink and drugs; though sober since the 1980s, he had a liver transplant in Cleveland earlier in 2013, but went home to Long Island when nothing more could be done.