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Lou Reed Biography

Home > Music > R > Reed, Lou > Biography

Birth Name: Lewis Allan Reed
Born: 1942/03/02
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, United States
Years Active: 1965–present
Genres: Rock, Glam Rock, Art Rock, Experimental Rock, Protopunk, Noise Music, Drone Music

Lou Reed (born Lewis Allan Reed, March 2, 1942 – October 27, 2013) was an American rock musician, songwriter, and photographer. He is best known as guitarist, vocalist, and principal songwriter of The Velvet Underground, and for his successful solo career, which has spanned several decades. Though the Velvet Underground was a commercial failure in the late 1960s, the group has gained a considerable cult following in the years since its demise and has gone on to become one of the most widely cited and influential bands of the era. As The Velvet Underground's principal songwriter, Reed wrote about subjects of personal experience that rarely had been examined so openly in rock and roll, including sexuality and drug culture.

After quitting the Velvet Underground in August 1970, Reed took a job at his father's tax accounting firm as a typist, by his own account earning $40 a week. A year later, however, he signed a recording contract with RCA and recorded his first solo album in London with top session musicians including Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, members of the progressive rock group Yes. The album, simply titled “Lou Reed,” contained smoothly produced, re-recorded versions of unreleased The Velvet Underground songs, some of which were originally recorded by the band for “Loaded “but shelved. This first solo album, issued in April 1972, was overlooked by most pop music critics and it did not sell in significant numbers.

In December 1972, Reed released “Transformer.” David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced the album and introduced Reed to a wider popular audience, namely in the U.K. The hit single “Walk on the Wild Side” was an ironic yet affectionate salute to the misfits, hustlers, and transvestites who once surrounded Andy Warhol. Though the jazzy arrangement (courtesy of bassist Herbie Flowers and saxophonist Ronnie Ross) was musically somewhat atypical for Reed, it eventually became his signature song.

Reed followed “Transformer” in July 1973 with the darker “Berlin,” which tells the story of two junkies in love in the titular city. The songs variously concern domestic abuse (“Caroline Says I,” “Caroline Says II”), drug addiction (“How Do You Think It Feels”), adultery and prostitution (“The Kids”) and suicide (“The Bed”).

After Berlin came two albums in 1974, “Sally Can't Dance” and a live record “Rock 'n' Roll Animal,” which contained performances of The Velvet Underground songs :Sweet Jane: and :Heroin.” “Rock 'n' Roll Animal” became his biggest selling album, and its follow-up “Lou Reed Live,” recorded on the same occasions in December 1973, kept Reed in the public eye with strong sales after its release in early 1975.

As he had done with “Berlin” after “Transformer,” in 1975 Reed responded to commercial success with a commercial failure, a double album of electronically generated audio feedback, “Metal Machine Music.” Critics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt, an attempt to break his contract with RCA or to alienate his less sophisticated fans. But Reed claimed that the album was a genuine artistic effort, even suggesting that quotations of classical music could be found buried in the feedback. Critic Lester Bangs declared it “genius,” though also as psychologically disturbing. The album was reportedly returned to stores by the thousands after a few weeks.

By contrast, 1975's “Coney Island Baby” was mainly a warm and mellow album, though for its characters Reed still drew on the underbelly of city life. At this time his lover was a transgender woman, Rachel, mentioned in the dedication of “Coney Island Baby” and appearing in the photos on the cover of Reed's 1977 “best of” album, “Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed.”

While “Rock and Roll Heart,” his 1976 debut for his new record label Arista, fell short of expectations, 1978’s “Street Hassle” was a return to form in the midst of the punk scene he had helped to inspire. 1979’s “The Bells” featured jazz musician Don Cherry, and was followed the next year by “Growing Up in Publi” with guitarist Chuck Hammer.

In 1980, Reed married British designer Sylvia Morales. They were divorced more than a decade later. While together, Morales inspired Reed to write several songs, particularly “Think It Over” from 1980's “Growing Up in Public” and “Heavenly Arms” from 1982's “The Blue Mask.” After 1983’s “Legendary Hearts” and 1984’s “New Sensations” fared adequately on the charts, Reed was sufficiently reestablished as a public figure to become spokesman for Honda motorcycles.

In 1986, he joined Amnesty International's A Conspiracy of Hope Tour and was outspoken about New York's political issues and personalities on the 1989 album “New York,” commenting on crime, AIDS, Jesse Jackson, Kurt Waldheim, and Pope John Paul II.

Following Warhol's death after routine surgery in 1987, Reed again collaborated with The Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale on the biographical “Songs for Drella,” Warhol's nickname. The album marked an end to a 22-year estrangement from Cale. On the album, Reed sang of his love for his late friend, but also criticized both the doctors who were unable to save Warhol's life and Warhol's would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas.

In 1990, following a 20-year hiatus, The Velvet Underground reformed for a Fondation Cartier benefit in France. Reed released his sixteenth solo record, “Magic and Loss,” in 1992, an album about mortality, inspired by the death of two close friends from cancer.

In 1993, The Velvet Underground again reunited and toured throughout Europe, although plans for a North American tour were cancelled following another falling out between Reed and Cale. In 1996, The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, Reed performed a song entitled “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend” alongside former bandmates John Cale and Maureen Tucker, in dedication to The Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, who had died the previous August. Reed has since been nominated for the Rock Hall as a solo artist twice, in 2000 and 2001, but has not been inducted.

His 1996 album, “Set the Twilight Reeling,” met with a lukewarm reception, but 2000's “Ecstasy” drew praise from most critics. Since the late 1990s, Reed has been romantically linked to the musician, multi-media and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and the two have collaborated on a number of recordings together. Anderson contributed to “Call On Me” from Reed's 2003 project “The Raven,” to the tracks “Baton Rouge” and “Rock Minuet” from Reed's “Ecstasy,” and to “Hang On To Your Emotions” from Reed's “Set the Twilight Reeling.” Reed contributed to “In Our Sleep” from Anderson's “Bright Red” and to “One Beautiful Evening” from her 2001 album, “Life on a String.” They married in April 2008.

In April 2007, he released “Hudson River Wind Meditations,” his first record of ambient meditation music. The record was released on the Sounds True record label and contains four tracks that were said to have been composed just for himself as a guidance for T'ai Chi exercise and meditation.

In 2011 he paired with Metallica to record, “Lulu,” a collaborative album based on two plays of the same name originally written by the German playwright Frank Wedekind. A majority of the album's composition was centered around spoken word delivered by Reed over instrumentals composed by Metallica, with occasional backing vocals provided by Metallica lead vocalist James Hetfield.

In May 2013, Reed underwent a liver transplant in Cleveland. On October 27, 2013, Reed died at the age of 71 from liver disease at his home in Southampton, New York, on Long Island.