Lou Reed, a New York-based rock musician who co-founded the Velvet Underground and wrote and sang “Walk on the Wild Side,” has died. He was 71.
He died yesterday at a hospital in Southampton, New York, his literary agent Andrew Wylie said in a telephone interview. The cause was complications from a liver transplant, which he received in May at the Cleveland Clinic.
Reed became one of rock’s most influential stars and wrote songs such as “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane” and “Perfect Day.” His “Walk on the Wild Side” in 1973 spent 14 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 16.
The Velvet Underground came to public notice in the 1960s after artist Andy Warhol took an interest in the experimental group and teamed them with singer Nico. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
It was Reed’s distinctive deadpan voice and songwriting that led their records as he took an interest in drug culture on numbers such as “I’m Waiting for the Man.”
While the Velvet Underground was initially unsuccessful commercially, the act’s albums are often cited by critics as among the best of all time and Reed influenced punk rock in the 1970s.
Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 2, 1942, to Sidney Reed, a tax accountant, and the former Toby Futterman, a beauty queen who became a housewife. In 1953, the family, along with Reed’s younger sister, Elizabeth, moved from their apartment in Brooklyn to Freeport, New York, on Long Island, according to Nick Johnstone’s book, “Lou Reed Talking.”
Reed’s father forced him to have electroconvulsive therapy as a teenager over concern about his bisexuality. The experience later became the subject of a song, “Kill Your Sons.” Of his upbringing in Freeport, Reed told the Long Island newspaper, Newsday in 1997: “I hated living there!”
He entered Syracuse University hoping to become a journalist until he learned he’d have to leave his opinions out of his stories, Reed said in a 1998 interview on PBS’s “Charlie Rose” program. He took film and directing classes, he said, “but I never had the gumption to take acting, which is what I really wanted to do.”
In 1964, Reed graduated from Syracuse with a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature, according to Johnstone’s book. He then became a songwriter at Pickwick Records. The Velvet Underground came into being from a band assembled to record a demo for one of his early pop songs.
Reed was joined by Welsh musician John Cale, who became his songwriting partner. The band was filled out by Reed’s college friends Sterling Morrison (guitar) and Maureen “Mo” Tucker (drums.) Their 1967 debut album, “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” has a distinctive Warhol banana cover, one of the most famous in rock.
Its seven-minute song “Heroin” spoke of Reed’s drug fascination: “Heroin, be the death of me; it’s my wife and it’s my life.”
The follow-up album, “White Light/White Heat” emphasized Reed’s songwriting. He took charge of the band as Warhol, Nico and Cale left, writing such songs as “Rock and Roll” before starting a solo career which led to the hit album “Transformer,” co-produced with David Bowie in 1972. Its follow-up was the dark “Berlin,” which divided the critics and didn’t sell well.
His later albums include “Rock ’n’ Roll Animal” (1974), “Street Hassle” (1978), “New York” (1989) and “The Raven” (2003) -- with recurrent themes of drugs, prostitution and violence. While Reed fought drug and alcohol addiction, he denied that the songs were autobiographical.
In 1990, Cale and Reed reunited briefly to record “Songs for Drella,” in honor of their mentor Warhol.
“I don’t know that I’ve made an individual contribution,” he told Charlie Rose. “I was part of a group that I think, along with Warhol, may have given a little nudge to multimedia, perhaps, and maybe the subject matter that can be written about in rock.”
“Seriously, I was a guy playing bar bands,” he said. “I wasn’t a singer, I wasn’t up front, I was in back -- on the guitar, playing my three or four chords.” In Velvet Underground, though, “if you wrote it, you were the one who sang it.”
Reed won a Grammy award in 1998 for the best long form music video for the documentary “Lou Reed: Rock And Roll Heart,” made with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. In 2008, the Velvet Underground’s debut album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame following the band's entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
In 2008, Reed married performance artist Laurie Anderson, who survives him. He was previously married to British designer Sylvia Morales.
In August, in a rare public appearance, Reed was at Bridgehampton for Guild Hall’s annual benefit where he posed in front of a Chuck Close tapestry based on a photograph of him. The supersized image showed Reed’s face etched with lines.