R.I.P. Lou Reed

Rolling Stone reports that Lou Reed, influential singer-songwriter and founding member of The Velvet Underground, has died. He was 71; no cause of death has been disclosed. Reed underwent a liver transplant in mid-2013, saying he was feeling “stronger than ever” following the procedure.

As the frontman and primary songwriter for The Velvet Underground, Reed helped usher rock ’n’ roll into maturity. While their ’60s contemporaries expanded the music’s horizons through concept albums and flower-power psychedelia, the Velvets looked further into rock’s future by going dark and primal. The four Velvet Underground LPs featuring Reed—The Velvet Underground And Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, and Loaded—are marked by street-tough lyrics, dirt-simple compositions, and the use of guitar feedback as an additional instrument in the band’s repertoire. Unappreciated or ignored in their time, these records later formed the touchstones for whole new styles and genres—most notably punk rock, the early New York scene of which Reed served as elder statesman and semi-active participant.

Reed’s solo output began with a self-titled debut in 1972, but it was a follow-up released in the same year that kicked off his solo career in earnest. Reed’s contribution to the burgeoning glam-rock phenomenon, Transformer, contains some of his sharpest songwriting and produced the hit that would become one of his signatures: “Walk On The Wild Side,” an ode to the proto-glam characters who populated Andy Warhol’s Factory alongside the Velvets. No other Reed single ever matched the commercial success of “Walk On The Wild Side,” but the albums that followed Transformer don’t lack for inventiveness: the operatic tragedy of Berlin, the blatantly anti-commercial Metal Machine Music, the wistful pop of Coney Island Baby. A decade after Transformer, Reed delivered The Blue Mask, one of rock’s better documents of a former hell-raiser settling into marriage and middle age.

Much of Reed’s legend revolves around the types of druggy, promiscuous behavior described within his songs, a persona based in excess and exaggerated by a prickly exterior that snagged even the most thick-skinned of interviewers. In addition to a catalog of classic recordings, Reed leaves behind a library of contentious dealings with the press; the “Heroin” in this shadow body of work being the knock-down, drag-out Lester Bangs later titled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves.” 

But for all his leather-jacket posturing, there was clearly a sweetness to the man affectionately referred to as Uncle Lou. That side of the artist could veer into the maudlin on some of his lesser ’80s recordings, but it also informed invaluable guard-down moments like the Maureen Tucker-sung Velvets track “After Hours.” For a rocker as adept at stagecraft and musical costuming as Reed, the hostility he showed Bangs and others may have just been another disguise. At least that’s what this gorgeous Annie Leibovitz shot of Reed and wife Laurie Anderson has always suggested.

In the days following Reed’s death, plenty of digital ink will be spilled over the grim-and-gritty Lou Reed: the guy behind the dark sunglasses singing about junkies racing to meet their connections, the voice continuing the work of the Marquis de Sade over the whine of John Cale’s viola. As crucial as Reed’s treatment of the darkness was for redefining what is and what can be pop music, it’s important to remember that he was also adept at writing about celebration and release. The characters of “Walk On The Wild Side” are shedding skins to be their true selves. Jenny, the protagonist of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock And Roll,” finds purpose in the sounds emanating from the big city. We will never stop trying to define Lou Reed, but there’s no need: It’s all there in four decades of recordings. Don’t overthink it: Despite all the computations, you know you could dance to the rock ’n’ roll station.