After spending his teens getting the homosexuality shocked out of him, and his college years spinning doo-wop and Ornette Coleman records, Lou Reed first tried his hand at songwriting by coming up with corny dance tunes like "The Ostrich." That's where he first met John Cale, who—impressed by his droning side projects—suggested the partnership that became The Velvet Underground. Of course, Cale's influence paled considerably next to that of pale pop-art star Andy Warhol, who made The Velvets the house band at his Factory, introduced them to dour German chanteuse Nico, and gave Reed enough heroin, Benzedrine, and smutty transvestites to inspire four classic albums examining the seedy side of city life. Reed's image at the time—striped shirts, omnipresent Wayfarers, slack-jawed stoicism—had a lasting influence on a million punk and shoegaze bands.
Key albums: The Velvet Underground And Nico, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground, Loaded
The break-up of The Velvet Underground led a disillusioned Reed to take on a typing job at his father's accounting firm, and his first self-titled solo album (with an assist from Yes' Rick Wakeman) was a critical and commercial flop; reinvention was obviously in order. Transformer marked the beginning (and abrupt end) of a partnership with David Bowie, and his first foray into darker, cynical material: Transformer's signature song, "Walk On The Wild Side," made jabs at Warhol and his Factory of wannabe stars; Berlin was the sound of a junkie bottoming out; and the brutal Street Hassle made him a hero to self-abusing punks. Reed's look also underwent a drastic makeover: Black leather, makeup, spiked collars, and cropped blond hair comprised an outwardly camp style that inspired years of punk, queer, and goth fashion.
Key albums: Transformer, Berlin, Rock 'N' Roll Animal, Coney Island Baby, Street Hassle
With Reed's new outwardly abrasive appearance came a hostility that earned him a reputation as one of rock's most difficult douchebags. His first shot across the bow was Metal Machine Music, a double album of pure feedback that most interpreted as a middle finger to his label, but which Reed insisted was a serious artistic statement. Baffled critics tried to get at the hip, sly satirist inside his standoffish, black-leather shell, but found only a petulant junkie who had nothing but contempt for his audience. In his famous article "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, Or How I Slugged It Out With Lou Reed And Stayed Awake," Lester Bangs called Reed "a liar, a wasted talent, an artist continually in flux, and a huckster selling pounds of his own flesh"—and this from a man who considered MMM "genius." The arrogant, sharp-tongued sourpuss still defines Lou Reed for a lot of people, primarily among unfortunate journalists who draw the short straw on interviewing him.
Key albums: Metal Machine Music, Sally Can't Dance, Take No Prisoners
The '80s found Reed swearing off drugs and drag queens for good, and with clean living and stabilizing heterosexual marriage came a taste for sentimentality. Reed left behind abstract portraits of everyday hustlers in favor of something straight from the heart, and solidified his image as a cool '80s rock star—which naturally meant it was time to cash in like crazy. While everybody sold out a little in the '80s (hell, even Leonard Cohen cameoed on Miami Vice), few expected the former figurehead of the freak scene to be doing ads for Honda scooters and American Express, or taking on self-satirizing movie roles in middling projects like Get Crazy or Rock & Rule. Reed's lowest point was unquestionably Mistrial, an album of lifeless commercial rock tailor-made for the style-over-substance decade. The video for "No Money Down" featured a rubbery Reed robot tearing off his own face, echoing the artificial machine he had become.
Key albums: The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations, Mistrial
Pulling back from the brink of washing out, Reed accepted Bob Dylan's invitation to perform at Farm Aid, which inspired him to get involved in things like Amnesty International and writing the politically minded New York. "Growing up" was like flicking a switch for Reed, and the '90s saw him reconciling (briefly) with The Velvet Underground, releasing his most somber work, and—most importantly—his relationship with performance artist Laurie Anderson, who has had a huge impact on everything he's done since. As a result, Reed has spent most of the last two decades taking himself very, very seriously: doing spoken-word tributes to Edgar Allen Poe, writing poetry, releasing books of his photography, and even performing for Pope John Paul II (whom he'd attacked on New York). Most eyebrow-raising of all was his turn toward Eastern spirituality, epitomized by a memorable 2003 tour where he brought Master Ren Guang-Yi onstage to perform tai chi to his music. Oddly enough, the "relaxed" Reed is stiff as ever—although he'll happily perform with young bands who idolize him, like The Killers and The Raconteurs. Maybe there's a little rock-'n'-roll heart left in him after all.
Key albums: New York, Magic And Loss, Set The Twilight Reeling, Ecstasy, The Raven
Lou Reed provided the keynote speech for SXSW 2008 on March 13 at the Austin Convention Center.