While Lou Reed was a hero to many many people — me included — there were millions upon millions who neither knew or cared who he was and what he did. This obituary is for them …
Musician Lou Reed, who for decades was an icon for freaks, weirdos and deviants from ages 8 to 80, died on Sunday.
Mr. Reed first became known to the public in 1967 as the lead singer and songwriter for The Velvet Underground, a New York City band. Mr Reed and his band mates — John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker — became part of the “Factory” scene of Andy Warhol, an artist for whom art wasn’t really about creating new things, but making copies of old things with different colors.
The first Velvet Underground album — The Velvet Underground & Nico — sounded like it was produced by an artist, not a record producer, and contained unlistenable songs about unfathomable subject matter, glorifying drugs, street life and deviant sex. This was taken to an extreme on the second Velvet Underground album, White Light White Heat, which climaxed with a 17-minute jumble of noise where Mr. Reed chanted words about a drug-fueled transsexual orgy.
Needless to say, neither of these albums made much of an impression on the record-buying public at large, selling only a few thousand copies each. There is a quote — probably apocryphal — that while these albums only sold poorly, all of the people who bought them formed their own bands, and subsequently released their own poor selling albums. This was the beginning of the “Alternative Music” scene.
After a couple more records, Mr. Reed broke up the Velvet Underground and embarked upon a solo career. After befriending David Bowie, and inserting himself into the “Glam Rock” scene, he had his only top 20 single, the vaguely racist transgressive novelty song, “Walk on the Wild Side.”
After this unexpected success, Mr. Reed then spent the rest of the 1970s alienating his audience and picking fights with the burgeoning rock press, culminating in the release of a two-disc set of abrasive noise with the caveat emptor title of Metal Machine Music.
In the 1980s, punk rockers and college students, desperately looking for something to help them rebel against the prosperity of the Reagan era, glommed on the music of The Velvet Underground as forerunners of their “Alternative Music” scene, which was then gaining steam.
Mr. Reed reinvented himself as a godfather of that scene, and experienced a career renaissance resulting in his starring in a commercial for Honda Scooters, which referenced his novelty song from the prior decade and ended with Mr. Reed looking at the camera and declaring “don’t settle for walking.”
At the time, there was still a concept known as “selling out,” and it was hotly debated whether or not Reed’s trademark patina of ironic detachment mitigated the fact that he was still being paid money to hawk a product for a major corporation. The debate fizzled out when it was realized that the general public still had no idea who he was.
In the 1990s, the “Alternative Music” scene briefly ruled the music world, as Velvet Underground-influenced alternative rock bands like Creed, Third Eye Blind and Bush topped the charts. Mr. Reed responded by reuniting the Velvet Underground for one tour, but declining to record any new music with the band. He then spent the rest of his career periodically releasing a series of concept albums on subjects such as death, Edgar Allen Poe, and his favorite subject, himself.
Lou Reed was 71. He is survived by his partner, Laurie Anderson, who is that performance artist you might have heard of.