Lou Reed, the pioneering songwriter and musician behind the influential rock band Velvet Underground, which fused art and music in collaboration with artist Andy Warhol, died on Sunday at the age of 71, his literary agent said.
Reed, best recognized by mainstream audiences for his 1972 solo hit “Walk on the Wild Side,” died at the Long Island home he shared with his wife, Laurie Anderson, following complications from a liver transplant he underwent earlier this year, his agent, Andrew Wylie, said.
“I think Lou was as great an artist as it was possible to be,” Wylie said. “It’s a great loss.”
While the Velvet Underground never achieved great commercial success, the band revolutionized rock in the 1960s and ’70s with a mixture of thrashing guitar licks and smooth melodies sung by Reed or the sultry German model Nico, who briefly collaborated with the band at Warhol’s insistence.
The band has long been recognized as a major musical inspiration for punk art and rock, as reflected in a quote often attributed to musician Brian Eno: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
Neil Portnow, president the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which bestows the Grammys, credited Reed with “introducing avant-garde rock to the mainstream.”
“His uniquely stripped-down style of guitar playing and poetic lyrics have had a massive influence across many rock genres, including punk and alternatives,” Portnow said.
John Cale, who co-founded the Velvet Underground but had a sometimes fractious relationship with his former bandmate, released a statement on his Facebook page: “The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet … I’ve lost my ‘school-yard buddy,'” he said.
Cale and Reed put aside their differences to release a tribute album to Warhol in 1990 called “Songs for Drella,” which lead to a handful of reunion performances by members of the Velvet Underground’s original line-up in the early 1990s.
Musician Iggy Pop’s official Twitter account called news of Reed’s death “devastating,” while musician Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth tweeted: “So sorry to hear of Lou Reed’s passing this is a huge shock!”
An admitted hard drinker and drug user for many years, Reed underwent a liver transplant earlier this year in Cleveland, his wife revealed, after he had canceled a series of California concert dates in April.
“I am a triumph of modern medicine,” Reed posted on his website on June 1, 2013, without directly acknowledging the transplant. “I look forward to being on stage performing, and writing more songs to connect with your hearts and spirits and the universe well into the future.”
LYRICS THAT SHOCKED
Reed has been widely credited with expanding the lexicon of rock ‘n’ roll with provocative lyrics that chronicled androgyny, illicit sex, and drug abuse, notably in the song “Heroin,” in which he declares, “It’s my wife, and it’s my life.”
“Walk on the Wild Side,” a catchy tune off his second solo album, “Transformer,” co-produced by fellow avante-garde rocker David Bowie, became Reed’s only top-20 hit single, though it contained lyrical references to transexuality, drugs and male prostitution.
“Sister Ray” – a 17-minute blast of guitar distortions – likewise combined stories of sailors, oral sex, murder, intravenous drug use and the mysterious title character.
“I never in a million years thought people would be outraged by what I was doing,” Reed said in a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. “You could go to your neighborhood bookstore and get any of that.”
One of his signature songs, first performed by the Velvet Underground and later a staple of his solo act, was simply titled “Rock and Roll,” a semi-autobiographical story of how music saved the life of a young fan listening on the radio.
His stage persona, often appearing in a dog collar and eye makeup, opened the door for Bowie and other artists to take sexually ambivalent styles into the mainstream.
It was personified in the landmark live album “Rock N Roll Animal,” released in 1974. That record closely followed the studio-record rock opera album “Berlin,” which he brought to life again with a 2006 concert that was made into a 2007 film directed by Julian Schnabel.
Later in his career, Reed became something of an elder statesman of rock, a towering figure in a club with fellow legends such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Reed always placed great importance on song-writing. One of his first jobs out of college was as a staff writer for Pickwick Records. He dedicated the 1966 Velvet Underground song “European Son” to the late poet, Delmore Schwartz, under whom he studied at Syracuse University.
Reed was married three times, the latest to recording and performance artist Laurie Anderson in 2008, and in recent years took an intense interest in photography, staging exhibitions of his work.