Lou Reed was an influential American rock singer-songwriter and guitarist. He first came to prominence as the guitarist and principal singer-songwriter of The Velvet Underground (1965-1973).
An enduring but complicated figure whose shadow stretches back five decades to the very beginnings of the American rock underground, Lou Allen Reed was born on Long Island to a middle-class, suburban family - a family with whom he soon found himself at odds, as they were unable to accept his unconventional attitudes and sexually ambiguous behaviour. During his teen years, they went so far as to have him confined in a mental hospital, where he was forced to endure electro-shock treatments and drug therapy as a means to ward off any nascent homosexual tendencies; somehow Reed managed to emerge from this ordeal with his attitudes intact, and, despite his parents' disapproval, continued to pursue his musical interests.
Highly influenced by R&B and early rock music, Reed performed with a number of different bands during his high school years, making his first recording as a member of the doo-wop ensemble The Shades. After high school he moved on to Syracuse University, where his interests broadened to include free jazz and other more experimental forms of music. It was at this time that Reed decided to pursue a career as a writer.
After completing his studies at Syracuse, Reed moved to New York City and took a job as a songwriter at Pickwick Records. His hit-making duties proved less than rewarding, and he soon joined forces with fellow disillusioned employee John Cale to try and create some music that was more worthwhile. Initially assuming the name The Warlocks, the two spent short periods working with various other musicians as The Primitives and The Falling Spikes before finally enlisting guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Angus MacLise and becoming The Velvet Underground in 1965. Later in the year MacLise quit and was replaced by Maureen Tucker, at which time the band began performing in local clubs and cafés; not long afterwards they came to the attention of art prankster Andy Warhol, who, intrigued by their unconventional approach, offered to assume management duties for the band.
Warhol subsequently integrated the Velvets into his multimedia project The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, adding German vocalist Nico to the line-up and sending them out on a tour of the US and Canada in 1966. Later in the year, the band's debut was recorded within the space of one or two days; the album was eventually released by MGM in early 1967, sporting a Warhol-designed peelable banana as its cover. The strange mix of styles - and particularly the controversial subject matter dealt with in Reed's lyrics - resulted in an extremely mixed reception for the album, with sales being far from brisk. By the following year both Warhol and Nico were shed, and the band enlisted The Mothers of Invention's producer Tom Wilson to create their second album White Light/White Heat. Public and critical interest remained elsewhere. By this time, the relationship between Reed and Cale had entirely deteriorated, and Cale was fired from the band before sessions for a third album were organised.
After bringing in Doug Yule to replace Cale, Reed recorded two more albums with the Velvets in a markedly different stylistic vein: The Velvet Underground (1969) and Loaded (1970) - although a considerable amount of material not contained on these albums was also generated during this period (most of which would eventually surface in the mid-80s on the collections VU and Another View). The personal and professional dynamics of the group remained unstable, however, and in August of 1970 Reed made the decision to quit just prior to the release of Loaded. The next year was spent away from the music industry, living in his parents' house on Long Island and working for his father's accounting firm; in 1971 a contract with RCA finally initiated the launch of his solo career, and an eponymous album followed in 1972. Primarily featuring Velvets-era material, the release accordingly received the same lack of interest that had plagued his previous band.
In the hopes of avoiding the dismal response given to his first solo effort, Reed enlisted the help of long-standing Velvets fans David Bowie and Mick Ronson to create his second offering, Transformer (1972). Given a thorough glam makeover by the pair, the album featured one of his most commercially successful songs (Walk On The Wild Side) and at last provided a bit of forward momentum to his floundering career. Regardless of his new-found popularity, the subject matter of Reed's songs remained as uncompromising as ever - a fact that was abundantly evident on the follow-up release Berlin (1973), a concept album that explored the disintegrating lives of two drug addicts. This oscillation between commercial success and commercial suicide continued throughout the rest of his 70s output: the live collection Rock N Roll Animal (1974) reviving the enthusiasm generated by Transformer, followed by the blatantly mainstream Sally Can't Dance (1974) and the extreme, formless feedback assault of Metal Machine Music (1975). Upbeat pop was then shamelessly indulged on Rock And Roll Heart (1976), only to be discarded in favour of the the raw punk of Street Hassle (1978).
With the arrival of the 1980s, Lou Reed at last managed to gain control of his self-destructive personal habits, with the result that his recorded output became far less erratic. The strong critical momentum generated in the first half of the decade by The Blue Mask (1982), Legendary Hearts (1983) and New Sensations (1984) served to cement his standing as a major American songwriter once and for all, and this status was further reinforced by later releases such as New York (1989) and Magic And Loss (1992).
The 80s even witnessed a temporary reconciliation between Reed and his former bandmate John Cale, brought about by the death of Andy Warhol in 1987. The pair initially renewed their partnership in order to commemorate their former producer with the 1990 collection Songs For Drella, but by 1993 a full-scale reunion of the Velvet Underground had been organised. Not surprisingly, the reunion only managed to survive a brief European tour before the relationship between Reed and Cale once again hit the skids, and the death of Sterling Morrison in 1995 brought an end to the possibility of any future band revivals.
In distinct contrast to his years with the Velvet Underground, in the 90s and 00s Reed found himself an established and widely-respected member of the music industry. What would prove to be an enduring relationship with performance artist Laurie Anderson was started in the early 90s, with some musical cross-pollination resulting. During this same period, a relationship of a different nature was also established with theatre director Robert Wilson, initiated with the collaborative production Time Rocker (1996) and resuming for the Edgar Allan Poe-derived POE-Try in 2001. The Raven, a recorded version of the latter project featuring readings by Anderson, David Bowie, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Amanda Plummer and several others was eventually released in 2003, and closely followed by the live document Animal Serenade in 2004.
In 2007 Reed rather unexpectedly began performing and touring a mixed media performance of his 1973 Berlin album. Reed continued to record and tour new work and revisit his previous work alone and in collaboration, now a highly respected, influential and established music veteran.
In April 2013, Reed underwent a liver transplant. Afterwards, he claimed on his website to be 'bigger and stronger' than ever. On October 27, 2013, Reed died at the age of 71.