Former Velvet Underground singer, rock and roll icon, lifelong New Yorker, and cantankerous genius Lou Reed has died. Reed underwent liver surgery in May, and his literary agent confirmed to The Washington Post that Reed died from a liver-related ailment. He was 71.
Lewis Allan "Lou" Reed was born in Brooklyn in 1942. After studying with poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University, he got a job as a staff songwriter for the novelty label Pickwick Records. By the mid-1960s, he met violinist John Cale and formed The Velvet Underground (along with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison). The Velvet Underground became arguably the single most influential rock and roll band in history. As Brian Eno put it, while the first Velvet Underground album may have sold only 30,000 copies in its early years, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."
The band collaborated with Nico and Andy Warhol on their seminal debut record; they practically invented noise rock with the feedback-drenched White Light/White Heat; they took a turn toward beautiful, haunting acoustic music with their self-titled third album; and they embraced listeners with Loaded, which included the singles "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane."
After releasing four brilliant studio albums, the band fell apart completely. Reed immediately started a vibrant and ofttimes divisive solo career, which spanned more than 20 albums. Highlights include his most commercially successful record Transformer, the bruised and dark Berlin, the ear-splitting Metal Machine Music, the unexpectedly sweet Coney Island Baby, and the sinewy guitar music of The Blue Mask. There were twin late-period highlights with his ode to New York and the devastating Magic & Loss; there were collaborations with Metallica and adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe.
Along the way, he clashed with and terrified journalists, spurring Lester Bangs to pen some of what is considered to be the best writing on rock and roll. He became an avid student of T-ai Chi. He reunited with John Cale for a wonderful tribute album to Warhol, Songs For Drella. He collaborated with theater director Robert Wilson on several works. And he fell in love with artist Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008.
In a statement on Facebook right after his liver surgery in May, Reed wrote: "I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry. I am bigger and stronger than stronger than ever."
Check out 21 ridiculously great photos of Reed we compiled for his 71st birthday this summer here.
Because he was much smarter than us, Reed put it best on his mortality-driven album Magic & Loss, in a quote that has been dear to my heart since I first heard it: "There's a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out."