Sydney Morning Herald OCTOBER 29, 2013 - by Neil McCormick


Lou Reed, who has died aged seventy-one, was one of America's most enduring and influential rock musicians.

Lou Reed was a rock'n'roll genius. He was also unarguably, an artist, an overused word in pop culture. Reed's seminal New York outfit The Velvet Underground shaped the future of music every bit as profoundly as more commercially celebrated figureheads such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

His association with Andy Warhol in the '60s came about because the two men grasped that popular commercial forms of creativity had an intrinsic value because they connected to people in the contemporary moment, realigning the very parameters of modern art.

Not that Reed would agree with that assessment. "I've never thought of myself as something in pop music," he told me when I interviewed him in 1989.

As a young man growing up in relatively affluent circumstances in New York in the '50s and '60s, he had a difficult relationship with his family and suffered incarceration in mental institutions and electroconvulsive therapy - supposedly to cure him of bisexual tendencies.

He poured all his energies into rock'n'roll, concocting a literary street style that was distinctively contemporary. With The Velvet Underground in 1966, Reed struck out against the prevailing mood of flower power by creating urban tableaus mired in the dark appeal of hard drugs, sadomasochism, prostitution and gender-bending, matching the complexity of his lyrics with a bold, dark sonic palette.

The Velvets only released four albums before breaking up in 1971; radio ignored them and not many people bought them, but with their Warhol-endorsed chic, poisonous attitude, atonal vocals, shuddering rhythms and thrashy distorting guitars, they became godfathers of art rock, punk, indie and goth.

Cited as inspiration by David Bowie, Roxy Music and The Sex Pistols, the Velvet template can be detected in every band that has favoured noise, attitude, experimentalism (and, perhaps, the vampiric appeal of wearing sunglasses at night) over ordinary commercial criteria. It is probably fair to say that no other band ever achieved so little success in their time and yet exerted such a vast influence on those who followed.

Indie rock essentially began in the 1960s with Reed and The Velvets. Likewise, the punk, new wave and alternative rock movements of the 1970s, '80s and '90s were all indebted to Reed, whose songs were covered by R.E.M., Nirvana, Patti Smith and countless others.

"The first Velvet Underground record sold thirty-thousand copies in the first five years," Brian Eno, who produced albums by U2 and Talking Heads amongst others, once said. "I think everyone who bought one of those thirty-thousand copies started a band."

Reed was a notoriously difficult interviewee with a reputation for being insulting and evasive. But the last time I met him, I got a surprising sense of the vulnerability underpinning his surliness, as this now rather frail, bespectacled old man reached out to ask me to champion his unloved latest album.

"I was trying to escape the simplistic form, and find a different kind of melodic form, but still rock... All this stuff is about emotion, I mean, why else do it?"

Gripping my arm tightly, he started to recite Macbeth's famous monologue in a low drawling voice. "Out, out brief candle, life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."

The son of a successful accountant, Louis Alan Reed was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 2, 1942, and brought up in the affluent Long Island town of Freeport, where he acquired a taste for rock'n'roll and teenage rebellion.

When not immersed in depression, Reed spent his formative years perfecting three-chord rock'n'roll on rhythm guitar with several high school bands. In 1957, with The Jades, he cut his first record, So Blue, a song about teenage heartache. His musical interests broadened at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, when he hosted a jazz program on the campus radio station, a post which he was later obliged to relinquish after he was heard to belch loudly during a public service announcement about muscular dystrophy.

Military training, then compulsory at American universities, was treated by Reed with similar irreverence. He engineered his dismissal from the Reserve Officers' Training Corps and escaped the ensuing commitment to two years' military service by threatening to shoot his commanding officer.

While studying English and modern philosophy at Syracuse, Reed came under the influence of the poet and critic Delmore Schwartz, whose writings provided a literary model for Reed's alienated bohemian persona.

On his graduation in 1964, Reed took a job with Pickwick Records, writing and recording derivative ditties about surfing and hot rods. But Reed's real interests lay elsewhere. When not forcing out songs about summer good times, Reed worked on much bleaker numbers such as Heroin, a detailed and dispassionate account of the pleasures of shooting up ("Cause when the smack begins to flow, Then I really don't care any more").

In 1965 he joined the equally disillusioned John Cale, a classically trained Welsh viola player, to form a band that would play their kind of music. With the guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, they formed The Velvet Underground - named after the title of a pornographic novel.

Reed's dirty vocals - half sung, half spoken - and doomy lyrics, Cale's aggressive, sawing electric viola, and the band's use of "grungy" guitar and shrieking feedback were remarkable at a time when American rock music was dominated by such west coast bands as Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, singing harmoniously about peace and love.

Their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), for example, covered such topics as heroin abuse (I'm Waiting For The Man, Heroin), cocaine addiction (Run, Run, Run) and sado-masochism (Venus In Furs).

The band's cult credentials were reinforced by the patronage of Andy Warhol, who had discovered them performing at the sleazy Greenwich Village night spot the Cafe Bizarre in 1966 and recruited them for his multimedia show The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, showing films over the band as they played. Warhol combined the group with the mannered German chanteuse Nico, who sang on some of Reed's more wistful compositions.

A year later Reed broke with Warhol in an attempt to shake off the band's cult following and gain a wider audience. But the three albums that followed - White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground; and Loaded - enjoyed no more commercial success than the first. Cale left the band in 1968 and Reed quit in 1970.

He passed the next two years in what he called "exile and pondering". In fact, he was working as a typist in his father's company, before moving to London in 1972 and then recording his first solo album, Lou Reed. The record enjoyed a limited success, but he followed it with what is generally considered his finest solo album, Transformer.

Produced by David Bowie, Transformer brought Reed the wide following he had never attracted with The Velvet Underground and yielded his first hit single, Walk On The Wild Side.

The song's lyrics were no less salacious than those in earlier works, concerned as it was with homosexual prostitution; but the anticipated radio ban failed to materialise because the producers did not understand street idioms such as "giving head".

But, with typical perversity, Reed followed Transformer with an album so morbid and pretentious that few radio stations gave it much airtime. Berlin describes an uneasy love affair between a young American expatriate and a German woman, Caroline. The couple become addicted to amphetamines, and Caroline ends up killing herself.

Disappointed with the public's indifferent reaction to Berlin, Reed responded with Rock N Roll Animal (1974), recorded from a live performance at the Academy of Music in New York. This capitalised on the increasing popularity of old songs like Sweet Jane and proved his bestselling album to that date.

Reed's oeuvre throughout the rest of the 1970s was at best undistinguished, but it is agreed to have reached its nadir with Metal Machine Music (1975). This two-disc set of ill-advised experimental electronic material, played on a primitive Moog, was, explained Reed, "unrestrained" by considerations of "tempo or key".

In the first few days of its release, it sold enough copies to earn itself a modest chart entry, but shortly afterwards it went on to gain a record for the number of copies returned to point of sale for a refund.

But In 1982 Reed marked the turning point of his career with his redemptive album about the pleasures of being "an average guy", The Blue Mask. Now happily ensconced in a rustic New Jersey retreat with writer Sylvia Morales, whom he had married on St. Valentine's Day in 1980, Reed bade farewell to his depraved persona of the 1960s and 1970s and set about promoting his new "caring" image.

With stability came a more intense social conscience, which Reed articulated in 1989 on the most successful album of his career, New York. The subject matter - metropolitan sleaze - had changed little since Transformer, but his tone was now elegiac rather than celebratory. Halloween Parade, for example, was Reed's memorial to friends who had died of AIDS.

In later life, Reed eschewed the vices for which he had become so famous in his youth. He gave up drugs and drinking in the early 1980s.

But if it seemed a miracle that he had lived long enough to make such sacrifices, Reed always insisted that his reputation for excess was greatly exaggerated. His stock response to questions about the autobiographical content of songs like Heroin was: "I couldn't still be around if I had done everything I am reputed to have done."

Reed had a liver transplant in April. "I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry," he wrote in a public statement upon his release. "I am bigger and stronger than ever." But he was back at the clinic for treatment last week. Just weeks after the transplant, Reed wrote a review of Kanye West's album, celebrating its abrasiveness and returning once more to Metal Machine Music to explain an artist's deepest motives.

"I have never thought of music as a challenge - you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are," he wrote. "You do this because you like it, you think what you're making is beautiful. And if you think it's beautiful, maybe they think it's beautiful."

Lou Reed died on Sunday in New York of an ailment related to his recent liver transplant. He was seventy-one.