Born March 2, 1942, in Brooklyn, NY (some sources say Freeport, Long Island, NY); son of Sidney Joseph (an accountant) and Toby (Futterman) Reed; married Betty (a waitress), 1973 (divorced); married Sylvia Morales, 1980 (divorced). Education: B.A., Syracuse University, 1964. Addresses: Home--New York, NY. Record company--Warner Bros., 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019-6908.

A 1995 story in Interview declared, "Since the 1960s, Lou Reed has arguably been one of the most influential figures in rock 'n' roll." The mercurial Reed--whose group The Velvet Underground may have been the first art-rock band and was certainly crucial to the development of today's "alternative" rock--has pursued a very personal path in his solo career. Experimenting with everything from glam rock to pop to all-out noise, he has disregarded commercial considerations in the name of his own truths. "Sometimes the definition of what rock and roll is caused me to be thought of in ways that are too confining," he commented in a 1992 Sire Records press biography, "so sometimes it becomes easier to just think of it as 'Lou Reed Music.'"

Reed was born in 1942 and raised on Long Island, New York. He became infatuated with rock and roll and rhythm and blues during his teens. He wrote his own songs and performed with bands like the Shades during the 1950s; he also frightened his parents with his behavior. According to Victor Bockris's 1995 biography Transformer: The Lou Reed Story--excerpted in Interview--the teenager turned his family's world upside down: "Tyrannically presiding over their middle-class home, he slashed screeching chords on his electric guitar, practiced an effeminate way of walking, drew his sister aside in conspiratorial conferences, and threatened to throw the mother of all moodies if everyone didn't pay complete attention to him." The Reeds sent Lou to a mental institution, believing that treatment there would cure their son of his attitude problems and apparent homosexuality. At Creedmore State Psychiatric Hospital, the troubled teen underwent electroshock therapy; the trauma of this "cure" would never entirely leave him.

Reed attended Syracuse University and later worked as a songwriter for Pickwick Records, gulping amphetamines and trumping up and recording tracks like the alleged dance sensation "The Ostrich." Yet even as he penned these no-brainers, he was absorbing the most lurid works of literature--including the writings of the notorious Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the namesakes of sadism and masochism, respectively. Reed's dark romanticism was profoundly influenced by a unique combination of highbrow underground writings such as these and the yearning teenaged plaint of early rock and roll--not to mention his own painful experiences.

This feverish sensibility drove The Velvet Underground, the band Reed helped form in the early 1960s with multi-instrumentalist and musical avant-gardist John Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and drummer Moe Tucker. Thanks to artist-impresario Andy Warhol, the Velvets were able to hone their vision in shows around New York City before recording their debut album with the frosty German chanteuse Nico. Reed songs such as "Venus in Furs" (a fetishistic odyssey that took its title from a Sacher-Masoch novel), "Femme Fatale," "Heroin," "I'm Waiting for My Man," "White Light/White Heat," "Sweet Jane," and many others limned experiences other rock bands wouldn't touch.

The Velvet Underground's music, meanwhile, incorporated brutal, primitive rock, aching melodies, experimental noise, spoken-word pieces, and even country-western. Yet the Velvets saw little real success; a cliche of rock has it that only a thousand people listened to the group during its career, but every one of the thousand formed a band. Though exaggerated, this anecdote reflects the influence the band had on the subsequent movements of glam-rock, punk, and alternative rock.

The Velvet Underground disbanded in 1970, and Reed went home to his parents' house in Long Island. He spent some time recuperating from his tumultuous years with the Velvets--which were marked by drug addiction and sexual anarchy--and worked in an office; eventually, though, he decided to accept a solo recording contract. He released his solo debut in 1972; the following year he married for the first time and released a more successful sophomore effort, Transformer. Produced by Reed devotee and emerging glam-rock phenom David Bowie, the album included the smash hit "Walk on the Wild Side," a deceptively mellow, jazzy pop song narrating a variety of sexual transformations. "Walk" is undoubtedly Reed's most commercially successful offering; it became something of an anthem for the decade. The album Sally Can't Dance, meanwhile, was his most successful in terms of chart action, reaching the Top Ten in the U.S.

Reed released a number of other glam-rocking albums in the 1970s, but he outraged his critics, fans, and especially his record company with Metal Machine Music, a double disc filled with shrill sounds and no songs. Often viewed as an elaborate attempt to get out of his contract with RCA--for which company he released the melodious Coney Island Baby the following year--the 1975 opus stands as one of the more perverse recordings of the modern era, at least by a mainstream artist. In any event, Reed left RCA and signed with Arista; though his albums didn't sell terribly well, most managed to chart at least briefly.

Having divorced his first wife, Reed married Sylvia Morales in 1980 (they would later divorce as well). After several years of output that thrilled neither critics nor many fans, he assembled a new band--which included guitarist Robert Quine, late of the innovative punk-era band Television, and the virtuosic Fernando Saunders on bass--and released The Blue Mask. According to Nation critic Gene Santoro, the album "chronicles Reed's genuinely harrowing descent into the hells of sex- and drug-driven terror, rage and violence, a place nobody else can plumb with his scarred power." Yet, Santoro lamented, Reed squandered the force of his group and blunted the edge of his writing. "By the time of New Sensations in 1984, Reed had become a self-parodic name-dropper," the critic averred.

In addition to his solo work, Reed appeared on a multi-artist tribute to German songwriter Kurt Weill, whose dark, often carnivalesque melodies strongly influenced his own work. He also lent his voice to another all-star vehicle, a benefit for the struggle against the racist Apartheid system of South Africa called Sun City. A duet with R&B legend Sam Moore on a remake of the 1960s hit "Soul Man" for the 1987 movie of the same name and an appearance on bassist-producer Rob Wasserman's anthology recording, Duets, followed.

Yet even as Reed lost some of his credibility among the hipsters who'd been emulating him for years by filming television commercials for motor scooters and credit cards, he created a strong impression with his 1989 album New York, a meditative collection that showed a renewed vitality. He also reunited with Cale for a series of concerts in New York. The death of Warhol, an inspiration and friend to both Reed and Cale, spurred the two to write a suite of songs; this culminated in the 1990 recording Songs for 'Drella. Reed's contributions emphasized, among other issues, Warhol's intense work ethic--and proposed the artist's need to escape his small-town origins as a partial explanation for his ambition.

The deaths of two other friends, Reed's Syracuse roommate Lincoln Swados and songwriter extraordinaire Doc Pomus, motivated another album, 1992's Magic and Loss. (Reed would be dealt another blow in 1995 when his Velvet Underground mate Sterling Morrison succumbed to cancer.) Although its meditations on illness and mortality might seem depressing on the surface, Reed insisted in his press bio, "I think Magic and Loss is a very 'up' album. It makes you feel better because what I gained from what happened to my friends is really very inspirational." Rolling Stone noted of the disc, "[It] couples Reed's bravest and most self-revelatory writing with his sparest and least-developed music. Highly charged prose writing, not songwriting, is now his focus." No doubt some fuel for this hypothesis was provided by the 1991 publication of Between Thought and Expression, an anthology of Reed's writings.

Esteemed music journalist Kurt Loder, catching up with the singer-songwriter for a 1991 Esquire piece, noted that Reed's "still-astonishing cult band, The Velvet Underground, has been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ('Can we campaign?' he asks), but there'll be no big reunion." It may have been further reflection on life's brevity that proved this statement untrue, but whatever the reason, Reed reunited with Cale, Morrison, and Tucker for a series of European concerts in 1993. Sire Records released an undoctored recording of a Paris show titled Live MCMXCIII before the year's end; David Browne of Entertainment Weekly lauded it as "that rare, and wonderful, beast: a nostalgia-free return to old glories that both recaptures and expands on the tension and beauty that made the Velvet Underground so monumental so long ago." The album includes "Coyote," a new Reed-Cale collaboration that Rolling Stone's Don McLeese felt "could have fit just fine on that third Velvets album while sounding reflective of the maturity these writers have gained over the years."

Nonetheless, McLeese asserted, "MCMXCIII sidesteps the question of where the Velvets go from here, of what a band that embodied so much experimentation might mean in the middle age of both its members and rock & roll." The answer came shortly thereafter: true to form, the Velvets broke up again immediately after re-establishing their immense potential. Just as personality conflicts motivated the first breakup, the "maturity" bestowed by the intervening years couldn't prevent old conflicts from resurfacing. "It was a volatile brew," Reed noted in Musician. "I was happy it made it through Europe in the first place."

Reed contributed a track to Sweet Relief, a benefit-tribute anthology for Victoria Williams, a singer-songwriter afflicted with multiple sclerosis, and also appeared onstage with her during several of her subsequent performances. "Vic is easily one of the most talented people I've ever come in contact with in my life," he gushed in Musician. He also lent his rendition of the classic Doc Pomus song "This Magic Moment" to the 1995 tribute album Till the Night Is Gone. The following year saw the publication of Bockris's Transformer biography; Spin's Mark Schone noted that the book "tries to answer the question: What makes the father of punk, fuhrer of rock's most important Underground, such an unmitigated asshole?" According to Schone, Bockris portrays Reed--who cooperated with him--as a manipulative dissembler.

In 1996 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at last inducted The Velvet Underground, an event considered long overdue by many in the rock intelligentsia. In February of 1996 Reed released Set the Twilight Reeling, which was notable in part for having been written entirely on a computer. Reed said of the record in Billboard, "I just wanted to rock after 'Magic and Loss.' I didn't want to put the burden of it having to be thematic on myself, so I told myself, 'Just write whatever.' And if it was connected in any way, that's OK." Reed went on to remark of Reeling's content, much of which continues his exploration of the idea of transformation, "We're all growing. When we stop growing, that's the end of it. I'm happy I'm even walking on two legs. Making rock records is kind of too good."

Lest one despair that Reed had lost some of his trademark malcontent ire, the album featured a track called "Sex with Your Parents (Motherf--er) Part II," which Billboard's Melinda Newman described as "a diatribe against right-wing Republicans that postulates that the reason many of them are so uptight is that they had improper liaisons with their parents." Said Reed of the song, "I hope 'Sex with Your Parents' works its way into the ?1996 presidential? election somehow, if nothing else, to mock and ridicule the right-wing Republican fundamentalists who are so abhorrent to every principle of freedom of expression. Nothing could disgust me more."

Lou Reed's eccentric career has embraced numerous styles, but his distinctive writing voice has been a constant. Whether pushing the envelope of noise-rock or musing over hushed guitar chords, he has followed only his own inclinations. "I write the albums for myself and I try to make it something I would listen to," he insisted in his press biography. "I operate under the idea that I'm not unusual. And if I try to do it really well for myself, other people can relate to it, too. But I don't really know how to write for other people so I can't do that."

by Simon Glickman

Lou Reed's Career

Songwriter, Pickwick Records, New York City, 1965; singer, guitarist, and songwriter for The Velvet Underground, 1965-70; solo recording artist, 1971--; acted in film One Trick Pony, 1980; participated in Amnesty International and Farm Aid benefit concerts, 1985; appeared on television commercials, 1980s; published Between Thought and Expression, Simon & Schuster, 1991; reunited with Velvet Underground for concerts and album, 1993; appeared in film Blue in the Face, 1995.

Lou Reed's Awards

Received Best New Poet award, Council of Small Literary Magazines, 1977; Velvet Underground inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1996.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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