Although he acknowledged that he was Jewish, he always added, “My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.”
Reed attended Atkinson Elementary School in Freeport on Long Island and went on to Freeport Junior High School, notorious for its gangs. As a teenager, he suffered panic attacks, became socially awkward and “possessed a fragile temperament” but was highly focused on things that he liked – principally music.
Reed resumed his education at Syracuse University in 1960, studying journalism, film directing, and creative writing. He was a platoon leader in ROTC and was later expelled from the program for holding an unloaded gun to his superior’s head. In 1961, he began hosting a late-night radio program on WAER called Excursions On A Wobbly Rail. Named after a song by pianist Cecil Taylor, the program typically featured doo wop, rhythm and blues, and jazz, particularly the free jazz developed in the mid-1950s. Many of Reed’s guitar techniques, such as the guitar-drum roll, were inspired by jazz saxophonists, such as Ornette Coleman. In short he started a band and had his own radio show. There were several extracurricular, possibly illegal activities of which the university didn’t approve. They tried to kick him out, but he was a genius; so he stayed and he graduated with honors from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in English in June 1964.
In 1964, Reed moved to New York City and began working as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. In 1964, he wrote and recorded the single “The Ostrich”, a parody of popular dance songs of the time, which included lines such as “put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it”. His employers felt that the song had hit potential, and assembled a supporting band to help promote the recording. The ad hoc group, called “The Primitives”, included Welsh musician John Cale, who had recently moved to New York to study music and was playing viola in composer La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, along with Tony Conrad. Cale and Conrad were both surprised to find that for “The Ostrich”, Reed tuned each string of his guitar to the same note, which they began to call his “ostrich guitar” tuning. This technique created a drone effect similar to their experimentation in Young’s avant-garde ensemble. Disappointed with Reed’s performance, Cale was nevertheless impressed by Reed’s early repertoire (including “Heroin”), and a partnership began to evolve.
Reed and Cale (who would play viola, keyboards and bass) lived together on the Lower East Side, and invited Reed’s college acquaintance guitarist Sterling Morrison and Cale’s neighbor drummer Angus MacLise to join the group, thus forming the Velvet Underground. When the opportunity came to play their first paying gig at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey, MacLise quit because he believed that accepting money for art was a sellout and also did not want to participate in a structured gig. He was replaced on drums by Maureen Tucker, initially for that one show, but she soon became a full-time member with her pounding style of drumming an integral part of the band’s distinctive sound, despite the initial objections of Cale. Though internally unstable (Cale left in 1968, Reed in 1970), and without commercial success, the band has a long-standing reputation as one of the most influential in rock history.
The group soon caught the attention of artist Andy Warhol. One of Warhol’s first contributions was to integrate them into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol’s associates inspired many of Reed’s songs as he fell into a thriving, multifaceted artistic scene. Reed rarely gave an interview without paying homage to Warhol as a mentor. Conflict emerged when Warhol had the idea for the group to take on a chanteuse, the European former model and singer Nico. Despite his initial resistance, Reed wrote several songs for Nico to sing, and the two were briefly lovers. The Velvet Underground & Nico reached No. 171 on the charts, but is now widely considered one of the most influential rock albums ever recorded. Rolling Stone has it listed as the 13th greatest album of all time.
The career of Lou Reed defies capsule summarization. Like David Bowie (whom Reed directly inspired in many ways), he made over his image many times, mutating from theatrical glam rocker to strung-out junkie to avant-garde noiseman to straight rock & roller to your average guy. Few would deny Reed’s immense importance and considerable achievements. As has often been written, he expanded the vocabulary of rock & roll lyrics into the previously forbidden territory of kinky sex, drug use (and abuse), decadence, transvestites, homosexuality, and suicidal depression. As has been pointed out less often, he remained committed to using rock & roll as a forum for literary, mature expression throughout his artistic life, without growing lyrically soft or musically complacent. By and large, he took on these challenging duties with uncompromising honesty and a high degree of realism. For these reasons, he was often cited as punk’s most important ancestor. It’s often overlooked, though, that he was equally skilled at celebrating romantic joy, and rock & roll itself, as he was at depicting harrowing urban realities. With the exception of Neil Young, no other star who rose to fame in the ’60s continued to push himself so diligently into creating work that was, and remains, meaningful and contemporary.
Although Reed achieved his greatest success as a solo artist, his most enduring accomplishments were as the leader of the Velvet Underground in the ’60s. If Reed had never made any solo records, his work as the principal lead singer and songwriter for the Velvets would have still ensured his stature as one of the greatest rock visionaries of all time. The Velvet Underground are discussed at great length in many other sources, but it’s sufficient to note that the four studio albums they recorded with Reed at the helm are essential listening, as is much of their live and extraneous material. “Heroin,” “Sister Ray,” “Sweet Jane,” “Rock and Roll,” “Venus in Furs,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “What Goes On,” and “Lisa Says” are just the most famous classics that Reed wrote and sang for the group. As innovative as the Velvets were at breaking lyrical and instrumental taboos with their crunching experimental rock, they were unappreciated in their lifetime. Five years of little commercial success was undoubtedly a factor in Reed leaving the group he had founded in August 1970, just before the release of their most accessible effort, Loaded. Although Reed’s songs and streetwise, sing-speak vocals dominated the Velvets, he was perhaps more reliant upon his talented collaborators than he realized, or was even willing to admit in his latter years. The most talented of these associates was John Cale, who was apparently fired by Reed in 1968 after the Velvets’ second album (although the pair subsequently worked together on various other projects).
Reed had a reputation of being a difficult man to work with for an extended period, and that made it difficult for his extensive solo oeuvre to compete with the standards of brilliance set by the Velvets. Nowhere was this more apparent than on his self-titled solo debut from 1971, recorded after he’d taken an extended hiatus from music, moving back to his parents’ suburban Long Island home at one point. Lou Reed mostly consisted of flaccid versions of songs dating back to the Velvet days, and he could have really used the group to punch them up, as proved by the many outtake versions of these tunes that he actually recorded with the Velvet Underground (some of which didn’t surface until about 25 years later).
Reed got a shot in the arm (no distasteful pun intended) when David Bowie and Mick Ronson produced his second album, Transformer. A more energetic set that betrayed the influence of glam rock, it also included his sole Top 20 hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” and other good songs like “Vicious” and “Satellite of Love.” It also made him a star in Britain, which was quick to appreciate the influence Reed had exerted on Bowie and other glam rockers. Reed went into more serious territory on Berlin (1973), its sweet orchestral production coating lyrical messages of despair and suicide. In some ways Reed’s most ambitious and impressive solo effort, it was accorded a vituperative reception by critics in no mood for a nonstop bummer (however elegantly executed). Unbelievably, in retrospect, it made the Top Ten in Britain, though it flopped stateside.
Having been given a cold shoulder for some of his most serious (if chilling) work, Reed apparently decided he was going to give the public what it wanted. He had guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner give his music more of a pop-metal, radio-friendly sheen. More disturbingly, he decided to play up to the cartoon junkie role that some in his audience seemed eager to assign to him. Onstage, that meant shocking bleached hair, painted fingernails, and simulated drug injections. On record, it led to some of his most careless performances. One of these, the 1974 album Sally Can’t Dance, was also his most commercially successful, reaching the Top Ten, thus confirming both Reed’s and the audience’s worst instincts. As if to prove he could still be as uncompromising as anyone, he unleashed the double album Metal Machine Music, a nonstop assault of electronic noise. Opinions remain divided as to whether it was an artistic statement, a contract quota-filler, or a slap in the face to the public.
Later, Reed never behaved as outrageously (in public and in the studio) as he did in the mid-’70s, although there was plenty of excitement in the decades that followed. When he decided to play it relatively straight, sincere, and hard-nosed, he could produce affecting work in the spirit of his best vintage material (parts of Coney Island Baby and Street Hassle). At other points, he seemed not to be putting too much effort into any aspect of his songs (“Rock and Roll Heart”). With 1978’s Take No Prisoners, he delivered one of the weirdest concert albums of all time, more of a comedy monologue (which not too many people laughed hard at) than a musical document. Reed had always been an enigma, but no one questioned the serious intent of his work with the Velvet Underground. As a soloist, it was getting impossible to tell when he was serious, or whether he even wished to be taken seriously anymore.
At the end of the ’70s, The Bells set the tone for most of his future work. Reed would settle down; he would play it straight; he would address serious, adult concerns, including heterosexual romance, with sincerity. Not a bad idea, but though the albums that followed were much more consistent in tone, they remained erratic in quality and, worse, could occasionally be quite boring. The recruitment of Robert Quine as lead guitarist helped, and The Blue Mask (1982) and New Sensations (1984) were fairly successful, although in retrospect they didn’t deserve the raves they received from some critics at the time. Quine, however, would also find Reed too difficult to work with for an extended period. New York (1989) heralded both a commercial and critical renaissance for Reed, and in truth it was his best work in quite some time, although it didn’t break any major stylistic ground. Reed worked best when faced with a challenge, which arrived when he collaborated with former partner John Cale in 1990 on a song cycle for the recently deceased Andy Warhol. In both its recorded and stage incarnations, this was the most experimental work that Reed had devised in quite some time.
Magic and Loss (1992) returned him to the more familiar straight rock territory of New York, again to critical raves. The re-formation of the Velvet Underground for a 1993 European live tour could not be considered an unqualified success, however. European audiences were thrilled to see the legends in person, but critical reaction to the shows was mixed, and critical reaction to the live record was tepid. More distressingly, old conflicts reared their head within the band once again, and the reunion ended before it had a chance to get to America. Cale and Reed at this point seem determined never to work with each other again (the death of Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison in 1995 seemed to permanently ice prospects of more VU projects). In 1996, the surviving Velvet Underground members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performing a newly penned song for their fallen comrade, Morrison. Reed closed the ’90s with an album that saw him explore relationships, 1996’s Set the Twilight Reeling (many speculated that the album was biographical and focused on his union with performance artist Laurie Anderson), which didn’t turned out to be one of Reed’s more critically acclaimed releases. He also found time to compose music for the Robert Wilson opera Timerocker, and in 1998, released the “unplugged” album Perfect Night: Live in London. The same year, Reed was the subject of a superb installment of the PBS American Masters series that chronicled his entire career (eventually released as a DVD, titled Rock and Roll Heart).
The year 2000 saw Reed’s first release for Reprise Records, Ecstasy, a glorious return to raw and straightforward rock, a tour de force that many agreed was his finest work since New York. Another collaboration with Robert Wilson, POE-try, followed in 2001 and continued its worldwide stage run through the year. Including new music by Reed and words adapted from the macabre texts of Edgar Allan Poe, POE-try led to Reed’s highly ambitious next album, The Raven. Animal Serenade, a double-disc set recorded at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles during his 2003 world tour, was issued in spring 2004. The live effort was Reed’s tribute of sorts to his celebrated Rock N Roll Animal concert album, which was released 30 years before. In 2007, Reed released Hudson River Wind Meditations, a four-song experimental sound collage that celebrated both the best and worst aspects of Metal Machine Music. In 2011, he joined forces with heavy metal legends Metallica to create Lulu, an album of fresh studio material. Written by Reed, with James Hetfield et al. providing input on arrangements and dynamics, Lulu blended Lou Reed’s trademark monotone vocals with the power and ferocity of Metallica’s musicianship. However, Reed underwent a liver transplant at the Cleveland Clinic in April 2013, and although he subsequently proclaimed his strength and intention to return to performing and songwriting, he died of end-stage liver disease at his home on Long Island in late October of that year.
To say the least, this song was highly controversial when it came out considering it is about transvestites who come to NYC for prostitution. They would say to their potential customers, “Take a walk on the wild side!” Lou Reed once said about the song: “I always thought it would be fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet.” What an amazing storyteller and lyrical genius Lou Reed was.
Try to find another song from this time period where the artist talks so openly about subjects such as oral sex, transvestites, and drug use, there weren’t very many others. He was writing about things in a style that, frankly, almost no other artist at that time would even consider writing or singing about. Lou was well before his time, and has inspired countless artists from all genres. What a classic, classic song! Still no song like it to this day. What artist other than ‘New York Lou’ could get away with lyrics like: “And the colored girls go doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do doo”?! The lyrics are way too clever and fun not to post in the description so here they are:
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She says, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
He said, ‘Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side’
Candy came from out on the island
In the backroom she was everybody’s darlin’
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
He said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
And the colored girls go
Doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do doo
Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there
New York City’s the place where they said
‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
I said, ‘Hey Joe, take a walk on the wild side’
Sugar plum fairy came and hit the streets
Lookin’ for soul food and a place to eat
Went to the Apollo, you should’ve seen ’em go go go
They said, ‘Hey sugar, take a walk on the wild side’
I said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that bash
She said, ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side’
I said, ‘Hey honey, take a walk on the wild side’
And the colored girls say
Doo do doo, doo do doo, doo do doo