Rock and Roll Legend Lou Reed Dies at 71

As of Sunday, music has lost yet another great hero. Lou Reed, the pivotal figure in The Velvet Underground and arguably one of the most influential figures in rock and role history, passed away in Long Island this past Sunday. So far the details haven’t been released as to how he died, but Reed received a liver transplant back in May, and had cancelled a number of shows previously due to ailing health.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Reed’s career, spanning almost five decades of rock and roll, was one that embodied the revolutionary change that occurred in the genre in the late 1960’s. At a time when Rock and Roll was extolling the virtues and freedom of the sexual revolution and the ensuing drug culture is created, The Velvet Underground entered the scene with an emphasis on the seedier side of the late sixties: the heroin junkies and the fractured lives that lived just underneath the dingy surface of the sixties.

While Reed’s music could be hauntingly dark, songs like “Sunday Morning” also revealed a tenderness and humanity to his otherwise corrosive subject matter, and as his career went on he was constantly shifting and elaborating his style. His songs also reflect an intelligence that never attempted to be pretentious or preachy, and works like “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” explored subcultures largely ignored by the rest of popular music at the time. The music was simultaneously simple—often relying on only a few chords—and incredibly deep.

The Guardian, in their recent article about Reed’ death, argued that The Velvet Underground’s first album—of the same name—that was released in 1967 could easily be seen as one of the most important in contemporary music history.

“Certainly, it’s hard to think of another record that altered the sound and vocabulary of rock so dramatically, that shifted its parameters so far at a stroke.” The article explains, “Vast trenches of subsequent pop music exist entirely in its shadow: it’s possible that glam rock, punk, and everything that comes loosely bracketed under the terms indie and alt-rock might have happened without it, but it’s hard to see how.”

Despite it’s importance, however, the band’s first album was a commercial disaster: in the first five years it sold only 30,000 copies.

Reed was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Long Island. He was born to Jewish parents and his birth name was Lewis Allen Reed. He had a love of music—particularly rock and jazz—from an early age and was in a number of bands in high school. In 1956 he was forced to undergo electroshock therapy because he was bisexual, and the trauma of the experience would later serve as the inspiration for the 1974 song “Kill Your Sons.”

He met John Cale—who would later go on to form The Velvet Underground with him, along with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker—while working for Pickwick Records in 1964. The two shared an apartment in the Lower East Side and soon started making music together. They were eventually introduced to Andy Warhol, who, despite protests, involved German model and singer Nico in their album. Their relationship with Warhol would be another point of influence that would set their music apart from the bulk of their rock and roll contemporaries. Reed’s connection to the artistic undercurrents swirling around Warhol and The Factory would help him develop his unique brand of sound.

Despite the initial albums commercial failure, Reed’s career was soon in full swing, and the nuances he brought to the genre over the next fifty years would effect generations of music lovers.

He is survived by his wife Laurie Anderson—another musician he worked together with on a number of projects in the 90’s—and the millions of fans worldwide who’s lives have been changed on account of his music.