Black and white promo photo of Lou Reed
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

Lou Reed

2015
Category:
Performers

Frank, brutal and brilliant.

Lou Reed had everything you could want in a rockstar: boundary-smashing guitar solos, a dry, combative voice and a tough as nails persona that never impeded his vulnerable songwriting.

Biography

To the top

Lou Reed's songs, both with the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, constitute a body of work that ranks with Dylan and Lennon-McCartney as among the most significant and influential songwriting catalogues of the twentieth century.

Reed was both an artistic exhibitionist and an intensely private man; a restless experimental soul and an ardent fan dedicated to the most elemental, even conservative, principles of rock and roll; a writer with the highest literary aspirations and a guitarist with a boundless love of distortion and noise. He is best known for his most daring, provocative moments, but he has also written ballads that are heartbreakingly moving in their sensitivity, their lack of sentimentality, and their profound emotional insight. According to Doug Yule, a former member of the Velvet Underground, Reed’s toughness “protected his core, the gentleness that comes out in a lot of his work.” Sustaining such dualities without reducing any aspect of them to a cliché is essential to understanding Lou Reed and his work.

Like Keith Richards or Bob Dylan, Reed is as much a symbolic figure as an artist. Well beyond the incalculable impact of his music, he stands for an unwavering determination to follow his own creative path and repel compromise. He allows the characters in his songs to live and act on entirely amoral terms, but ultimately he views the world that they and we move through according to a strict moral code. It’s a vision and approach reminiscent of Martin Scorsese, whom Reed specifically cites in his song “Doin’ the Things That We Want To,” which is something of an aesthetic manifesto.

“It reminds me of the movies Marty made about New York,” he sings. “Those frank and brutal movies that are so brilliant.”

Frank, brutal and brilliant can be applied to Reed’s songwriting as well. That work so demanding and individual could help shape the creativity of so many artists over the course of so many years—not to mention move so many listeners—is a tribute to its quality and power. Reed’s gift was his ability to discover the universal in the rigorously specific.

A product of Brooklyn and Long Island, he was a quintessential New York artist. But Lou Reed was not a documentarian. His New York is as fully invented a world as James Joyce’s Dublin, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey Shore. Like Scorsese and Woody Allen, Reed grounded his portrayal of the city in reality, but his own sensibility shaped the characters and situations he chronicled. His New York is an imaginative environment, as visceral, internal and subjective as it is three-dimensional and real. It exists most vividly not in reality but in his chilling depictions of it in song.

From his college days at Syracuse University studying with the poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, Reed viewed himself in literary terms. He eventually became one of his own creations, a strategy of self-invention he learned from Andy Warhol, who discovered the Velvet Underground and produced their first two albums.

Throughout his long solo career, Reed often spoke about the “Lou Reed” persona he occasionally inhabited, the fearsome image he crafted for himself as a means of keeping the world, or at least the parts of it that he desperately wanted to avoid, at bay. Journalists in particular felt the lash of Reed’s tongue, the savage attack or sharp dismissal that signaled his disapproval; the irony, of course, is that throughout his career, journalists were his strongest advocates. It was a self-protective strategy he learned from Bob Dylan—like the infamous scene in Don’t Look Back (1967) in which Dylan eviscerates a reporter from Time.

Like Dylan, Reed’s anger disguised a fear of being trapped within anyone else’s expectations, however benign they might be. Control was everything. At a memorial service after Reed’s death, his wife, Laurie Anderson, addressed that element of his life quite beautifully. “People who knew him also sometimes experienced his anger and his fury,” she said. “But in the last few years, each time he was angry it was followed by an apology, until the anger and the apology got closer and closer, until they were almost on top of each other. Lou knew what he was doing and what he was going for, and his incredible complexity and his anger was one of the biggest parts of his beauty.”

Reed, characteristically, spoke about it far more bluntly. “God forbid I should ever be nice to people, it would ruin everything,” Reed once said, only half-jokingly. “The fact is, it works well, being thought to be difficult, because then people just won’t ask you to do things you don’t want to do. Being a nice guy? That’s a disaster. You’re just asking for trouble. People think, ‘Oh, he’s a nice guy, let’s work him over.’ As opposed to ‘Him? Forget it. He’ll rip your throat out.’”

Reed’s don’t-mess-with-me reputation extends back to the 1967 debut of his original band, the Velvet Underground, who more or less invented alternative rock. While the rest of the music world was basking in the bright pastel colors of the Summer of Love, Reed was writing songs like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” tales from the darkest corners of New York’s netherworld. He depicted a realm separate from the hippie paradise of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district by much more than a mere 3,000 miles. At that moment, Reed opened rock and roll up to the forbidden themes addressed in the most provocative fiction of that era, like William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. He unflinchingly tackled such subjects as heroin addiction, sadomasochism, homosexuality and violence.

Commercially, the album was a disaster. Brian Eno famously remarked that, while the first Velvet Underground album sold only 30,000 copies, everybody who bought it formed a band. That’s scarcely an exaggeration. Every alternative movement for the next half century and counting—from punk to new wave to grunge and beyond—can be traced back to that album. David Bowie, R.E.M., U2, Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam and Radiohead, along with dozens of other artists and bands, all claim the group as an indelible influence. If Reed and the Velvets had never made another album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) alone would have justified their election to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

The Velvets broke up in 1970, after which Reed embarked on a solo career of nearly equal significance. Younger musicians embraced his music and looked up to him as an artist who insisted on remaining vital and not conforming to whatever trends defined whatever moment. Albums such as Transformer (1972), Street Hassle (1978), The Blue Mask (1982), New York (1989), Magic and Loss (1992) and Ecstasy (2000) stand as eloquent and potent extensions of his work with the Velvet Underground. Songs for Drella, his 1990 collaboration with John Cale, a co-founding member of the Underground, is a stark, moving tribute to Andy Warhol. Even albums like Berlin (1973) and Metal Machine Music (1975), which were reviled upon release and came close to ending Reed’s career, have since been fully recognized for their boldness, impact and importance.

As Reed grew older, his artistic restlessness never abated. Increasingly, he identified with artists outside the realm of rock and roll. He collaborated on theater pieces with Robert Wilson, published books of photography and composed instrumental music designed to accompany his practice of tai chi. His marriage to Laurie Anderson only further encouraged his artistic adventurousness; she is a central figure in the intellectual avant-garde whose seriousness and ambition Reed strongly identified with.

Indeed, throughout his life Reed maintained a great love of popular music in its most commercial forms, but he hated to be perceived in those terms himself. At many points in his solo career, he actively resisted the safe move that would have brought him greater sales and a larger audience. He frequently pointed out that if he were writing novels or plays or making films, none of the themes he explored would have generated much controversy at all—controversy that, he believed, often drowned out meaningful discussion of his songs.

Talking about his lifetime of recorded music, Reed once said, “If you thought of it as a book, then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. It tells you all about me...what it was like for one person, trying to do the best he could, with all the problems that go along with [that]. Except mine took place in public. And I wrote about that too.”

If Reed was guarded and self-protective in his life, he was fearless in his work. His successes speak for themselves, but even his failures inspired younger artists, who saw them as expressions of his unwillingness to work on anyone’s terms but his own. After his death from liver disease on October 27, 2013, it became clear—even to anyone who may have doubted it—how deeply people felt about his work. Reed’s importance rested on his music, but extended far beyond that.

Ultimately, it was about conviction. Reed’s certainty that his need to follow his own artistic journey overrode any other consideration proved an inspiration for millions of people. He provided the best lesson they could learn, one that was uplifting and liberating. In his life and his work, they discovered the freedom to be themselves. He sang about doing the things that we want to do, and we all heard him and took it to heart.

Inductee: Lou Reed (born March 2, 1942, died October 27, 2013)

Read full bio

Lou Reed performs with Metallica

To the top

Inductees

To the top

Get More Artist Stories

To the top