He was an avatar of cool, who set a standard that an entire generation within New York and without it tried and more often than not failed to match. Lewis Allan Reed could be as understated musically as the three letters of the single-syllable he went by for decades—Lou—but the mark he leaves behind him in style and aesthetic has become synonymous not only with the chic notion of hipness that stems from grainy photos of 1970s Manhattan grit, but the sonic complement to the aesthetic singularity that was Andy Warhol’s brutalization and turning-upside-down of pop.
Born in 1942 in Brooklyn, Reed first came to prominence working with John Cale in The Velvet Underground, emerging from the earlier The Primitives to release The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967, the striking banana artwork and prominent signature making plain the band’s partnership with Warhol in his collective, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Drugs and tumult were never far off. Reed and Cale had different goals for the band, were unhappy at Warhol’s having brought in Nico, etc., but that album—one of the greatest in the six decades of rock’s history—stands as a catalog of the time. If Reed had done nothing else, The Velvet Underground & Nico, with songs like “Venus In Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” would still make him a legend.
Of course, Reed did keep going. After initially splitting with The Velvet Underground following their fourth album, Loaded, in 1970, he went on to establish himself with a solo career spanning the next 40-plus years, producing the landmark “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Perfect Day” singles on 1972’s sophomore outing, Transformer, with his deadpan vocal delivery providing the perfect underpinning of irony—a wink to those in the know—that undercut any chance of optimism leaking through. The 1970s and 1980s would bring more success as Reed boldly married experimentalism with pop songwriting, taking poetry and turning it into lyric and becoming the poster child of the urbane on records like Berlin (1973), Rock And Roll Heart (1976) and New York (1989), going on to influence two generations since of musicians and fashion plates.
The Velvet Underground played a reunion in 1990 and were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996. Their last appearance was in 2009 at a group interview at the New York Public Library. Reed’s solo work, however, continued throughout the ‘90s and into the 2000s, albeit at a slower pace than decades prior. He performed and wrote even up to 2011’s unlikely partnership with Metallica, Lulu, was released to two audiences that rarely intersect and given a suitably raised-eyebrow welcome. Though he contributed to Metric’s song “The Wanderlust,” in 2012, Lulu would be his final studio outing, either solo or collaboration, and if nothing else it proves that he held firm to his interest in pushing boundaries and pushing buttons throughout his entire career.
Earlier in 2013, Reed had a liver transplant and reported himself healthy afterwards. At press time, the cause of his death is unclear, but the legacy Reed leaves behind him is set in stone and will remain for much longer than a single life ever could, his influence having bled irrevocably into the iconography of 20th century American malaise. His image, his sound, his style were entirely his own and now belong to the greater public consciousness. For those of us in this area, he embodied and will continue to embody something in our character that the rest of the world simply will never fully understand.