Like many unhappy teenagers, Lou Reed found more than a measure of solace in music.
“Listening to the radio absolutely transformed me,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “It was like a huge, major-league signal that there was another world, another life out there … that everything wasn’t as horrible as where I was.”
A giant of rock, Reed sent the same message – as deafeningly harsh as it often was – to generations of punk aficionados and mainstream fans for nearly 50 years. The guitarist, whose dark vision colored music for decades and whose 1960s group the Velvet Underground inspired musicians around the world, died Sunday in Southampton, N.Y., according to his literary agent, Andrew Wylie.
Reed, 71, died of complications from a May liver transplant, Wylie said. In March, Reed had canceled his scheduled appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.
First as the Velvet Underground’s principal songwriter and then as a solo artist, Reed continued to challenge musical and cultural conventions, becoming a pioneer of what came to be known as art rock and punk rock. Summing up Reed’s influence, music producer Brian Eno once said that although the Velvet Underground sold only 30,000 copies of its debut album in five years, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
On Sunday, Greg Harris, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said in a statement that Reed “cultivated a singular musical aesthetic that managed to be both arty and earthy, reflecting his college-educated yet streetwise-honed rock and roll narratives.”
His work “provided the framework for generations of artists,” Harris said, including Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, R.E.M. and U2.
Reed was inducted into the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, well after he was established as a global figure. Vaclav Havel, the writer and Czech Republic president who led the 1989 uprising known as the Velvet Revolution, extolled Reed and hosted him in Prague. In 1998, at Havel’s request, Reed performed at a White House dinner in Havel’s honor.
Although cutting-edge, Reed was credited with “introducing avant-garde rock to the mainstream,” Neil Portnow, president and chief executive of the Recording Academy, an industry group, said Sunday. “His uniquely stripped-down style of guitar playing and poetic lyrics have had a massive influence across many rock genres.”
Reed reveled in his music’s simplicity.
“One chord is fine,” he once said. “Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”
A sonic assault was as important to Reed as his emotionally raw lyrics, and fans delighted in both.
“I met Lou Reed and told him he gave me tinnitus at a concert in 1989 that never went away and it was worth it,” comedy star Judd Apatow tweeted Sunday.
John Cale, the Velvet Underground’s original keyboardist and viola player, on Sunday called Reed “a fine songwriter and poet.”
“I’ve lost my ‘school-yard buddy,’ ” he said in a Twitter message.
Graduating from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1964, Reed headed for New York City. The following year, he first performed with Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen “Moe” Tucker – a provocative bunch who came to call themselves the Velvet Underground.
The idea was to be exactly what the mid-’60s were not. The Velvet Underground aimed to rip the petals off flower power and focus on grimmer urban landscapes. It would not play blues or indulge in the popular R&B licks of the day, Reed vowed.
By the time the Velvet Underground dissolved in 1970, the group had released four albums and recorded enough material for the release of two others in the mid-1980s. Its best-known songs include “Sweet Jane” and “I’m Waiting for the Man.”
Reed also had a number of smash hits of his own. In his 1972 album “Transformer,” produced with David Bowie, he sang his famous “Walk on the Wild Side,” an anthem to a variety of sexual experiences.
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