Born in Southampton, New York in 1942, Lewis Alan Reed had a sheltered, comfortable start to life life in suburban paradise of the post war affluence that America enjoyed, so much so that it became, as all suburban surroundings do to artistic personalities, stifling. Rejecting the rigidity of the 40’s/50’s at an early stage in development the young Lou began rebelling to authority and got heavily into music, beat poetry and literature.
At the age of 18 in 1960, Lou enrolled into Syracuse university, where he began shaping up a reputation as a very distinct persona, poetic and rejecting all forms of fraternity and systemic affiliations. Lou settled into a place on campus where he would begin penning many of the songs that he would later refine and shape with the Velvet Underground. Associating with many of the literary and musical talents at the university at the time, Reed gathered fragments of characteristics, traits and idiosyncrasies of peers together with his own, resulting in strange tributary relationships with some friends.
The Velvet Underground came about at around 1965, with some musicians around the New York underground scene Lou had played with at some of the parties going on, and in 1966 were taken on by Andy Warhol, who in turn managed and designed the album cover for the self-titled first album release of the band. The visceral and unvarnished lyrics presented in Reed’s signature tone merged with the often berating symphonies of the VU gave them a sound unlike any other on the underground scene at this time. They produced work of a very avant-garde nature, negating the styles prominent in the 60’s, in the process gaining a cult following that included such fans as David Bowie and The Doors’ Jim Morrison. Brian Eno has famously said about the cult following achieved by the VU that though they only ever sold 30,000 copies, “everyone who bought a copy started a band after that”.
The Transformer album (released 1972) was a solo effort by Reed originating from the dissolving of the original members of the Velvet Underground and the realisation that there was still much more that he had to say in music, and taking into account the multifaceted nature of Reeds personality, the title became evident early on. The album is a semi-autobiographical recount of poignant work displaying the narrative of Reed’s time at The Factory with Andy Warhol and many of the unique characters that used to come through there in the second half of the 60’s. Some of the songs like ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ achieved such commercial success that it’s almost a given anyone born in the successive 2 decades will recognize the “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo’s” from the hit single. Lyrics on the album centre mostly around the ideas of sexuality, S&M, cross-dressing, drug addiction and the perverse lifestyles of many of the patrons of the then underground scene in New York. The album was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, which lifted the work and helped shape the intricacies in arrangements that complimented Reed’s haranguing monochromatic style of singing. Influenced by the great beat poet studies of his upbringing and time in University and the desire to mould facets of literature, jazz, rock n roll and modern issues into a musical aesthetic all his own, Reed manufactured his almost talking style of singing as a major character trait instantly recognizable, presenting an ironic delivery for risqué lyrics.
It would be remiss to talk about the hugely influential rock icon on the 3rd anniversary of his death and not mention the fantastically detailed biography on Lou Reed, “Transformer” by Victor Bockris which is available from Harper Collins Publishers (2014) featuring a comprehensive coverage of the life of the music icon. This book covers early life and the many phases and faces of Lou Reed, spliced in with testimonials and anecdotes, inspirations and relationships of the controversial character that helped shape modern music as we know it.
From Lou Reed, we learn the importance of pursuing and engaging with your peculiarities, your own quirks and desires, to observe and take stock of the scene you’re part of, or make one all your own. In the long run, you’ll be moated in monotony unless from time to time, you’re not afraid to take a walk on the wild side.
The date 27th October marks exactly 3 years to the day that the legendary Lou Reed passed away from liver failure. He was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame by Patti Smith on 18th April 2015 in Cleveland.