Lou Reed: Songwriter and poet of the dark side - The Buffalo News

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Lou Reed: Songwriter and poet of the dark side

Lou Reed, the father of alternative rock music who co-founded the hugely influential Velvet Underground, died Sunday at the age of 71.

“The world has lost a fine songwriter and poet,” Reed’s former Velvet Underground partner John Cale wrote on Twitter Sunday. “I’ve lost my ‘schoolyard buddy’ ”

Reed died in Southampton of an ailment related to his recent liver transplant, according to his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who added that Reed had been in frail health for months. Reed shared a home in Southampton with his wife and fellow musician, Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008.

Reed routinely wrote about the dark underbelly of American life – songs detailing the life of drug addicts, the destitute and the detritus of American life.

There was an emphasis on peace, love and an idealism that bordered on utopianism in the culture of popular music at the end of the 1960s. But a new school, well studied in the works of the Beat writers and eager to bring an unflinchingly realist approach to the table, was about to make its presence felt as that decade gave way to the 1970s.

Reed, as principal songwriter with the Velvet Underground, painted in stark strokes the East Coast reaction to West Coast idealism. Here was a dark take on American life, an urban view that stood in stark contrast to hippie idealism, and Reed was its chief architect.

The Velvet Underground never became a major commercial concern, but the band’s influence was monumental. While the late ’60s found domestic artists crafting a psychedelic music rooted in American folk, country, blues and jazz, the Underground favored an approach more commonly associated with the European avant-garde. Songs like “Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Femme Fatale” smacked of a grittiness and married a primal pre-punk to Reed’s drone-based compositional tendencies.

Despite its lack of mainstream success, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, largely based on its influence on punk and alternative musicians like David Bowie, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, R.E.M. and U2.

When the Underground disbanded, Reed launched a solo career that would find him pushing the envelope in the areas of glam rock, garage rock, punk, new wave and pop. In 1973, he scored a major hit with “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song that dealt with drag queens, drug use and the lives of down-and-out hustlers. That it was a hit still seems like a miracle all these decades on.

Other songs became standards among his admirers, from “Sweet Jane” to “Pale Blue Eyes” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

An outlaw in his early years, Reed would eventually perform at the White House, have his writing published in the New Yorker, be featured by PBS in an “American Masters” documentary and win a Grammy in 1999 for Best Long Form Music Video.

Reed would prove to be a hit-and-miss proposition as a solo artist. He released several albums that insist on being regarded as classics: the David Bowie-produced “Transformer,” “Berlin,” “Rock and Roll Animal,” “Coney Island Baby” and later “New York,” “Magic & Loss” and “Ecstasy.” He would also baffle his public with decidedly confrontational releases like the all-feedback “Metal Machine Music,” the dark-to-the-point-of-bleakness “Poe” and even the more recent collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.”

Throughout his career, Reed displayed an artistic bullheadedness that spoke of an iconoclast’s tendencies. He seemed to enjoy confronting his audiences with the unexpected, and he never appeared to be concerned with catering to public tastes.

Reed – who grew up middle class, an accountant’s son raised on Long Island – was born to be a suburban dropout. He hated school, loved rock ’n’ roll, fought with his parents and attacked them in song for forcing him to undergo electroshock therapy as a supposed “cure” for being bisexual.

“Families that live out in the suburbs often make each other cry,” he later wrote.

His real break began in college. At Syracuse University, he studied under Delmore Schwartz, whom Reed would call the first “great man” he ever encountered. He credited Schwartz with making him want to become a writer.

Reed moved to New York after college and traveled in the pop and art worlds, working as a house songwriter at the low-budget Pickwick Records and putting in late hours in downtown clubs. Fellow studio musicians included Cale, a Welsh-born viola player. They were joined by a friend of Reed’s from Syracuse, guitarist-bassist Sterling Morrison; and by an acquaintance of Morrison’s, drummer Maureen Tucker, who tapped out simple, hypnotic rhythms while playing standing up.

They renamed themselves the Velvet Underground after a Michael Leigh book about the sexual subculture and by the mid-1960s, they were rehearsing at artist Andy Warhol’s “Factory,” a meeting ground of art, music, orgies, drug parties and screen tests for films.

Many of Reed’s peers and fellow musicians posted their thoughts on Twitter throughout Sunday.

“R.I.P Lou Reed. Walk on the peaceful side,” read a post from the Who.

“My friend Lou Reed came to the end of his song,” posted author Salman Rushdie. “So very sad.”

“RIP Lou Reed. you made the world a better place,” wrote Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

In Buffalo, Reed’s music left an indelible stain on the music scenes represented in clubs like the Continental and Mohawk Place. Bands that displayed a Reed influence included Odiorne, Dark Marbles, Girlpope, Terry Sullivan and Semi-Tough.

Said Brad Solley of Semi-Tough on Sunday: “Lou was Nathan’s Hot Dogs, the Cyclone, street-corner a cappella groups, the dark side of drugs, New York City, and the gorgeous sound of feedback. He was heroic. He made me want to write. He made me want to start a group. I only wish I could have his gift for words, so I could describe what he really meant to me.”

News wire services contributed to this report email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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