Singer Lou Reed, front man of the 1960s band “The Velvet Underground” has died.
There is a difference in show business between being popular and being influential. Lou Reed was certainly one but not the other. Mark Jenkins, a music writer for the Washington Post
, pointed out that while Reed recorded many albums during the peak of his career, none of them sold very well.
"By and large they weren't played on the radio," he added." But they contained songs that are now very well-known."
With his complex, journalistic lyrics and his intimate style of singing, Reed and the Velvet Underground had a greater impact than other bands of the era who were much more financially successful.
“The people who listened to them turned out to be people like David Bowie, Brian Eno, Patty Smith, Talking Heads and so forth,” Jenkins noted.
Reed was born on New York’s Long Island. He started playing guitar at age 10. At Syracuse University he studied with poet Delmore Schwartz, a man novelist Saul Bellow once called, “The Mozart of conversation.” In a 1998 PBS documentary, Reed talked about the impact Schwartz had on his writing.
“There was an example of how the simplest language imaginable -- very short -- you could accomplish the most astonishing height of art,” Reed said.
After college, Reed moved to New York City he and a string instrumentalist named John Cale took to singing on the street in Harlem. In 1965 they teamed up with Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to form the "The Velvet Underground." At exactly that time, Andy Warhol was looking for a band to play in a multimedia installation he was creating. When he heard the Velvet Underground, he knew he had found what he was looking for.
Their association with Warhol made the Velvets the darlings of the New York art world, but it was after they broke away from him that they had their greatest impact. The music world was changing in the mid-1970s and the loud, angry, cynical, feedback-laden music they played would come to influence a generation of younger musicians.
“The very first record that pointed me in the direction of punk rock was the first Velvet Underground, ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico.’ I'd never heard anything like it,” confided Steve Hansgen, the bass player for the influential “Straight Edge” punk band Minor Threat.
“The song ‘Run, Run, Run’ off the first Velvet Underground album is very pounding, very punk rock, very distorted," Hansgen said.
That song, he added, made a distinct impression on him and his bandmates as they got ready to record the song that gave Minor Threat its name.
“I know that Lyle Pressler, the guitar player in Minor Threat who wrote that song, was definitely very influenced by Velvet Underground,” he said.
Jenkins said Hansgen’s experience was not an isolated one.
“The songs were simple but the sound was complex. And that was an influence on punk rock,” he explained.
Throughout his career, Lou Reed cultivated an attitude and a series of characters. He was thought by many to be gay, though he was married to three different women through his life. He was also thought to be a heavy drug user. But Jenkins said the reputation was not his real life.
“I know he sang about heroin, he sang about amphetamines, but my impression is that he really took a lot more alcohol than opiates," the writer said. "And that may explain the liver damage.”
And it was liver damage that finally - on October 27 - brought an end to Reed’s life and to his broad and influential career.
This tweet from Reed's account is widely believed to have been a veiled announcement of his passing: