The Record
10:12 pm
Sun October 27, 2013

Lou Reed, Beloved Contrarian, Dies

Originally published on Sun October 27, 2013 4:59 pm

One of rock's most beloved and contrarian figures has died. Lou Reed epitomized New York City's artistic underbelly in the 1970s, with his songs about hookers and junkies. He was 71.

Reed died Sunday morning on Long Island of complications from a liver transplant earlier this year, his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, said.

The famous iconoclast actually got his start as a staff songwriter pumping out pop tunes in a wannabe hit factory called Pickwick Records. Reed recalled his days as a frothy pop lyricist in a 1989 NPR interview.

"When I first started out I really liked the spontaneity of it, cause you know I've got a B.A. in English — not that that means I should be good at it, but it gives me some kind of background in it," he said. "I thought I was pretty fast."

Lou Reed was fast. In more ways than one. He went from hit factory to Andy Warhol's Factory, the epicenter of trashy, avant-garde experimentation in '60s New York. Warhol mentored Reed and his band, The Velvet Underground. He urged them to keep things gritty. The band's Welsh co-founder, John Cale, told NPR in 2000 that the band was never easy listening.

"We were not user-friendly at all," he says. "Anyone listening to a bass guitar and regular guitar coming out of the same amp — it couldn't have been a really great listening experience."

Beyond their sound, The Velvet Underground disturbed even hard-core scenesters with graphic songs about debauchery and doing drugs. In an interview on WHYY's Fresh Air, drummer Moe Tucker remembered performing the song "Heroin": "We got fired from the Cafe Bizarre," she said. "The woman came rushing up to us and said, 'If you play one more song like that you're fired.' "

They did, and they were, and the band's albums did not sell very well. Reed left and embarked on a spotty solo career that reflected his up and down life enthralled with New York's darker corners and the hustlers who hid there.

"Walk on the Wild Side" became Reed's only Top 40 hit, partly because a number of radio station programmers had no idea what it was really about. The album it came from, Transformer -- co-produced by David Bowie — brought Reed critical acclaim and attention. Which Reed, in characteristic fashion, hated. That played out in interviews, including one in 1989 with NPR's Bob Edwards, who asked Reed about his choice of subjects.

"I mean, it might be harder to write about a chair," he said. "As a matter of fact, it would be harder to write about a chair. I mean, I could write a song about a chair: Who sat in this chair. Who built this chair. How long had this chair been here. You could do that."

And a few years later, while promoting his album The Raven, Reed vented to another NPR host, who wanted to know how other journalists had somehow mixed up Reed's original lyrics with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

"Well, if you're deaf, dumb and retarded, it's easy. I can't believe people interview me for this stuff and don't notice," he says. "I grade them and I put them on my website when they fail really badly, to warn other people, other musicians: 'Watch out for this interviewer.' It's like talking to a squirrel."

As ornery as Reed was with journalists, he was often supportive of other artists. He influenced REM, The Replacements and Talking Heads, and he collaborated with musicians ranging from Metallica to a young woman he met at a concert.

"I just said, 'Hey, hey Lou Reed. This is Emily Haines.' " Haines talked to NPR in 2012 about her band, Metric. She said Reed asked her if she would rather be in The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. She said The Velvet Underground. Then she asked if he would sing on her album. "I just asked him, and he said, 'Yes.' "

When Reed was not onstage or working with other artists, he was happiest in New York City, where he mellowed into a Lower Manhattan elder statesman, riding his bike, practicing tai chi and taking photos. He could get cranky about his own composition.

"I did not place that stupid bird there," he said in an interview he gave Weekend Edition in 2006, walking around his neighborhood with his camera. "The light comes and goes so quickly when it's perfect. You know that. There's a certain time in the morning, certain time around dusk, where the light is golden."

An ephemeral moment, like Warhol's Factory. Or a city sunset. "And I wanted to catch that," he said. Lou Reed caught it — on celluloid and vinyl.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICIOUS")

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's kind of hard to say: Lou Reed is dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VICIOUS")

LOU REED: (Singing) Vicious. You hit me with a flower.

RATH: It's weird that someone as prickly and contrarian as Reed, someone who challenged his fans constantly and took pleasure in insulting critics for decades, leaves the world beloved. Reed epitomized New York City's alternative scene in the 1960s and '70s. His band, The Velvet Underground, defined the sound of Lower Manhattan, dissonant and dirty, an antidote to the hippie naivete of the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M WAITING FOR MY MAN")

REED: (Singing) I'm waiting for my man, 26 dollars in my hand.

RATH: Here's Patti Smith introducing The Velvet Underground at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATTI SMITH: They were a band of opposites, shooting freely from pole to pole without apology, with dissonant beauty, trampling the flowers of peacemakers, treading the blind depths, black in a white world, white in a black world. They opened wounds worth opening with brutal innocence without apology.

RATH: Lou Reed underwent a liver transplant in May of this year. This morning, he died of complications from the transplant. He was 71 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The famous iconoclast actually got his start as a staff songwriter pumping out pop tunes at a wannabe hit factory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVE HER FOR ME")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Take away the ocean. Take away the sea. Take away the sunshine, take away the tree.

ULABY: Lou Reed recalled his days as a frothy pop lyricist in a 1989 NPR interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REED: When I first started out, I really liked the spontaneity of it, because, you know, I've got a B.A. in English - and not that that means I should be good at it, but it gives me some kind of background at it, so at least I ought to be able to write my own name down. And I thought I was pretty fast.

ULABY: Lou Reed was fast in more ways than one. He went from hit factory to Andy Warhol's Factory, the epicenter of trashy avant-garde experimentation in 1960s New York. Warhol mentored Reed and his band, The Velvet Underground. He urged them to keep things gritty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES")

ULABY: The band's Welsh co-founder, John Cale, told NPR in the year 2000 that the band was never easy listening.

JOHN CALE: We were not user-friendly at all. Anybody listening to a bass guitar and a regular guitar coming out of the same amp, it couldn't have been a really great listening experience.

ULABY: Beyond their sound, The Velvet Underground disturbed even hardcore scenesters with graphic songs about debauchery and doing drugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN")

REED: (Singing) I'm gonna try to nullify my life 'cause when the blood begins to flow, when it shoots up the dropper's neck, when I'm closing in on death...

ULABY: Drummer Moe Tucker remember performing the song "Heroin" in an interview on WHYY's FRESH AIR.

MOE TUCKER: We got fired from the Cafe Bizarre because the woman said - came rushing up to us and said, if you play one more song like that, you're fired.

ULABY: They did, and they were, and the band's albums did not sell very well. Lou Reed left and embarked on a spotty solo career that reflected his up-and-down life enthralled with New York's darker corners and the hustlers who hid there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ON THE WILD SIDE")

REED: (Singing) Little Joe never once gave it away. Everybody had to pay and pay. A hustle here and a hustle there, New York City is the place where they said, hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side. I said, hey, Joe, take a walk on the wild side.

ULABY: "Walk on the Wild Side" became Reed's only Top 40 hit, partly because a number of radio station programmers had no idea what it was really about. The album it came from, "Transformer," co-produced by David Bowie, brought Lou Reed critical acclaim and attention, which Reed, in characteristic fashion, hated. That played out in interviews, including one with Bob Edwards, who asked Reed about his choice of subjects in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REED: I mean, it might be harder to write about a chair. And as a matter of fact, it would be harder to write about a chair.

BOB EDWARDS: Yeah, I would think so. Yeah.

REED: I mean, I could write a song about a chair: Who sat in this chair, who built this chair, how long had this chair been here. You could do that.

ULABY: And a few years later, while promoting his album "The Raven," Lou Reed vented to another NPR host who wanted to know how other journalists had somehow mixed up Reed's original lyrics with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

REED: If you're deaf, dumb and retarded, it's easy. I can't believe people interview me for this stuff and don't notice. I mean, that's - you know, I grade them, and I put them on my website when they fail really badly, to warn other people, other musicians - watch out for this interviewer. It's like talking to a squirrel.

ULABY: As ornery as Lou Reed was with journalists, he was often supportive of other artists. He influenced REM, The Replacements, Talking Heads, and he collaborated with musicians ranging from Metallica to a young woman he met at a concert.

EMILY HAINES: So I just said: Hey, Lou Reed. This is Emily Haines.

ULABY: Haines talked to NPR in 2012 about her band, Metric. She said Reed asked her if she would rather be in The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. She said The Velvet Underground, then would he sing on her album?

HAINES: I just asked him. And he said yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANDERLUST")

HAINES: (Singing) I never wanted to go home.

REED: (Singing) The wanderlust will carry us on.

RATH: When Lou Reed was not onstage or working with other artists, he was happiest in New York City where he mellowed into a Lower Manhattan elder statesman, riding his bike, practicing tai chi and taking photos. He could get cranky about his own compositions.

REED: Now, I did not place that stupid bird there.

ULABY: Lou Reed in 2006, walking around his neighborhood with his camera.

REED: The light comes and goes so quickly when it's perfect. You know that. There's a certain time in the morning, certain time around dusk, where the light is golden.

ULABY: An ephemeral moment, like Warhol's Factory or a city sunset.

REED: And I wanted to catch that.

ULABY: Lou Reed caught it on celluloid and on vinyl. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFECT DAY")

REED: (Singing) Oh, it's such a perfect day. I'm glad I spent it with you.

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter @nprwatc. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and keep it gritty. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.