Reed and the Velvet Underground opened rock music to the avant-garde — to experimental theater, art, literature and film, from William Burroughs to Kurt Weill to Andy Warhol, Reed's early patron. Raised on doo-wop and Carl Perkins, Delmore Schwartz and the Beats, Reed helped shape the punk ethos of raw power, the alternative rock ethos of irony and droning music and the art-rock embrace of experimentation, whether the dual readings of Beat-influenced verse for "Murder Mystery," or, like a passage out of Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," the orgy of guns, drugs and oral sex on the Velvet Underground's 15-minute "Sister Ray."
Reed died in Southampton, N.Y., 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.
His trademarks were a monotone of surprising emotional range and power; slashing, grinding guitar; and lyrics that were complex, yet conversational, designed to make you feel as if Reed were seated next to you. Known for his cold stare and gaunt features, he was a cynic and a seeker who seemed to embody downtown Manhattan culture of the 1960s and '70s and was as essential a New York artist as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Reed's New York was a jaded city of drag queens, drug addicts and violence, but it was also as wondrous as any Allen comedy, with so many of Reed's songs explorations of right and wrong and quests for transcendence.
He had one top 20 hit, "Walk On the Wild Side," and many other songs that became standards among his admirers, from "Heroin" and "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. The Velvet Underground was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1996 and their landmark debut album, "The Velvet Underground & Nico," was added to the Library of Congress' registry in 2006.
Reed called one song "Growing Up in Public" and his career was an ongoing exhibit of how any subject could be set to rock music — the death of a parent ("Standing On Ceremony), AIDS ("The Halloween Parade"), some favorite movies and plays ("Doin' the Things That We Want To"), racism ("I Want to be Black"), the electroshock therapy he received as a teen ("Kill Your Sons").
Reviewing Reed's 1989 topical album "New York," Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote that "the pleasure of the lyrics is mostly tone and delivery — plus the impulse they validate, their affirmation that you can write songs about this stuff. Protesting, elegizing, carping, waxing sarcastic, forcing jokes, stating facts, garbling what he just read in the Times, free-associating to doomsday, Lou carries on a New York conversation — all that's missing is a disquisition on real estate."
He was one of rock's archetypal tough guys, but he grew up middle class — an accountant's son raised on Long Island. Reed 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.