I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom if I can
‘Cause it make me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
Then I tell you things aren’t quite the same
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know.
For thirty-five years Lou Reed has been at the forefront of the avant-garde in popular music. His gritty and realistic vision made him a cultural icon of the disenfranchised urban youth of the 1960s and 1970s. A counterpoint to the booming impersonal economy of the 1980s and 1990s, Reed has asserted a brutal honesty into both his music and lyrics that demands the full attention of contemporary listeners. From punk rock to grunge, Reed has had an unparalleled influence on the American music scene.
Lou Reed was born in Freeport, Long Island in March of 1942. Greatly influenced by the popular Rhythm and Blues of the time, Reed played in a number of bands while still in high school. After graduating, he attended Syracuse University where he developed a defining friendship with poet Delmore Schwartz. A mentor to Reed, Schwartz’s ability to create complex emotional landscapes with a simple vernacular language, impressed on Reed the possibilities within the everyday voice of the streets. After Syracuse, Reed moved to New York, where he worked writing popular songs.
In 1965, along with classically trained violinist and pianist John Cale, bass and guitar player Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and singer Nico, Reed formed the Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground cast off the optimism and light-hearted quality of the popular music of the time and made their mark with songs like “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” which engaged the harrowing urban realities they knew well. More than just an alternative to the prevailing 1960s culture of hippies and flower power, the Velvet Underground was a band with an artistic and political vision beyond the realms of popular music. Produced by Andy Warhol, the Velvet were crucial in introducing and popularizing mixed-media happenings with dancers, projected film, and strobe light shows.
After six years and four albums with the Velvet Underground, Reed embarked on a solo career, in which he continued to challenge prevailing forms with breakthrough albums such as BERLIN (1973), METAL MACHINE MUSIC (1975), and MAGIC AND LOSS (1992). Reed’s lyrics examined taboo adult subjects, extreme life styles, and the urban underground. Speaking of Reed’s groundbreaking work, David Bowie said, “The nature of his lyric writing had been hitherto unknown in rock…he supplied us with the street and the landscape, and we peopled it.”
Reed’s seminal 1972 album TRANSFORMER, produced by David Bowie, signaled the beginning of what music critics termed “glam rock.” Epitomized by gender blurring, highly dramatic lighting, and explosive concert tours, glam rock brought Lou Reed to a new height of fame. Dealing with transsexuality, his song “Walk on the Wild Side,” made it to the top twenty in the United States and the top ten in the United Kingdom. The now classic song was a brave exaltation of the lives of those who remained hidden from most Americans.
In 1987, at Andy Warhol’s funeral, Reed and his former partner John Cale were reunited. “It came to pass afterwards there was this idea,” says Reed “to do a musical biography.” The result was the SONGS FOR DRELLA collaboration—a tribute to Warhol who in his lifetime had been affectionately called Drella (a combination of Dracula and Cinderella). Reed went on to collaborate with the rest of the band and later with Laurie Anderson. Always elusive, always changing, Lou Reed has documented the turbulence of his time with an insight and fascination rare to a popular performer. In the late 1990s his gifts were recognized with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Chevalier Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Government, and the prestigious Hero Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Today he continues his life-long experimentation as both a writer and performer.