Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Lou Reed, lead singer of the Velvet Underground and a rock ‘n’ roll icon for nearly five decades, passed away Oct. 27 from liver failure related illnesses, following a transplant early this year. The 71-year-old rocker was known for his heavy abuse of drugs and alcohol, apparent in lyrics such as the Velvet Underground’s classic “Heroin.” “Heroin, be the death of me / Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life.”
The Velvet Underground, while a commercial flop during their career, is cited as one of the most influential bands of the 60s. Brian Eno, an English composer known for his work with David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Talking Heads, is famously quoted as saying that though fewer than 30,000 copies of their first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, were sold in the first five years after its release, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” Rolling Stone ranks them the 19th greatest band of all time and their first album the 13th greatest album of all time, calling it the “most prophetic rock album ever made.” They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Started by Reed and friend John Cale in the mid-60s, the Velvet Underground was managed by Andy Warhol, who incorporated them into his Exploding Plastic Inevitable events and made them the house band of his famous studio, The Factory. Reed’s dismal, yet thoughtful lyrics were construed as both tender and deeply nihilistic. Tracks like “Sunday Morning” and “Pale Blue Eyes” strike a nerve of emotional pangs, while tracks like “I’m Waiting For the Man” and “What Goes On,” sport the transcending, looping guitar riffs and solos that make one want to put on a leather jacket and sunglasses and kick over a half-stack guitar amp. Their simple song structure, matter-of-fact, yet allegorical lyrics, and raw, unnerved use of distortion and noise brought good old American rock ‘n’ roll and the avant garde European art pop genres crashing together, revolutionizing rock across the globe. Lou Reed the Velvets effectively began the indie rock movement beside the likes of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, paving the way for both punk and new wave in the 70s.
After the Velvet Underground split in 1970, Reed started his solo career, pumping out album after album of chameleonesque tunes. Although his intention seemed to avoid any sort of commercial success or recognition, his song “Walk on the Wild Side” became a radio hit.
Reed was not always on good terms with his record label, RCA. He preferred to be called a product, rather than an artist, saying: “product can talk about product and artist can talk about art, but product cannot talk about art…That’s like margarine trying to talk about butter.”
Apart from throwing up defensive walls of detachment from mainstream success, he was also known for being extremely elusive and hostile in interviews. When he was being lucid and coherent, he would respond in ways that would confuse the questioner or in simple, one-word answers.
Despite his feign for near anonymity and inapproachability behind a leather jacket and sunglasses, after the news of his death was confirmed, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were flocked by mourners. Millions of fans, including celebrities like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and Salman Rushdie, typed and texted their condolensces.
Lou Reed was complex. He was inspiring, infuriating, and irreplaceable. In the wake of his death, the opening lines of his classic tune “Satellite of Love” come to mind: “Satellite’s gone up to the skies / things like that drive me out of my mind.” Rest in Peace, Lou.
Dillon Sweigart is a fouth-year student majoring in Liberal Studies. He can be reached at

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