Rock legend Lou Reed, whose punk-minded detachment was best epitomized in the counterculture hit Walk on the Wild Side, died Sunday at age 71.
The urban poet leaves in his uber-cool wake scores of bands — from the Talking Heads to R.E.M. to Nirvana — who no doubt thought their blase patron saint could never be bothered with something as mundane as mortality.
The Brooklyn-born Lewis Allan Reed, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 as a member of art-rock progenitors (and Andy Warhol proteges) the Velvet Underground, had a liver transplant in May to treat liver disease, complications from which reportedly contributed to his death at his home on Long Island.
Called the "cranky god of cool" by Vanity Fair, Mr. Reed is survived by his wife, Laurie Anderson, the noted performance artist. She's the kind of freethinker to whom Mr. Reed — a restless creative spirit with little interest in pure pop formulas — was so often drawn.
Punk rock's simplicity appealed to Mr. Reed, the kind of guy who was no doubt born wearing a leather jacket, black sunglasses and a thicket of who-cares black hair that was rarely obedient. His eyes were large, slightly popped, as if allowing him to see all facets of life, the good and the grimy.
When it came to singing — as on the David Bowie-produced 1972 hit Walk on the Wide Side — well, he often didn't, instead opting for a slow-spoken street-corner news report on the not-so-bright side of everyday life, with sexual deviancy, drugs and related down-low detritus often appearing in his headlines.
Mr. Reed coined the term "ostrich guitar" for his style of strumming. "One chord is fine," Rolling Stone reports him saying of his no-frills axmanship. "Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."
His work — whether with the Velvet Underground in the late '60s and '70s or as a solo act on such masterworks as 1989's New York LP — was often driven by the art and literary scene. Besides his poetry-heavy schooling at Syracuse University, Mr. Reed often said his most influential mentor was iconoclastic provocateur Andy Warhol, who welcomed the Velvet Underground into his "Factory" collective, urging them to hire a female lead.
The result of Warhol's pestering, 1967's ground-breaking Velvet Underground & Nico, was voted the 13th best album of all time by Rolling Stone. With the seven-minute-plus song Heroin, the album was added to the Library of Congress' registry in 2006. The rather scandalous cover art features a "peelable" banana by the puckish Warhol.
Mr. Reed, never afraid to lash out at politicians, was mercurial, cantankerous, a forever contrarian. And yet he was not without his soft side. In 1989, Mr. Reed, who grew up in his native Brooklyn loving doo-wop and R&B, famously inducted Dion, he of Runaround Sue and The Wanderer fame, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is considered one of the institution's most loving, emotional induction speeches.
One of Mr. Reed's final projects was an unlikely, though promising pairing with heavy-metal noisemakers Metallica. Big surprise: A lot of people didn't like the Metallica results. But to Mr. Reed, who once released a double album of guitar feedback, 1975's Metal Machine Music, that blatant snubbing of commercialism was par for the course. "No one I know has listened to it all the way through," Mr. Reed once said proudly about Metal Machine Music, "including myself."
At the news of Mr. Reed's death, an online outpouring of love, appreciation and condolences avalanched forth, including tweets from celebrities as varied as Miley Cyrus, Josh Groban, Neil Patrick Harris and Samuel L. Jackson, who wrote, "The music of my generation. Still Relevant!"
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow him @seandalypoplife on Twitter.