NEW YORK - Lou Reed, the great punk poet of rock `n' roll who profoundly influenced generations of musicians as leader of the Velvet Underground and remained a vital solo performer for decades after, died Sunday. He was 71.
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.
Reed never approached the commercial success of such superstars as the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but no songwriter to emerge after Dylan so radically expanded the territory of rock lyrics. And no band did more than the Velvet Underground to open rock music to the avant-garde - to experimental theater, art, literature and film, to William Burroughs and Kurt Weill, to John Cage and Andy Warhol, Reed's early patron.
Indie rock essentially begins in the 1960s with Reed and the Velvets; the punk, New Wave and alternative rock movements of the 1970s, `80s and `90s were all indebted to Reed, whose songs were covered by R.E.M., Nirvana, Patti Smith and countless others.
Reed's trademarks were a monotone of surprising emotional range and power; slashing, grinding guitar; and lyrics that were complex, yet conversational. 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.
At Warhol's suggestion, they performed and recorded with the sultry, German-born Nico, a "chanteuse" who sang lead on a handful of songs from their debut album. A storm cloud over 1967's Summer of Love, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" featured a now-iconic Warhol drawing of a (peelable) banana on the cover and proved an uncanny musical extension of Warhol's blank-faced aura. The Velvets juxtaposed childlike melodies with dry, affectless vocals on "Sunday Morning" and "Femme Fatale." On "Heroin," Cale's viola screeched and jumped behind Reed's obliterating junkie's journey, with his sacred vow, "Herrrrrr-o-in, it's my wife, and it's my life," and his cry into the void, "And I guess that I just don't know."
He lived many lives in the `70s, competing with Keith Richards as the rock star most likely to die. He binged on drugs and alcohol, gained weight and lost even more. Reed simulated shooting heroin during concerts, cursed out journalists and once slugged David Bowie when Bowie suggested he clean up his life. In the 1980s, he kicked drugs and released a series of acclaimed albums, including "The Blue Mask" and "New Sensations."
He continued to receive strong reviews in the 1990s and after for such albums as "Set the Twilight Reeling" and "Ecstasy" and he continued to test new ground, whether a 2002 concept album about Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven," or a 2011 collaboration with Metallica, "Lulu."