CHICAGO -- Lou Reed never had quite the notoriety or sales of ‘60s peers such as the Beatles or Bob Dylan -- his only major commercial hit was "Walk on the Wild Side." But his influence was just as vast, if not more so. Punk, post-punk and most strains of underground music of the last 40 years would not exist without the one-of-a-kind merger of music and words pioneered by Reed and his groundbreaking band, the Velvet Underground.
Reed died Sunday at 71 in Southampton, N.Y., of an ailment related to a liver transplant he underwent in May, his literary agent said.
He leaves behind one of the most profound musical legacies of any 20th century artist. His lyrics suggested a new kind of street poetry, at once raw and literary. His music -- conceived with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker in the Velvet Underground -- merged primitivism with sophisticated avant-garde ideas.
The Velvets made four landmark studio albums before crumbling in 1970, each a template for the underground music to follow. The artists in their debt include R.E.M. , David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads, Roxy Music, U2 and Patti Smith, and stretch from Iceland (Bjork) to South America (Os Mutantes).
In a 1992 interview with the Tribune, Reed explained his daring mix of high and low art. He wanted nothing to do with the middle-brow territory occupied by most rock music in the ‘60s and beyond.
"I was an English major in college, for chrissakes," Reed said. "I ought to be able to put together a good lyric at the very least. It would be embarrassing if I couldn't.
"And I really like rock. It's party stuff, dance stuff and R&B stuff that we all grew up on and loved. But I wanted something that would engage you mentally, that you could listen to on another level. I just thought that would be the perfect thing in rock ‘n' roll. That 10 years from now you could still listen to one of my albums because it wasn't just a party record, but something that would engage you emotionally, intellectually, if not spiritually, on the level that a novel can.
"And because you also have music going on, you could do something that no other form could do, especially if someone is listening on headphones. You could really get their attention and really take them someplace. You're joining the voice in their head with your voice-there's no one else there."
Reed, born in Brooklyn in 1942, grew up in a middle-class family and went on to study at Syracuse University, where he was mentored by the famed poet Delmore Schwartz. His staunch interest in Beat literature and classic soul and doo-wop was perhaps underutilized in his job as staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York, but the for-hire tunesmithing sharpened his affinity for writing simple two- or three-chord melodies.
"I wanted to be a writer, always did," he once said. "Ever since elementary school I was writing songs, and I've essentially been able to survive by writing. I consider myself really, really lucky."
In the mid-'60s, he befriended Cale, a classically trained musician from Wales, who brought a cutting-edge sense of harmonics and texture to Reed's melodies.
"I'd never met anyone like Lou who could put words together like that," Cale said. "He would create these dangerous scenarios in the songs."
Reed's songs put society's misfits, outcasts and pariahs at the center, and not in a judgmental way.
The epic "Heroin," its dire scene set by the ebb and surge of the guitars and Cale's viola, focused on a junkie. As shocking as the subject matter was when Reed and his bandmates began performing it in New York City clubs in 1965, "Heroin" was a nuanced and tragic first-person portrayal of addiction. It's a song about free will as much as drugs, about how a desperate person might try to escape or erase a world that he no longer comprehends. The junkie lives for his fix, even as he realizes that it will some day "nullify" him.
"All the way back to ‘Heroin,' the idea was to tell stories from different points of view, with conflicting opinions," Reed told the Tribune.
"Some of it can seem very personal, or at least it comes across that way, because you're acting. And then you can write something equally personal that's completely at odds with what the first person said. Any great novel has lots of ‘personal things' floating through it, whatever the character you're writing about."
Reed's lyrics looked at transgressive subjects, whether sadomasochism ("Venus in Furs") or drug dealing ("Waiting for the Man"), with a storyteller's eye for detail and a poet's flair for wordplay. The music could be ferociously violent or deeply sensitive, expanding the vocabulary of the rock quartet to include Eastern, European, classical and experimental impulses.
But the band was never widely understood in its time, and Reed left at the start of the ‘70s to pursue a solo career. His work was soon championed by a new wave of bands out of England and New York, including the New York Dolls, Sex Pistols and Patti Smith, and Reed became the "godfather of punk."
Along the way, Reed went from a widely misunderstood, even reviled underground figure into an international man of letters, published author and respected artist.
His last major project was a deeply divisive collaboration with Metallica, "Lulu." It was in keeping with a history that includes its share of controversial releases, such as the all-instrumental noise album "Metal Machine Music" in 1975 and the brutal rock opera "Berlin" in 1973.