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No superstar, just an icon

Poet's imprint on rock huge

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Lou Reed onstage at the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, Aug. 9, 2009. He was the first to fuse rock with the avant-garde.


Lou Reed onstage at the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, Aug. 9, 2009. He was the first to fuse rock with the avant-garde.

NEW YORK -- Lou Reed, the 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 at 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 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 theatre, art, literature and film, to William Burroughs and Kurt Weill, to John Cage and Andy Warhol, Reed's early patron.

Indie rock essentially began in the 1960s with Reed and the Velvets. Likewise, 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.

"The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years," Brian Eno, who produced albums by Roxy Music and Talking Heads among others, once said. "I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!"

Reed's trademarks were a monotone of surprising emotional range and power; slashing, grinding guitar and lyrics that were complex yet conversational, designed to make you feel as if Reed were seated next to you.

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, including Heroin, Sweet Jane, Pale Blue Eyes and All Tomorrow's Parties.

Raised on doo-wop and Carl Perkins, Delmore Schwartz and the Beats, Reed helped shape the punk ethos of raw power, the alternative rock ethos of irony and droning music and the art-rock embrace of experimentation, whether the dual readings of Beat-influenced verse for Murder Mystery, or, like a passage out of Burroughs' Naked Lunch, the orgy of guns, drugs and oral sex on the Velvets' 15-minute Sister Ray.

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 its debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was added to the Library of Congress' registry in 2006.

He was one of rock's archetypal tough guys, but he grew up middle-class -- an accountant's son raised on Long Island. He hated school, loved rock 'n' roll, fought with his parents and attacked them in song for forcing him to undergo electroshock therapy as a supposed "cure" for being bisexual. "Families that live out in the suburbs often make each other cry," he later wrote.

In one of his final appearances in Canada, Reed took to the stage with Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith and others during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics to pay tribute to fellow musical icon Neil Young.

And he returned months later for a Montreal International Jazz Festival for an avant-garde performance with widow Laurie Anderson and composer John Zorn.

Reed performed numerous shows in Canada going back decades, with early solo shows in Toronto and Montreal in the 1970s, according to concert tracking service SongKick.

British musician and former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett told Britain's the Guardian newspaper fights broke out between Genesis and Reed supporters when the progressive rock band opened for Reed in a 1973 gig at Toronto's Massey Hall.

"There were people who wanted to watch Genesis, and people who wanted to watch Lou Reed. And that deteriorated into a punch-up between the Lou Reed fans who were on downers, and the Genesis fans who were more into Earl Grey tea," Hackett told the paper in 2011.

Several Canadian musicians took to Twitter to remember Reed Sunday.

"Just got some sad news... Lou Reed has passed away. Huge loss. No words," tweeted singer-songwriter Sexsmith.

"Can't overstate lou reed's influence on me. inspired me not to take the easy road. got his words on my arm. RIP," said rapper Cadence Weapon.

"Transformer is a timeless record. RIP LOU," said ex-Alexisonfire member Wade MacNeil of Reed's 1972 album that had the classic hit Walk on the Wild Side.

"Dear Lou Reed, please rest in peace," said pop-rocker Leslie Feist.

-- The Associated Press, with files from The Canadian Press


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2013 0

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