Lou Reed is known to more casual music fans as the guy who did “Walk on the Wild Side,” (his sole Top 20 hit) and was a founding member of the innovative 60s New York outfit The Velvet Underground. Going deeper, though, exposes vast creative riches, odd poetic muses and a category defying artistic wildness that shifted personas easily, from glam-rocker to rock and roller and avante garde oddball. His lyrics often entered forbidden sexual and drug-themed territory, and his body of work is so uncompromising in its honesty that he’s cited often as a true ancestor of the punk spirit.
Native New Yorker Reed made his recording debut with the Shades in 1957, and upon graduating from Syracuse University, he became a contract songwriter with Pickwick Records, which specialized in cash-in, exploitative recordings. Forming a band called The Primitives to promote his novelty tune “The Ostrich,” Reed met John Cale, who would soon become his partner in The Velvet Underground. Reed led the Underground from 1966-1970, with songs that blended R&B flavors with a cynical view of urban life. He left the industry for a while after departing the band, but soon launched his self-titled debut with the help of Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman from Yes.
David Bowie, a long-time Velvet Underground fan, produced Transformer, which included the classic "Walk On The Wild Side," a homage to transsexuals and social misfits drawn to artist and film-maker Andy Warhol. Not wanting to become a pop sellout, Reed returned to his darker edges on Berlin, which explored sado-masochism, suicide and nihilism. Reed struggled for critical acceptance for a few years but received high praise from the avante garde community for his atonal electronic album Metal Machine Music. Subsequent work like Coney Island Baby, Rock 'N' Roll Heart, and Street Hassle were hit and miss, while The Bells and Growing Up In Public showed a true maturity as a writer and performer. Reed entered the 80s with The Blue Mask, a colorful collaboration with guitarist Robert Quine, formerly of Richard Hell's Voidoids, and Legendary Hearts and Mistrial. Because Reed had always been so inconsistent, few were prepared for the artistic rebirth found on New York, a return to classic form that created considerable interest in his back-catalogue.
In 1993, Reed joined together with his legendary colleagues for a high-profile Velvet Underground reunion. Although it was short-lived (rumors of old feuds with Cale abounded), Reed had the benefit of being able to fall back on his solo work. Set The Twilight Reeling found Reed playing romantic (perhaps inspired by his relationship with Laurie Anderson) and also controversial. Anderson appeared as one of several guest singers on a cover version of Reed's "Perfect Day," released in 1997, to promote BBC Radio and Television. Perfect Night documented a 1996 concert at London's Royal Festival Hall. In 1996, the surviving Velvet Underground members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,
In 1998, Reed released the "unplugged" album Perfect Night: Live in London. The same year, he was the subject of an episode of the PBS American Masters series that chronicled his entire career. He entered the new millennium with his first release for Reprise Records, Ecstasy, a return to his best raw rock sound that many felt was his finest outing since New York.