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BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Lou Reed, who died Oct. 27 at the age of 71, was recognized as an artist who explored themes of joy as well as death and depravity that he brought to rock ’n’ roll as a songwriter, guitarist and lead singer since 1960.
Patti Smith, writing in the New Yorker of Nov. 11, said, “He was our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman championed its workingmen and Lorca its persecuted.”
A more skeptical judgment was Richard Goldstein’s Village Voice review of Reed’s Velvet Underground of the 1960s: “An important group pretentious to the point of misery.”
The tributes last week included a front-page obituary in The New York Times and eight pages of articles in the Voice. There were hundreds of messages on Twitter and on YouTube.
Reed died in the Amagansett, Long Island, home he shared with his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson. In April he received a liver transplant in Cleveland but the transplant began to fail and he chose to return home when his medical options ran out.
Reed and Anderson also had a home on Greenwich St. for more than 10 years. In 2010 Reed joined his Hudson Square neighbors, including the late James Gandolfini, in opposing the city’s three-district Department of Sanitation garage at Spring and Washington Sts. The city however, prevailed and the garage is nearing completion.
Ever the rebel, Reed also supported the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.
Louis Allen Reed was born in Brooklyn on March 2, 1941, to a tax accountant father and homemaker mother. The family moved to Freeport, Long Island, when Louis was 11. A precocious and troubled youth, he underwent a week of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor Hospital in Queens when he was 16, purportedly to “cure” him of his bisexuality. He went to New York University but later transferred to Syracuse University, where he became part of a circle around the poet and English professor Delmore Schwartz.
Reed, whose poetic and literary references ranged from the modern classicism of Schwartz to the transgressive work of William S. Burroughs, also admired Hugh Selby, author of “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” the mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and the poet Allen Ginsberg, according to the Times obituary by Ben Ratliff.
Reed was ever ambivalent about Bob Dylan, in turn dismissive and admiring.
After graduating, Reed worked as a songwriter for Pickwick International. With John Cale, he was part of the Velvet Underground, a band that played Cafe Bizarre in the Village around 1960. Andy Warhol caught the act there and included them, with the German singer Nico, as the lead act in his traveling show.
Around 1970 Reed left the Velvets and began a solo career in which his songs, including “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Sweet Jane,” “Heroin” and “Dirty Boulevard,” chronicled the lives of hustlers, addicts and transgender people. His songs never reached the top of the charts but in the mid-1970s “Walk on the Wild Side” rose into the top 40.
Despite the dissonance of albums like “Metal Machine Music,” many of Reed’s songs were simple ballads.
“Anyone can play my guitar music,” he said in an interview. “Anyone can learn to play ‘Sweet Jane’ in 10 minutes.”
Reed married Bettye Kronstad in 1973 but the marriage did not last long, and Reed and a transvestite known as Rachael kept company for a few years. In 1980 Reed married Sylvia Morales. They also parted, and in 1990 Reed met Anderson, with whom he lived in the West Village and married in 2008.
In the New Yorker article, Patti Smith said of Anderson, “She was his mirror. In her eyes you could see his kindness, sincerity and empathy.” Smith said she saw Reed as longing to board “the great big clipper ship” from his lyrics for the song “Heroin.”
“I envision it waiting for him beneath the constellation formed by the souls of the poets he so wished to join,” Smith wrote.
In addition to Anderson, Toby Reed, Lou Reed’s mother, and Merrill Weiner, his sister, also survive.