Lou Reed: A true musical rebel who treated authority - and journalists - with genuine disdain

Hugely influential singer-songwriter who found fame with the Velvet Underground dies aged 71 after liver transplant

“Was it too quiet for you, asshole?” Lou Reed asked with acidic contempt, when I saw him play for the last time, at London’s Royal Festival Hall two summers ago. An unwary fan had just ironically shouted “Louder!” as he finished a brutally heavy version of “Brandenburg Gate”, from his typically reputation-abusing last album, Lulu.

Click here or on 'view gallery' to see Lou Reed: A Life in Pictures

That suite of songs about the fictional prostitute immortalised by Louise Brooks in the 1928 Weimar German film Pandora’s Box, drawled by Reed over Metallica’s wildly inappropriate, uncompromised heavy metal, was despised in a way the latest releases by Paul McCartney and Neil Young never were.

The response was closer to when Reed first announced himself, in the Velvet Underground’s Warhol-sponsored, 1967 debut album The Velvet Undergound and Nico. His deadpan voice, striking out from Dylan’s example into a Sinatra-murdering morgue for traditional vocal requirements, was one innovation.

His lyrics on “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” were truly vital, with literate reportage from the depths of drug addiction and sadomasochism. “Rock’n’roll had been treated as such a mutant idiot child medium, it made it easy for someone with even half a mind to just walk in and dominate that end of it,” he sneered to Cut magazine in 1989, when New York gave him his last wholly liked hit.

Sinatra had played Algren’s novel’s taboo-smashing junkie in the film of The Man With the Golden Arm. Reed became him. A middle-class Jewish intellectual by background, too much parentally-approved ECT voltage meant to cure his rebel streak as a teenager instead carved an unsealable, bleeding scar of resentment. The trademark black leather jacket he rehabilitated from Marlon Brando’s 1950s rebel to the softer streets of Greenwich Village showed that his heart always had room for the original promise of rock’n’roll, if nothing else.

Metal Machine Music, 1975’s double-album feedback screech of abuse at his major-label employers RCA, was one more, career-exploding atom bomb. Reed fan David Bowie’s prettifying production on 1972’s Transformer, with its further gorgeous standards about Manhattan sex and drugs, “Perfect Day” and “Walk on the Wild Side”, had made the label think they had a star. 1973’s follow-up, Berlin, confirmed Reed was a black hole. Its portrait of a doomed relationship included children weeping at their parents’ behaviour. Anyone else would have broken “both her arms”, Reed sang provocatively of his partner in the gruelling song-suite’s gorgeous, depraved “Sad Song”. Berlin came to stand for any personal apocalypse, and any rock musician’s refusal to bow to his label’s authority.

Reed didn’t seem happy for a day of his life; except when he was wrecking someone else’s day by being too entirely himself, which was rarely a likeable proposition. When I met him, his disdain for me was completed by the wet-fish hand he held out when we finished. No doubt he wiped it afterwards. The rock journalists who adored him were always treated as vermin, typically because, beneath the impacably abusive surface, he cared too much. “He was heartbroken,” Melody Maker’s Allan Jones recalled of Reed’s attitude to Berlin’s journalistic dismissal. “He never forgave them.”

The anger I felt at his rudeness was anyway wiped away the next time I saw him, at that Royal Festival Hall gig. He could seem humourless, needlessly vicious, unforgivable. But that was the upside. He clung to rock’n’roll as a life-raft for his damaged soul, and threw out his literary brand of it for those who, similarly afflicted, needed such musical shock therapy. His last few records - 2000’s raging break-up album Ecstasy, 2003’s The Raven, another tauntingly aggravating double-album, adapted from Edgar Allen Poe, and that Metallica record - were not farewells, so much as fuck-offs. The outpouring of reverence and sorrow which will follow Reed’s death is deserved. It would also make him howl with hollow laughter.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own