Lou Reed: Biography & Songs

Instructor: David White
Lou Reed was an American singer and songwriter whose iconic career spans nearly half of the 20th century. Through this lesson, you will explore his history as singer of the Velvet Underground and as a solo artist.

Who Was Lou Reed?

When it comes to exploring the past, music often plays an important role in shaping and defining an era. New York in the 1960s, along with its vibrant culture and music scene, can be timelessly encapsulated by the Velvet Underground and the band's frontman, Lou Reed.

Lou Reed was an American musician and singer whose career began in the 1960s with the Velvet Underground and lasted until his death in 2013. From his early days with the Velvet Underground and through the rest of his career, Reed's music regularly crossed back and forth between pop, psychedelic, avant-garde, and many others genres, all of which served as a background for his poetic lyrics and distinctive voice.

Lou Reed
Lou Reed

Early Years

Born Lewis Allan Reed in 1942, he spent the first nine years of his life living in Brooklyn before the family relocated to Freeport, Long Island. Throughout his younger years and into his adolescence, Reed's life was like that of most young people. When he reached his high school years, however, he began to experience considerable anxiety and panic, turning to music and drugs as an escape. During this time, his communication with his family had slowed considerably and much of his attention was focused on his music and finding an audience in New York City.

Upon graduating from high school, Reed moved back to the city to study poetry and journalism at New York University, but this was interrupted shortly after when his parents were asked to come pick him up after he suffered a nervous breakdown. Due to his considerable depression and anxiety, Reed's parents were encouraged by doctors to try electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment that had a profound influence on Reed's life and music for decades after.

Once he had mostly recovered from his breakdown at NYU, Reed returned to school, this time at Syracuse University. While at Syracuse, Reed resumed his involvement with the music scene, hosting a college radio program and forming a new band. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1964 with a bachelor's in English, after which he returned to New York City.

The Velvet Underground

When he arrived in New York, Reed began working for the small independent record label Pickwick Records, where he met session musician John Cale. It was during this time that Reed developed something of a signature sound with a style of guitar tuning now referred to as ostrich tuning. Named for a song that Reed had written for Pickwick, ostrich tuning was achieved by tuning each string to the same note, giving the guitar a kind of droning sound that would be prominent in his later years.

Together with Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise, Reed formed the Velvet Underground in New York's Lower East Side neighborhood. After a little more than a year of playing in and around New York, the band caught the attention of Andy Warhol, who invited them to participate in his Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, which had begun to occur regularly at his artist collective, the Factory.

The first big break came when the Velvet Underground was invited to play at the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Despite not being a formal Velvet Underground member, Warhol had a major influence on Reed and convinced him to allow German model and singer Nico to join the band. The band released The Velvet Underground and Nico on New York jazz label Verve Records in 1967. The album initially received poor reviews and sales. Its blend of pop, psychedelic rock, and avant-garde sensibilities was unusual at the time, and the subject matter of Reed's lyrics (drug use, sex, etc.) was still controversial in the 1960s.

Frustrated by poor sales and negative reviews, Reed fired Warhol, who was then the band's manager, and Nico had quit. The following year, the Velvet Underground recorded White Light/White Heat, which was a much more mainstream album. Nearing the end of the 1960s, internal conflict had begun to affect the band, with Cale leaving in 1968 and Reed following in 1970.

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