If you listen to the 1967 chart-topping, feel-good pop hits Windy, Happy Together and To Sir, With Love and then spin the Velvet Underground's droning, S&M-themed Venus In Furs from the same year, you get a pretty clear sense of how different an animal lyricist/singer Lou Reed was, and would always be.
A few months before the fabled, flower-powered Summer of Love, Andy Warhol protégé Reed and his bandmates released their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and tried to drag pop-culture consciousness toward the dark side with an experimental-sounding, arty work exploring addiction, decadence and deviancy.
The album (and the band's three other studio works with Reed) was ignored at the time, but somewhere a corner had been turned.
Reed, who died Sunday at 71 in Southampton, N.Y., would be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a co-founder of the Velvet Underground, whose reputation exploded long after the group folded. And Reed would go on to a four-decade solo career and eventually would be cited as the godfather of punk and a key influence on generations of rappers, glam queens, alt-rockers, metalheads and avant-gardists.
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Early on in his solo career he worked with David Bowie, appeared at punk hothouse CBGB, and inspired countless performers, from Talking Heads to Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, Roxy Music, Joy Division, R.E.M., Metallica, Mott the Hoople and The Strokes. Though he wasn't inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo act, he was selected to posthumously induct fellow iconoclast Frank Zappa.
Though one of the Brooklyn-born Reed's early jobs was writing pop ditties for Pickwick Records in New York, he was at heart a poet, heavily influenced by the Beats and his mentor Delmore Schwartz, and a composer of music that had an arty, intellectual bent, which he delivered in a deadpan voice. His only "hit'' single, 1972's Walk On the Wild Side from his second solo album, peaked at No. 16, and a live version of the Velvet Underground song Sweet Jane, from his fiercely rocking 1974 solo album Rock 'n' Roll Animal, became an FM-radio staple. Beyond that, his music had little mainstream impact, though among musicians and alternative music fans, the influence was enormous.
Reed's public persona was that of a dour, tortured soul who oozed rebellious attitude and biting wit and seldom cracked a smile.
But underneath was something different, says longtime friend Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who won a Grammy Award as director of the 1998 documentary Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart.
"I was privileged to know the public and the private Lou Reed,'' Greenfield-Sanders said Sunday. "In public he was 'Lou Reed, a rock and roll animal.' In private he was my friend Lou, a kind and caring friend. For my generation, Lou Reed's music and lyrics were our backbeat and conscience. His death is a hole in our hearts.''