The American Songwriter Interview: Lou Reed

Lou Reed

This awesome story originally appeared in 2009.

He is sitting right there on the sidewalk, eating red snapper, heavy-lidded eyes taking in the world around him and engaging with the various people who wander up-looking for that gen-u-wine piece of downtown authenticity. Lou Reed has always been a perpendicular player: someone who strikes gold, then blows up the mine, and that defiance of commercial convention makes him the ultimate rejectionista, the judge of hipper-than-what-most-think-you-oughta.

Lollabelle, his rat terrier, is curled beneath his chair, half-alseep, half-taking in the passers-by. Mostly bored by life as the best friend of the man who made nihilism seem like a trip to Disneyland, switch-blading the bourgeoisie conventions with the dingy reality of the people living in the cracks, she waits.

He is here on the brink of the reissue of Berlin, the follow-up of his wildly successful David Bowie-produced Transformer. What should have been a slam dunk-even Bowie wanted to be Lou, as Lester Bangs tells William Miller in Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age Almost Famous-was a star-making car wreck of catastrophic proportions.

The song cycle scandalized and appalled fans with its unburnished take on junkie life, bottom-feeding whore-tricks and an obsessive love affair that resulted in Caroline losing her children (“The Kids”) replete with the shrieking of producer Bob Ezrin’s own children, who’d purportedly been told their mother was dead upon returning home from school.

What was a momentum-killer then, now more than holds up in modern light. An operatic take on downtown street life, it examined complexities of lust and obsession, jealousy and addiction’s bottomless pit. Disconcerting to listen to-if only for the relentlessness of the writing and arrangements-Berlin is an audio vérité concept album that captures the rest of that celebrated “walk on the wild side.”

An acclaimed man about Manhattan, Reed is the paramour of performance artist Laurie Anderson, a regular at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, a compadre of Hal Wilner, a creative partner to John Zorn, John Cale and Bill Laswell, an alum of the Velvet Underground, a veteran of Andy Warhol’s circle and someone who seemingly knows every hipster, true blue-blood and creative engine in NYC.

With a Julian Schnabel film capturing the staging of Berlin-its own sort of Rorschach of the subconscious dream-states and impressionistic scenes the work evokes merging with the initial performances of the album once most charitably deemed “challenging”-it seems Reed’s reviled-at-the-time-of-release work is being vindicated. Not that he works for approval; indeed, he works to scrape all that’s inside him to be written.

As locals stopped and he exchanged neighborhood news, and caught up with people he rarely sees, Reed was not so much the snarling pre-punk, as much as a man respected for his uncompromising wrestle with his muse. With one of his most polarizing CDs-more so than Songs for Drella, Metal Machine Music, Magic & Loss or even the wildly pop New Sensations-finally performed in public, it was a good time to weigh the weight of creation, the reasons songwriting matters and how he views the reality of what he does.

As a writer, is it more important to be great, or true? What do you value?
Certainly those two words go together. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. But the real thing is: do you like it?

That’s pretty clean.
It’s kind of a weird thing to do…

It’s a very weird thing to do, and yet…
If you grew up listening to rock and roll songs, it’s kind of an obvious thing…

Because it’s the only thing worth anything. It’s immediate. It’s not like going to the movies is the same as listening to music. It’s kind of weird to even be thought of as a songwriter. “Oh, is that what I am?”

Do you think of yourself as a songwriter?

Then how do you think of yourself?
Artist. Sometimes, it’s with music and words. Sometimes, it’s photos. Other times, it’s electronics. Whatever it is… But being a songwriter, that’s pretty good.

Do you think the truth or the connection point is pretty true to all those things? Or does it shift with the medium?
It’s the same. Guaranteed. Look, being a songwriter…We met a guy in Chile the other day, a cartoonist. Laurie had done a show, and I’d played guitar. The guy created a cartoon out of it. He came the next day with it, and it was really good. A whole page thing, interpreting songs… And he said, “I’m a cartoonist.” I thought, “That’s a fun thing to say about yourself…” Like, I’m a songwriter. I do a couple things. One of them is being a songwriter.

I saw your show at Hermès. The pictures of New York.
It was also in the Kasher Gallery. There was a book available. That was book number one. Now, there’s book number two, which is also out. I’m working on book number three.

Do they come from the same place?

Can you say where that is? Can you define it?

Do you know where it starts?
If I could, it would mean I could do it whenever I wanted-and I can’t. I have no idea how to go about it. I really don’t. I get asked all the time… Believe me, if I could, you’d’ve heard “Son of Wild Side” by now.

Would you go back? Expand on that reality?
No…I’m not in the same place.

And yet you went back to Berlin. There was a film. And it’s so impossibly evocative… Was it a homecoming? A reclamation?
It was a performance.

Going back to that thing of all things… My major interests are the lyrics of that. It wasn’t the Velvet Underground. No, [Berlin] was something else: the one that almost sunk the ship. Funny… That’s the one to go back to?

Were you driven to it? Or pulled?
Susan Feldman from St Ann’s… I’ve known her a long time. She’s asked me this every year for a long time. Susan’s the reason John Cale and I did Songs for Drella. I’ve done a lot of things for Susan. I did The Raven for Susan. She’s the only person who would have us…and I love that she does. I was there with Laurie, Fisher Stevens, Richard Belzer-doing readings from my thing-The Raven, which is rewriting Edgar Allen Poe. That was really fun. So much of the language is hard to understand…A lot of words were arcane when he started writing, architectural terms. Then the rhythm of it all-and he did the first detective story. But also the psychology of Poe. “You were made for him…” Susan said, “Why don’t you do this…?” She was like “I love [Berlin] so much. Why don’t you just do the whole thing from beginning to end, the way the record is-the way you meant it to be?” I was out of work again, so I figured, “Why not? Maybe it will be great fun.”

Was it?
Yeah, great fun. When we toured Europe, I really had it down. The one that’s on film with Julian, that’s really just opening the door… That’s why Bob Ezrin was conducting. He didn’t want to be onstage. I said, “Well you have to…I can’t do the guitar and those cues and those words… I can’t.” Turns out I could; but at the time, I needed a guiding hand. There’s a lot going on. Bob still has the arrangements. Those aren’t my arrangements. I wrote the songs and the melodies, but all the arrangements were Bob’s. The core band is my guys, and then Steve Bernstein and the horns, the strings… that’s [Hal] Wilner. The choir: the Brooklyn Youth Choir. Rupert Christy was all the keyboards, all the synthesizers, if you want a breakdown, and Anthony Dejewell would work overtime with the choir…

Not too many [songwriters], when they write songs go for broke. When someone does who’s really good, it’s astonishing. There’s a reason a three-minute song can devastate you, or make you get up and dance, stop what you’re doing and go, “What is that?” It just hits you. And it’s a very potent thing you’re playing around with. Some people don’t like that: they don’t like the subject matter, what it’s about-they don’t like the musicians. I’d always say, “Well, you know, the ending of Hamlet‘s not so uplifting…What do you think about Othello and Desdemona? What can we learn from this?”

Now there’s jealousy. And Berlin, if it’s about anything, it’s about jealousy. Talk about a universal emotion?! No one hasn’t been jealous; amongst all the other things, but big time, the guy’s jealous! He’s being killed by jealousy. A lot of things are going on on top of it all….The green-eyed monster it is.

I’ve read all of that Poe, who is also a master of knowing about paranoia, ache, loving, unrequited love. On The RavenBerlin is great and all, but The Raven? Oh, God…Elizabeth Ashley. No one got to hear this, and it’s sad, because she is epic in this.

We worked so hard on these guitar things, these electronic sounds. It’s awesome. And she’s behind it all. She’s a volcano. It’s wonderful to see someone turn emotions off and on like that.

If I really had my way, I would’ve started out as an actor and stayed there. Or write-write myself a role, write monologues.

My lyric book is coming out. They’re going to put The Raven, stuff I’ve written since it was [first] published. Brando in the car, talking: “I coulda been somebody…I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which, let’s face it Charlie, is what I am. It was you Charlie…”

You could hear it. It’s so obvious. Why’d you do specifically that?

Or Liz doing Blanche DuBois [sings the line] : “I have always depended…on…the kindness…of… strangers…” There you go. But you have to write that book that well. It’s an obvious thing to do with music…

In a weird way, it is obvious.

It’s so obvious; it fails to qualify as an idea. My teacher, Delmore Schwartz, wrote this story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” which is a line from Yeats…and, like, in five pages with very simple language; it’s one of the most devastating short stories. T.S. Eliot wrote him a letter, saying, “This is one of the greatest pieces of writing.”

There’s not one polysyllabic word in it. I said, “You know, if you can do this, why would you do anything else?” I mean, wouldn’t that be something? It’s just so obvious.

What else would you do? [A man scuttles across the street diagonally]

What is he doing? He was doing hieroglyphics or something in the middle of the street; guess he decided it was better to cross it. You could write a song called “People Watching”…It would be so easy, but not as interesting as actually watching people.

A song is like a short story, only in half the time. It’s a very short amount of time. That’s what lyrics are: the shortest stories.

It’s funny. You think you’re well-read ‘til you sit down with another person, then you find out… That’s how I feel. I’m not as well-read as I’d like. I could only read Finnegan’s Wake when Delmore read it to me. When he read it, it was great. But alone, it was very hard… you had to read it with a dictionary. Just the sound and the poetry was so thrilling.

It’s weird. I’m Irish, so it’s part of the canon…
One would think…

Completely different experience sitting on a page versus being an articulation.
Someone really smart, who really knows Joyce…like Delmore. When you devote your life to it: He had all the books and they’re all referenced with the arrows, and this to that. He was deep into it. If you’re not going to get that deep into it, you’re not going to get as much out of it.

But when someone that deep reads to you, you get their knowledge of cadence and what it all means.

My Dad loved Finnegan’s Wake, so he read it to me growing up.
He’d read it to you? That was very special.

Well, we’re Irish. That was part of the steepage.
One of the greatest books ever written. It’s up there with The Bible. How many books are up there with The Bible? Ulysses? You have to include Ulysses, so that’s two for Joyce. You’d have to put every Shakespearean play up there…

Now what happens when you include songs? “Mack the Knife”? “The Seven Deadly Sins”? Who I’m I talking about…Weill… and…

You got me…
We can Google it. Weill’s writing partner?

It’s funny. When the [album] advance came, I’d forgotten how… compelling? No, uhm… operatic this was…
In what sense?It was such a tiny, finite story, yet such a huge reality it became intensely intimate. I was thinking, if you go over it, it’s really three people: Caroline, the guy and Jim. That’s three. Then you have Lady Day, Caroline’s fantasy.

Three. The triangle.

When I started acting and directing, triangular staging… You can always look for that. Wherever you’re standing in the world…

Wilner knows everything. You can call him up and go, “Who wrote… what year…what color is the label…” He’ll know.

It’s amazing. It was…just, uhn! [Wilner’s research arrives via iPhone] Kurt Weill was a German, and is an American composer, who worked in the ‘20s until his death. He has the same birthday as me.


Wow… that’s really heavy
That’s really, really heavy. Good God.

How do you feel about that?
Good God….Who knew? He died at age 50. This is Google. It’s not responding. You got me this far. Bertolt Brecht. We’ve got it. Gooood-byyyyye. Isn’t it great? To be able to just research something like that?

It boggles the mind.

Have you seen Shazam? It’s for the iPhone. If you hear a song you like, you turn it on-and it will go find it. Straight from iTunes for your 99 cents.

They’re just leading us around. I’ve got the iPhone. I had the other phones. But with a screen like that, and what this thing can do…It’s not a successful phone, but that’s AT&T.

AT&T is bad everywhere-except Europe. They’re great in Europe because they’re part of some other thing.

T-Mobile went completely down and out. So many customers, their chips were fried.

The chips were fried…
That’s a good line — for something. You could use it in the interview: the chips were fried/ baked in the oven in 1972/ only to have the cake pop out at St Ann’s Warehouse/ St Ann’s Warehouse popovers.

When you…
Holly what?

Holly Ann…
Wow, there’s an Irish name: Holly Ann Gleason. You go to Gleason’s Gym…?

Gleason’s Gym. The most famous gym in the world…OK, what do you want to know?

When you made Berlin… you’d made Transformer
Yes, the worst thing anyone has ever thought of doing.

Then why did you do it? Such a hard left. It was brave…
Not really. That’s the last thing I’d say. Really, that’s what got written, so that was that. That’s what got written down. That was what was there. I’m happy to get any idea about anything. It’s so hard.

I think you have excruciating standards. You don’t just write lines… You…
When there’s something to work with, I do. When I really work on it, level it, that’s what I’m gonna do. [But] that’s why the albums are so different, because that’s what I got written-and I was happy to get that.
No one wanted an album called Magic & Loss. The head of the record company called, and said, “Lou… Do you know what that’s about?”

The thing is: I had two friends I lost. There was nothing contemporary to listen to to help deal with that, or about that. I’m not the only person who’s had that happen. Everybody’s had that happen… So I wrote about that.

Why? Because that’s what got written.

Why? Because that’s all I could think about at the time; that’s what went on.

I can’t change it. I don’t try to change it. I’m lucky I can write a sentence.


I don’t believe you. Again, it’s a question of quality. You won’t accept less than great.
I wrote a little thing called “Banging On My Drum,” “I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m banging on my drum/ I’m having lots of fun…banging on my drum.” That was the whole lyric, and it’s really a fun song…

Yeah, Chuck Berry.
Of course. From there to Magic & Loss… They’re all tied together. The unity of rock.

I believe that. If you’re just lofty, that’s precious.
I’ve never been lofty.

You have your moments…
I know, but never lofty. That’s not the word I’d use.

Pick your word.
Umm…I’ve tried to fly into the sun. Like Icarus. Look what happened to him.

When you went back to Berlin, how did it compare?
I had nothing to compare it to…I don’t sit around listening to my own records. I didn’t re-experience Berlin. It was more like landing on another planet. I recognize that. You know what writing is: it’s an amalgam. It’s many things.

But there’s always truth in the amalgam.
Yes. There has to be truth. If you don’t believe it’s true, it’s a waste of time. You have to believe the person singing is capable of what they’re singing, [that] they’re telling the truth. Why else would you be doing it?
In my stuff, the guy is…what’s the word I’m looking for…flawed.

Philip Marlowe is flawed. I think, “Wouldn’t it be great to be Philip Marlowe, except rock?” Because Philip Marlowe is. I thought when we did the autobiography of Andy [Warhol], it was such a great way of learning about somebody that soon other people would be doing it. There’d be a whole genre of biography CDs. Didn’t happen.

You have to have a life to support that.
Malcolm X? Martin Luther King? John Kennedy? George Washington? Bach? Are you kidding? There are all these people you could tell what they did, how they did it, their story. It’s art, not a piece of fluff.

But you believe in heft… depth to the truth.
You have to visualize a really vivid, very quick [truth] where you can feel the attitude of the person you’re singing about. It’s very 3-D. You have to be able to picture it. For me, the red Porsche hopped over the curb and ran over the small dog. That’s real quick. There you go. You’re a hard person to flame, standing over the pizza oven…

We can do this all day. One of them will work. There’ll be another one… on a good day.

And you write ‘em down?
Used to. Then I just stopped. They don’t come back either. That’s what’s really strange. I know if I don’t write it down, gone forever. So I listen to in my head for me. They go wherever they go.

For yourself.
Broadcast from Radio Lou. Listenership: 1.

That’s all you need if it’s truly about creation…
Whatever it is. I’ve never understood it. I gave up trying to understand it. Didn’t get me anywhere. It was a long time ago…

Ever feel like it spins you around?
Well, it takes two to dance. Two willing partners. You can’t have one person being recalcitrant.

Is that the muse?
Whomever. Sometimes, you lose interest. It’s more interesting to do tai chi… to do a spinning kick with a spear.

A spinning kick with a spear?
I was doing that this morning. Tai Chi Chen with master Ren Guang Yi…

One last question.
Go ahead. I like you, Little Irish Rose.

When you look back on your work, do you ever startle yourself… ever look at something you’ve written and think, “Damn…”
I never do that stuff.

But going in to do this…
Many “holy shit” moments.

In a good way?
You know, “Oh, my God… look at that.” You certainly laid that one out.

Berlin was a staggering record.
Does it hold up? Hmmmm: “Lotta ways to say that…” “How do you do that chord change?…,” “Wow, didn’t hold much back on that one…”

On the other hand, I was never arrested for breaking someone’s arms. You know why? Because it never happened. That’s called writing.

[My God he was brilliant!]

Watch Arctic Monkeys cover Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’

Sheffield band pay tribute to late Velvet Underground frontman
at Liverpool’s Echo Arena

Arctic Monkeys  played (October 28) a cover of ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ in tribute to Lou Reed, who died on Sunday (October 27).

The song appeared in the encore of the Sheffield band’s show. ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, from 1972, is arguably Reed’s most famous song, and is reportedly seeing a sales spike on iTunes due to the iconic performer’s passing.

Local boy Bill Ryder-Jones, formerly of The Coral, joined the band for a number of tracks, including ‘Fireside’, ‘Pretty Visitors’ and ‘Snap Out Of It’.

Arctic Monkeys aren’t the only band who have covered Reed’s music since his death was announced on Sunday. At Baltimore’s First Mariner Arena, Pearl Jam played ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, Twin Shadow posted his version of ‘Perfect Day’ on YouTube and My Morning Jacket, accompanied by Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis and more, covered ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin” at Young’s Bridge School Benefit on Sunday.

Arctic Monkeys played:

‘Do I Wanna Know?’
‘Dancing Shoes’
‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’
‘Teddy Picker’
‘Crying Lightning’
‘One For The Road’
‘Fireside’ (with Bill Ryder-Jones)
‘Reckless Serenade’
‘Old Yellow Bricks’
‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’
‘Pretty Visitors’ (with Bill Ryder Jones)
‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’
‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ (with Bill Ryder-Jones)
‘Mardy Bum’
‘Fluorescent Adolescent’
‘I Wanna Be Yours’ (with Bill Ryder-Jones)
‘Walk On The Wild Side’ (with Bill Ryder-Jones)
‘Snap Out Of It’ (with Bill Ryder-Jones)
‘R U Mine?’

Arctic Monkeys are currently on tour. The remaining dates are as follows:
Cardiff Motorpoint Arena (29)
Birmingham LG Arena (31)
Glasgow Hydro Arena (November 1)
Sheffield Motorpoint Arena (2)

Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll – The New York Times

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Chad Batka for The New York Times
Lou Reed performing in New York City in 2010.

Lou Reed, 1942-2013
Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll

Published: October 27, 2013
The New York Times

Lou Reed, the singer, songwriter and guitarist whose work with the Velvet Underground in the 1960s had a major influence on generations of rock musicians, and who remained a powerful if polarizing force for the rest of his life, died on Sunday at his home in Amagansett, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 71.

The cause was liver disease, said Dr. Charles Miller of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where Mr. Reed had liver transplant surgery this year and was being treated again until a few days ago.

Mr. Reed brought dark themes and a mercurial, sometimes aggressive disposition to rock music. “I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” he once told the journalist Kristine McKenna, “and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie.”

He played the sport of alienating listeners, defending the right to contradict himself in hostile interviews, to contradict his transgressive image by idealizing sweet or old-fashioned values in word or sound, or to present intuition as blunt logic. But his early work assured him a permanent audience.

The Velvet Underground, which was originally sponsored by Andy Warhol and showcased the songwriting of John Cale as well as Mr. Reed, wrought gradual but profound impact on the high-I.Q., low-virtuosity stratum of punk, alternative and underground rock around the world. Joy Division, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, R.E.M., the Strokes and numerous others were descendants. The composer Brian Eno, in an often-quoted interview from 1982, suggested that if the group’s first album, “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” sold only 30,000 copies during its first five years — a figure probably lower than the reality — “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Many of the group’s themes — among them love, sexual deviance, alienation, addiction, joy and spiritual transfiguration — stayed in Mr. Reed’s work through his long run of solo recordings. Among the most noteworthy of those records were “Transformer” (1972), “Berlin” (1973) and “New York” (1989). The most notorious, without question, was “Metal Machine Music” (1975).

Beloved of Mr. Reed and not too many others, “Metal Machine Music” was four sides of electric-guitar feedback strobing between two amplifiers, with Mr. Reed altering the speed of the tape recorder; no singing, no drums, no stated key. At the time it was mostly understood, if at all, as a riddle about artistic intent. Was it his truest self? Was it a joke? Or was there no difference?

Mr. Reed wrote in the liner notes that “no one I know has listened to it all the way through, including myself,” but he also defended it as the next step after La Monte Young’s early minimalism. “There’s infinite ways of listening to it,” he told the critic Lester Bangs in 1976.

Not too long after his first recordings, made at 16 with a doo-wop band in Freeport, N.Y., Mr. Reed started singing outside of the song’s melody, as if he were giving a speech with a fluctuating drone in a New York accent. That sound, heard with the Velvet Underground on songs like “Heroin” and “Sweet Jane” and in his post-Velvet songs “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Street Hassle” and others, became one of the most familiar frequencies in rock. He played lead guitar the same way, straining against his limitations.

Mr. Reed confidently made artistic decisions that other musicians would not have even considered. He was an aesthetic primitivist with high-end audio obsessions. He was an English major who understood his work as a form of literature, though he distrusted overly poetic pop lyrics, and though distorted electric guitars and drums sometimes drowned out his words.

Lewis Allan Reed was born on March 2, 1942, in Brooklyn, the son of Sidney Reed, a tax accountant, and Toby Reed, a homemaker. When he was 11 his family moved to Freeport, on Long Island. His mother survives him, as does his sister, Merrill Weiner, and his wife, the composer and musician Laurie Anderson.

Generally resistant to authority and prone to mood swings, Mr. Reed troubled his parents enough that they assented to a doctor’s recommendation for weeks of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens; in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment.

After transferring to Syracuse University, he fell into the circle around the poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, one of his English professors. Mr. Reed would later resist being pigeonholed, but his college profile suggests a distinct type: an early-’60s East Coast hipster, a middle-class suburban rebel in love with pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and street-life writers: William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., Raymond Chandler, Allen Ginsberg.

He clearly absorbed and, at least at times, admired Bob Dylan. (“Dylan gets on my nerves,” he said in 1968. “If you were at a party with him, I think you’d tell him to shut up.” Twenty-one years later he would tell Rolling Stone, “Dylan continuously knocks me out.”)

While in college he wrote “Heroin,” a song that accelerates in waves with only two chords. It treated addiction and narcotic ecstasy both critically and without moralizing, as a poet or novelist at that time might have, but not a popular songwriter:

I don’t know just where I’m going

But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can

‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man

When I put a spike into my vein

And I tell you things aren’t quite the same

When I’m rushing on my run

And I feel just like Jesus’ son

And I guess that I just don’t know.

After graduation Mr. Reed found work in New York as a staff songwriter for Pickwick International, a label that capitalized on trends in popular music with budget releases by made-up groups. Among his credits for Pickwick were “Johnny Won’t Surf No More” and “The Ostrich,” written for a nonexistent dance craze and sung by Mr. Reed himself.

When Mr. Reed met Mr. Cale, a musician working with La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, they wanted to combine early-1960s rock with the drones of classical minimalism. They jammed with the guitarist Sterling Morrison, one of Mr. Reed’s Syracuse friends, and the poet and visual artist Angus MacLise on percussion; he was soon replaced by Maureen Tucker, the sister of a college friend of Mr. Reed’s. With Mr. Cale playing viola, keyboards and electric bass, they named themselves the Velvet Underground after the title of a book by Michael Leigh on practices in nonstandard sexuality in the early 1960s.

The band played their original music at Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village, where the filmmaker Barbara Rubin came by with Andy Warhol. He quickly incorporated the group into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a touring multimedia performance-art happening with dancers, film projections and the German singer Nico.

The band’s association with Warhol lasted from late 1965 to late 1967, and Mr. Reed was thereafter generally full of praise for Warhol, whom he saw as an exemplary modern artist and New Yorker. A proud New Yorker himself, Mr. Reed squared off against West Coast rock and declared his hatred for hippies. In a 1968 interview, he characterized the San Francisco bands of the time — the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane especially — as “tedious, a lie and untalented.”

In mid-1970 Mr. Reed left the Velvet Underground and moved back to Long Island, where he worked for two years as a typist in his father’s firm. He made a disappointing solo record toward the end of 1971, but David Bowie, a Velvet Underground fan when there weren’t many, helped advance Mr. Reed’s career: he started playing Velvet Underground songs in concert and helped produce Mr. Reed’s album “Transformer” in London. It rose to No. 29 on Billboard’s Top 200, but as with nearly everything Mr. Reed did, it took time to spread through the culture.

“Walk on the Wild Side,” a quiet, jazzlike single from the album about the hustlers and transvestites around Warhol at the Factory, introduced a new character in each verse and included a reference to fellatio that slipped past the censors; it became an FM radio staple and Mr. Reed’s only Top 40 hit.

In January 1973 he married Bettye Kronstad, whom he had met in 1968 when she was a student; by July, after the recording of the album “Berlin,” they were divorced. For several years afterward, Mr. Reed, whose sexual identity seemed to be as fluid as the songs from that time suggested, was romantically involved with a transvestite named Rachel, whose last name has long been uncertain; she was private, but their relationship was public. Rachel, it was assumed, inspired much of his album “Coney Island Baby”; she is also pictured on the cover of “Walk on the Wild Side,” a greatest-hits album.

Mr. Reed’s look toughened in the mid-’70s toward leather, bleached crew cuts and painted fingernails. He revisited his rickety, strange and vulnerable Velvet Underground songs on the live album “Rock N Roll Animal,” making them hard and slick and ready for a new order of teenage listeners.

By the end of the ‘70s his interviews and songs were full of a drive to change his way of living. In 1980 he married Sylvia Morales, who became his manager and muse. She was the subject of, or at least mentioned in, some of his most forthrightly romantic songs of the 1980s. But their relationship ended toward the end of the decade, and he met Ms. Anderson in the early ‘90s. They lived together in the West Village for more than a decade before marrying in 2008. They continued to live in the West Village as well as in Amagansett.

In middle age Mr. Reed became a kind of cultural elder, acting in films by Wim Wenders and Wayne Wang, befriending the Czech leader Vaclav Havel (who smuggled a copy of a Velvet Underground LP into Prague after a visit to New York in the late 1960s), creating multimedia stage productions with the director Robert Wilson. His own work moved between mature, elegiac singer-songwriter reports on grief, tenderness and age and wilder or more ambitious projects.

“The Raven,” a play and album, was based on writings by Edgar Allan Poe and included the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the singer Antony Hegarty. For the album “Lulu,” an aggressive collaboration with Metallica based on Frank Wedekind’s play, he found himself in a “Metal Machine Music” redux, once again attacked by critics, once again declaring victory.

He got together with Mr. Cale, Ms. Tucker and Mr. Morrison for a one-off Velvet Underground reunion in 1990 and a tour in 1993. (Mr. Morrison died of lymphoma in 1995.) And he eventually returned to his dark anti-masterpiece after the saxophonist Ulrich Krieger transcribed “Metal Machine Music” for an electroacoustic ensemble in 2002; in 2009 Mr. Reed performed improvised music inspired by that album with a group, including Mr. Krieger, called Metal Machine Trio.

Sober since the ‘80s and a practitioner of tai chi, Mr. Reed had a liver transplant in April at the Cleveland Clinic. “I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry,” he wrote in a public statement upon his release. “I am bigger and stronger than ever.”

But he was back at the clinic for treatment last week. Dr. Miller, who performed the transplant, said Mr. Reed decided to return home after doctors could no longer treat his end-stage liver disease. “We all agreed that we did everything we could,” Dr. Miller said.

Just weeks after his liver transplant, Mr. Reed wrote a review of Kanye West’s album “Yeezus” for the online publication The Talkhouse, celebrating its abrasiveness and returning once more to “Metal Machine Music” to explain an artist’s deepest motives.

“I have never thought of music as a challenge — you always figure the audience is at least as smart as you are,” he wrote. “You do this because you like it, you think what you’re making is beautiful. And if you think it’s beautiful, maybe they think it’s beautiful.”

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 30, 2013

An obituary on Monday about the singer, songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed contained several errors about Mr. Reed’s first wife. She is Bettye Kronstad, not Kronstadt. She was a student when they met, not a cocktail waitress. And their relationship ended after, not during, the making of Mr. Reed’s album “Berlin.”

A version of this article appears in print on October 28, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Outsider Whose Dark, Lyrical Vision Helped Shape Rock ’n’ Roll.