March 2, 1942, is the birthdate of Lou Reed, the enigmatic anti-hero of New York rock, whose five decades as a musician were driven by a volatile mix of ambition to succeed, and willingness to antagonize critics and fans in order to follow his inner muse. Lou Reed wasn’t just a songwriter and performer, he was also the progenitor of his own style -- dark, funny and rude.
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Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived until the age of 9, when his family - moved to the suburb of Freeport, Long Island. His father, Sidney Reed, was an accountant who worked for a small packaging company. His mother, the former Toby Futterman, was a full-time mother and housewife, who in her previous work as a secretary won the “Queen of the Stenographers of New York” beauty pageant in 1939. The family was mainly non-practicing Jewish, though Lou did have a bar mitzvah.
In an article published last year in the online music magazine Cuepoint, Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, a psychotherapist, dispelled some of the legends about her older brother’s early years, while confirming others.
Drugs did not make the heart grow fonder
Even as a youngster, Lou was evidently a loner, and suffered from anxiety, even panic attacks. When he got into the music scene, having taught himself guitar by listening to the radio, he began experimenting with drugs, which only intensified the usual alienation that adolescents often feel vis-à-vis their parents.
Sometime during his freshman year at New York University, where he enrolled after graduating from Freeport High School in 1959, Reed had to be brought home by his parents in what his sister describes as a semi-catatonic state.
It’s not clear what had brought on his condition, but after several months of psychiatric appointments with no obvious improvement, Sid and Toby, told that their son might be suffering from schizophrenia induced by their bad parenting, agreed for him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy.
The following year, Lou returned to college, now at Syracuse University. He was functioning better, but was forever angry at his parents, especially his father, accusing them of subjecting him to shock therapy thinking it would “cure” his presumed homosexual feelings. (Throughout his life, Reed projected a fluid sexuality; he was married three times, four if you count his years with a male transvestite called “Rachel.”)
Gun aside, graduated with honors
At Syracuse, Reed came under the influence of poet and writer Delmore Schwartz, whom he later called “the first great person I ever met.” He played guitar and sang in campus bands, worked briefly at the school radio station, and claimed to have been thrown out of ROTC (reserve officer training corps) after he held a gun to a superior’s head. Nonetheless, he graduated – with honors – in 1964.
After college, Reed got a job in New York writing songs for Pickwick International records. It was around this time that he met Welsh-born musician John Cale and formed a band called the Velvet Underground.
In 1966, Andy Warhol discovered the Velvets and paired them with a German singer named Nico, with whom they made three albums, and achieved substantial success.
In 1970, however, the band broke up and Reed suffered another breakdown. He moved back to Freeport, and spent the next two years working at his father’s firm as a typist, before resuming his career.
Reed never sold records in great numbers – his biggest album, the 1972 “Transformer,” produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, reached 29 on the Billboard charts – but he achieved immortality for his distinctive, monotonic voice, and mainly for his lyrics, which portrayed with unusual honesty the seamy side of life among society’s outcasts: drug users, prostitutes, transgender people. Personally, he could be abusive, even violent, but there was general respect for his artistic curiosity and creativity.
With decades of substance abuse behind him and a history of hepatitis, Reed developed liver disease. Despite the initial success of a liver transplant in June 2013, he died on October 27, 2013, at his home in Southampton, NY, at the age of 71.