Away from the Factory, the Velvets and were all too ahead of their time, getting tossed out of clubs or having audience members walk out. The mainstream press, still seeking a handle on the Beatles and the Stones, was thrown entirely by the Velvet Underground. The New York Times at first couldn’t find the words, calling the Velvets “Warhol’s jazz band” in a January 1966 story and “a combination of rock ‘n roll and Egyptian belly-dance music” just days later. The Velvets’ appearance in a Warhol film, “More Milk, Yvette,” only added to the dismay of Times critic Bosley Crowther.
“Also on the bill is a performance by a group of rock ‘n roll singers called the Velvet Underground,” Crowther wrote. “They bang away at their electronic equipment, while random movies are thrown on the screen in back of them. When will somebody ennoble Mr. Warhol with an above-ground movie called ‘For Crying Out Loud’?”
At Warhol’s suggestion, they performed and recorded with the sultry, German-born Nico, a “chanteuse” who sang lead on a handful of songs from their debut album. A storm cloud over 1967’s Summer of Love, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” featured a now-iconic Warhol drawing of a (peelable) banana on the cover and proved an uncanny musical extension of Warhol’s blank-faced aura. The Velvets juxtaposed childlike melodies with dry, affectless vocals on “Sunday Morning” and “Femme Fatale.” On “Heroin,” Cale’s viola screeched and jumped behind Reed’s obliterating junkie’s journey, with his sacred vow, “Herrrrrr-o-in, it’s my wife, and it’s my life,” and his cry into the void, “And I guess that I just don’t know.”
“‘Heroin’ is the Velvets’ masterpiece — seven minutes of excruciating spiritual extremity,” wrote critic Ellen Willis. “No other work of art I know about has made the junkie’s experience so horrible, so powerful, so appealing; listening to ‘Heroin’ I feel simultaneously impelled to somehow save this man and to reach for the needle.”
Reed made just three more albums with the Velvet Underground before leaving in 1970. Cale was pushed out by Reed in 1968 (they had a long history of animosity) and was replaced by Doug Yule. Their sound turned more accessible, and the final album with Reed, “Loaded,” included two upbeat musical anthems, “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane,” in which Reed seemed to warn Velvets fans — and himself — that “there’s even some evil mothers/Well they’re gonna tell you that everything is just dirt.”
He lived many lives in the ’70s, initially moving back home and working at his father’s office, then competing with Keith Richards as the rock star most likely to die. He binged on drugs and alcohol, gained weight, lost even more and was described by critic Lester Bangs as “so transcendently emaciated he had indeed become insectival.” Reed simulated shooting heroin during concerts, cursed out journalists and once slugged David Bowie when Bowie suggested he clean up his life.
“Lou Reed is the guy that gave dignity and poetry and rock n’ roll to smack, speed, homosexuality, sadomasochism, murder, misogyny, stumblebum passivity, and suicide,” wrote Bangs, a dedicated fan and fearless detractor, “and then proceeded to belie all his achievements and return to the mire by turning the whole thing into a monumental bad joke with himself as the woozily insistent Henny Youngman in the center ring, mumbling punch lines that kept losing their punch.”
His albums in the ’70s were alternately praised as daring experiments or mocked as embarrassing failures, whether the ambitious song suite “Berlin” or the wholly experimental “Metal Machine Music,” an hour of electronic feedback. But in the 1980s, he kicked drugs and released a series of acclaimed albums, including “The Blue Mask,” ”Legendary Hearts” and “New Sensations.”
He played some reunion shows with the Velvet Underground and in 1990 teamed with Cale for “Drella,” a spare tribute to Warhol. He continued to receive strong reviews in the 1990s and after for such albums as “Set the Twilight Reeling” and “Ecstasy” and he continued to test new ground, whether a 2002 concept album about Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven,” or a 2011 collaboration with Metallica, “Lulu.”
Reed fancied dictionary language like “capricious” and “harridan,” but he found special magic in the word “bells,” sounding from above, “up in the sky,” as he sang on the Velvets’ “What Goes On.” A personal favorite was the title track from a 1979 album, “The Bells.” Over a foggy swirl of synthesizers and horns, suggesting a haunted house on skid row, Reed improvised a fairy tale about a stage actor who leaves work late at night and takes in a chiming, urban “Milky Way.”
It was really not so cute
to play without a parachute
As he stood upon the ledge
Looking out, he thought he saw a brook
And he hollered, ‘Look, there are the bells!’
And he sang out, ‘Here come the bells!
Here come the bells! Here come the bells!
Here come the bells!’