Glamorizing drug abuse has almost become a badge of honor for rock stars — but few have done so with such cynical abandon as Lou Reed, the hard-living singer who died yesterday aged 71.
Indeed, so defiantly self-destructive was his lifestyle that the biggest shock for those who followed his turbulent career is how he ever made it this far.
The notoriously irascible and famously debauched New Yorker was the former frontman of the avant-garde Sixties band The Velvet Underground.
Then as a more commercially-minded solo star from the Seventies, he influenced generations of rock musicians with hits such as Perfect Day and Walk On The Wild Side. He certainly took that walk himself when it came to excess — and exerted a deeply dubious influence over his many fans.
Reed took drugs and drink with abandon, celebrating a long addiction to heroin and amphetamines in countless songs.
His ambiguous sexual persona coupled with tales of wild sex only increased his legendary status in the music business.
‘I am a triumph of modern medicine, physics and chemistry,’ the Brooklyn-born singer and guitarist acknowledged in May after a life-saving liver transplant.
The cause of death is officially unknown, although his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, said he believed it was linked to the operation.
Reed’s third wife, singer Laurie Anderson (who had a No 2 hit in the UK with O Superman) admitted at the time of the op that she feared it was only a temporary fix to try to staunch years of abuse. Reed, who battled with depression, also struggled with his sexuality.
Despite affecting a tough-guy leather-jacketed image, he was the son of an accountant and had a middle-class upbringing.
As a 17-year-old, his parents sent him to a psychiatric hospital for an eight-week course of non-convulsive electroshock therapy.
He claimed it was to ‘correct’ homosexual impulses, although a family friend said Reed’s parents just wanted to get the teenager to behave.
By the time he went to college, he was already heavily into drugs, mainly heroin and amphetamines, and selling them to fellow students.
Not surprisingly, he contracted the disease hepatitis through sharing needles.
Reed’s musical potential was originally spotted by the flamboyant artist Andy Warhol. The Pop Art impresario became The Velvet Underground’s manager and introduced Reed to his signature habit of always wearing sunglasses indoors.
He also immersed him in New York’s underground culture in the Sixties of transvestites and drug addicts.
Until The Velvet Underground, rock bands had only dared include oblique and brief references to drugs and sex in their songs.
But Reed wrote some of rock’s most explicit druggie lyrics, also tackling taboo subjects such as sadomasochism, drag queens and prostitution.
All of this was drawn from personal experience. Sometimes, the drug allusions were fairly obvious such as in songs with titles such as White Light/White Heat and Waiting For The Man.
The latter — with lyrics: ‘I’m waiting for my man/Twenty-six dollars in my hand/Up to Lexington, 125/Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive’ — was about a trip to Harlem in 1967 to buy heroin.
Another Velvet Underground song was simply titled Heroin and had the somewhat prophetic lyrics: ‘Heroin, be the death of me / Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life.’
Inevitably, Reed and his band were accused of glorifying drug-use as their lyrics rarely showed any negative side to the debilitating effects of addiction.
On stage, Reed went further and fuelled the criticism by simulating a heroin injection. Using his microphone lead to tie off his arm, he would then mime the act of using a syringe.
Other songs may have seemed superficially innocent but often concealed a drug theme.
Reed’s music reached a much wider audience in 1997 when the BBC chose his sweet melody Perfect Day as a promotion to publicize the Corporation’s music coverage.
It featured a host of big-name stars (including David Bowie, Bono, Boyzone and the BBC Symphony Orchestra). The record was released as a charity single in aid of Children In Need and was No?1 for three weeks.
But few license fee-payers — or, clearly, BBC executives — realized the song and its seemingly romantic chorus, ‘It’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you’, was a paean to heroin.
Reed, dubbed the ‘godfather of punk rock’, was unrepentant about his drug dependency.
He once said: ‘I take drugs just because, in the 20th century, in a technological age living in the city, there are certain drugs you have to take just to keep yourself normal like a caveman, just to bring yourself up or down. But to attain equilibrium you need to take certain drugs. They don’t get you high even, they just get you normal.’
Despite modest record sales, The Velvet Underground were credited as one of the most influential bands of the Sixties, inspiring both punk and glam rock.
After splitting from the group in 1970, Reed moved back in with his parents, worked as a typist and started writing poetry. In 1973, he married a secretary named Bettye Kronstadt.
It was only a passing phase, however. Divorcing after less than a year of marriage, he moved to Britain and became close to the equally flamboyant David Bowie. With Ziggy Stardust as his mentor, Reed entered a new phase of outrageousness.
Bowie’s wife Angie once described Reed as ‘wearing heavy mascara and jet black lipstick with matching nail polish, plus a tight little Errol-Flynn-as-Robin Hood body shirt’.
His face was permanently caked in eyeliner and he launched into a bizarre relationship with a transsexual Mexican hairdresser called Rachel.
These were the years of Reed’s biggest commercial success. Walk On The Wild Side was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic despite its crude allusions to oral sex. All the while, Reed’s drug-use escalated.
During the Seventies, only the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards came close to competing with Reed when it came to rock star drug abuse. Friends wondered who would die first. (Richards, of course, is still going strong.)
Reed binged on drugs and alcohol, gained weight and then lost it again. Although he later insisted he had never tried in his lyrics to encourage others to take heroin, many disagreed.
After Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols died of a heroin overdose, bandmate Johnny Rotten observed: ‘I blame it on too many Lou Reed albums.’
Rock critic Lester Bangs described Reed as ‘so transcendentally emaciated he had become insectival’. His resemblance to a stick insect was strengthened by his insistence on wearing drainpipe leather trousers and large sunglasses.
When Bowie suggested that he ought to clean up his life, Reed hit him. As his life descended into addiction, his musical career slumped. A series of experimental albums were dismissed as embarrassing flops.
Lester Bangs — a devoted fan who was allowed into Reed’s hotel room for all-night drinking and bitching sessions — once described him as a ‘completely depraved pervert and pathetic death dwarf’.
However, Reed overcame his addictions in the Eighties, was married to British designer Sylvia Morales for ten years and started rediscovering commercial success.
But the physical strain clearly had already taken an irreversible toll on his body. In recent years, Reed substituted his notoriety for drug-taking with an equal reputation for surly behavior.
He reduced the Britain’s Got Talent star Susan Boyle to tears in 2010 after he refused to let her perform Perfect Day on the America’s Got Talent TV show.
He could be horrendously rude in interviews, bawling out anyone who dared point out how much he contradicted himself.
After news of his death was announced yesterday, tributes flooded in from fellow musicians who saw Reed as one of rock music’s most influential figures.
‘RIP Lou Reed. Walk on the peaceful side,’ said The Who on Twitter. Lou Reed had sung ominously in Perfect Day: ‘You’re going to reap just what you sow.’