Few rock artists have been more influential without achieving superstardom than Lou Reed.
While he flirted with mainstream success between 1970 (when he left the Velvet Underground) and 2013 (when he succumbed to liver disease), he most often played to a large cult following that only occasionally expanded into mainstream visibility. However, his songwriting — unusually literate and often embracing themes that flouted society’s conventions, especially in terms of drugs and sex — broke fresh ground that other artists would follow, and his willingness to confront his audience made him a vitally important precursor to the punk revolution of the mid- to late ’70s. (He often said that his goal was to apply the freedom and creative sensibility of literature to rock music.)
Reed was not as celebrated as a guitarist, but the energetic report of his rhythm playing and the noisy grace of his leads and solos made him a hero to musicians who valued passion and feel over chops. And in his catalog, he covered a remarkable amount of stylistic ground — introspective singer/songwriter (Lou Reed), glam (Transformer), art rock (Berlin), hard rock (Rock N’ Roll Animal), noise (Metal Machine Music), confessional proto-punk (Street Hassle), jazz-infused rock (The Bells), upbeat pop/rock (New Sensations), social commentary (New York), and ambitious literary adaptations (The Raven). For all his creative shape-shifting, however, he never failed to sound like Lou Reed, with his ineffable downtown cool and dour outlook informing it all.