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Happy Birthday to the Controversial and Contentious Lou Reed

Who would have guessed that at age 70, Lou Reed would remain as irascible and irreverent as ever? 

Born in Brooklyn on March 2, 1942, Lewis Allan Reed came to be known as one of the world's most infamous insurgents. He is a musical icon who foretold the emergence of the New York punk scene when he founded the Velvet Underground in 1966 and subsequently established himself as an indomitable presence in the 40-plus years since. Few artists will admit they haven't been influenced by the mighty Lou, and few of his fans will deny they've been awed, amazed, and even shocked by his solo work over the decades. 

Indeed, Reed is one of those seminal figures who made a truly lasting imprint on the evolution of modern music while he continues to redefine it even today. 

Still, it seemed that early on, Reed's life would put him on a course that was destined to lead to controversy. 

After indulging his musical interests in a doo-wop group called the Jades, his parents sidelined him by forcing him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy as a supposed "cure" for his bisexual behavior. "They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head," Reed later recounted. "That's what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can't read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again." Reed was only 14 at the time.

Nevertheless, once Reed reached his early twenties, he conquered his trauma and was able to relocate to New York City. There, he embarked on a professional music career, first as a staff writer for Pickwick Records (One of his few hits, a song called "The Ostrich," featured the memorable line, "Put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it."), and later as a member of the label's in-house band, the Primitives. The group also included a young Welsh musician named John Cale, and the two soon joined forces with guitarist Sterling Morrison, drummer Maureen Tucker, and an erotic Europeon chanteuse named Nico to form the Velvet Underground. 

The band quickly fell under the Svengali-like guidance of artist Andy Warhol, who made them his house band of sorts, leading in turn to the recording of one of the most influential albums of the last 50 years, The Velvet Underground and Nico. By the time Reed left the group in 1970, they had produced three more classic recordings - White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, and inscribed several songs, including "Heroin," "Sweet Jane," and "Rock and Roll" among them, into the modern rock vocabulary. 

Reed's solo career was similarly auspicious, if not quite as contentious. Although his eponymous debut failed to maintain momentum, subsequent albums like Transformer, Berlin, the live Rock 'n' Roll Animal and Sally Can't Dance, quickly established him as an extraordinary presence on his own. Likewise, an early association with David Bowie took him from punk to glam while helping him define his own austere identity. 

Even so, Reed's trajectory remained fraught with controversy and frustrating twists and turns. Here are some of the more confounding and creative efforts that have helped define Reed's freaky persona: 

One of the most harrowing songs in the entire rock canon, "Heroin" was one of the first of Reed's songs to describe in explicit detail the seamy underground environs of drugs and sex that pervaded New York's counter-culture in the mid to late '60s. Controversial then, it's no less so now. 

"White Light/White Heat" 
Searing and defiant, this became a Reed standard both for the Velvets and beyond, as well as an early staple of David Bowie's live stage show. 

"Sweet Jane" 
One of the most covered songs of all time, it still sets a standard as far as great rockers are concerned. 

"Walk on the Wild Side"  
Reed namedrops the freaks and hanger-ons that were a part of Andy Warhol's inner circle. It remains Reed's first and only top 40 hit, as well as an enduring a staple on classic rock radio. 

An eerie yet low-key exploration of decay and decadence, this inspired period piece was a brilliantly conceived concept album that also featured an all-star cast of guest performers. Among them was Yes' Rick Wakeman and Cream's Jack Bruce. It still remains Reed's most consistent and creative solo endeavor. 

"Metal Machine Music"
"No one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive," Reed once commented. Widely vilified as the worst album ever recorded, it was rumored to have been Reed's way of breaking his contract with RCA. He later claimed it was intended as a legitimate experimental piece. In either case, its use of feedback and effects renders it all but un-listenable.

"Coney Island Baby"  
Rachel, a transgender woman Reed was involved with at the time, inspired one of the mellower, more accessible and unusually agreeable albums in all of Reed's repertoire. 

"Blue Mask"  
Another intriguing and inspired effort on Reed's part, the album also marked his initial collaboration with guitarist Robert Quine, a musician largely responsible for Reed's rebirth of ingenuity. 

"Songs for Drella" 
Reed reunites with John Cale after two decades of estrangement. Dedicated to Andy Warhol - who was nicknamed Drella - Reed sings of regret, remorse and remembrance with eloquence and admiration. 

"The Raven" 
A monumental work inspired by Reed's newfound interest in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, it found him reworking some of the poet's verse and writing songs inspired by a great literary master of the 19th century. 

What a lulu indeed! Even in his old age, Reed is still prone to surprises. An unlikely collaboration with Metallica, borne from their joint appearance at the rock 'n' roll anniversary celebration, it brings to mind Metal Machine Music in all its dissonance. .

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Lee Zimmerman

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