Since 2008, he has been married to the musician, multi-media and performance artist Laurie Anderson.
Reed was born into a Jewish family at Beth El Hospital in Brooklyn and grew up in Freeport, New York. Contrary to some sources, his birth name was Lewis Allan Reed, not Louis Firbanks (that name was a joke started by Lester Bangs for Creem magazine). Having learned to play the guitar from the radio, he developed an early interest in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and during high school played in a number of bands. His first recording was as a member of a doo wop-style group called The Jades.
Reed received electroconvulsive therapy in his teen years to "cure" homosexual behavior; he wrote about the experience in his 1974 song, "Kill Your Sons". In an interview, Reed said of the experience:
"They put the thing down your throat so you don't swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. 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 began attending Syracuse University in the fall of 1960, studying journalism, film directing, and creative writing before finding his true calling when he began hosting a late-night radio program on WAER called "Excursions On A Wobbly Rail". Named after a song by pianist Cecil Taylor, the program typically featured doo wop, rhythm and blues and jazz, particularly the free jazz developed in the mid-1950s. Many of Reed's guitar techniques, such as the guitar-drum roll, were inspired by jazz saxophonists, notably Ornette Coleman. Reed graduated from the Syracuse College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in June 1964.
Noted poet Delmore Schwartz taught at Syracuse and befriended Reed, who in 1966 dedicated to Schwartz the song "European Son", from the Velvet Underground's debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico. In 1982, Reed recorded "My House" as a tribute to his late mentor: "My Dedalus to your Bloom was such a perfect wit." He said later his goals as a writer were "to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music" or to write the Great American Novel in a record album.
In 1963, Reed moved to New York City, and began working as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. In 1964, he scored a minor hit with the single "The Ostrich", a parodic novelty song of popular "dance songs" such as "The Twist" that included lines such as "put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it." His employers had felt the song had hit potential, and arranged for a band to be assembled around Reed to promote the recording. The ad hoc group, called The Primitives, included Welsh musician John Cale, who had recently moved to New York to study music and was playing viola in composer La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music along with Tony Conrad. Cale and Conrad were both surprised to find that for "The Ostrich" Reed tuned each string of his guitar to the same note. This technique created a drone effect similar to their experimentation in Young's avant garde ensemble. Disappointed with Reed's performance, Cale was nevertheless impressed by Reed's early repertoire (including "Heroin"), and a partnership began to evolve.
Reed and Cale lived together on the Lower East Side, and, adding Reed's college acquaintances guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker to the group, they formed The Velvet Underground. Though internally unstable (Cale left in 1968; Reed in 1970) and never achieving significant commercial success, the band has a long-standing reputation as one of the most influential underground bands in rock history.
The group caught the attention of notable artist Andy Warhol, who raised their profile immeasurably, if not improving their immediate fortunes. One of Warhol's first contributions to the band's success was securing them a steady spot as the house band at Max's Kansas City. Warhol's associates inspired many of Reed's songs as he fell into a thriving, multifaceted artistic scene. Reed rarely gives an interview without paying homage to Warhol as a mentor figure. Still, conflict emerged when Warhol had the idea for the group to take on as "chanteuse" the European former model Nico. Reed and the others registered their objection by titling their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico to imply that Nico was not accepted as a member of the group. Despite his initial resistance, Reed wrote several songs for Nico to sing, and the two were briefly lovers (as were Nico and Cale later). At the time, this album reached #171 on the charts.
Today, however, it is considered one of the most influential rock albums ever produced, influencing glam rock, punk, post punk, gothic rock, shoegazing and more. Rolling Stone has it listed as the 13th-best album of all time. Brian Eno once famously stated that although few people bought the album, most of those who did were inspired to form their own band.
By the time the band recorded White Light/White Heat, Nico had quit and Warhol was fired, both against Cale's wishes. Warhol's replacement as manager, Steve Sesnick, convinced Reed to drive Cale out of the band. Morrison and Tucker were discomfited by Reed's tactics but continued with the group. Cale's replacement was Doug Yule, whom Reed would often facetiously introduce as his younger brother. The group now took on a more pop-oriented sound and acted more as a vehicle for Reed to develop his songwriting craft. The group released two more albums with this line up: 1969's The Velvet Underground and 1970's Loaded. The latter included two of the group's most commercially successful songs, "Rock and Roll" and "Sweet Jane". Reed left the Velvet Underground in August 1970; the band disintegrated as core members Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker departed in August 1971 and early 1972, respectively. Yule continued until early 1973, and the band released one more studio album, Squeeze, under the Velvet Underground name.
After the band's move to Atlantic Records' Cotillion label, their new manager pushed Reed to change the subject matter of his songs to lighter topics in hopes of resulting in more accessible and mainstream music. The band's album Loaded had taken more time to record than the previous three albums together and was written and produced to be "loaded with hits", but had not broken the band through to a wider audience. Reed briefly retired to his parents' home on Long Island.
After quitting the Velvet Underground in August 1970, Reed took a job at his father's tax accounting firm as a typist, by his own account earning $40 a week. A year later, however, he signed a recording contract with RCA and recorded his first solo album in London with top session musicians including Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, members of the progressive rock group Yes. The album, simply titled Lou Reed, contained smoothly produced, re-recorded versions of unreleased Velvet Underground songs, some of which were originally recorded by the Velvets for Loaded but shelved (see the Peel Slowly and See box set). This first solo album was overlooked by most pop music critics (although Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone called it "almost perfect") and it did not sell in significant numbers.
In 1972 Reed released the glam rock record Transformer. David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced the album and introduced Reed to a wider popular audience (specifically in the UK). The hit single "Walk on the Wild Side" was both a salute and swipe at the misfits, hustlers, and transvestites in Andy Warhol's Factory. The song's cleverly transgressive lyrics evaded radio censorship. Though musically somewhat atypical for Reed, it eventually became his signature song. The song came about as a result of his commission to compose a soundtrack to a theatrical adaptation of Nelson Algren's novel of the same name, though the play failed to materialize. Ronson's arrangements brought out new aspects of Reed's songs; "Perfect Day", for example, features delicate strings and soaring dynamics. It was rediscovered in the 1990s and allowed Reed to drop "Walk on the Wild Side" from his concerts.
Though Transformer would prove to be Reed's commercial and critical pinnacle, there was no small amount of resentment in Reed devoted to the shadow the record cast over the rest of his career. A public argument between Bowie and Reed ended their working relationship for several years, though the subject of the argument is not known. The two reconciled some years later, and Reed performed with Bowie at the latter's 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997. The two would not formally collaborate again until 2003's The Raven. Reed followed Transformer with the darker Berlin, which tells the story of two junkies in love in the titular city. The songs variously concern domestic abuse ("Caroline Says I", "Caroline Says II"), drug addiction ("How Do You Think It Feels"), adultery and prostitution ("The Kids"), and suicide ("The Bed").
As he had done with Berlin after Transformer, in 1975 Reed responded to his glam rock success with a commercial failure, a double album of electronically generated audio feedback, Metal Machine Music. Critics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt, an attempt to break his contract with RCA or to alienate his less sophisticated fans. But Reed claimed that the album was a genuine artistic effort, even suggesting that quotations of classical music could be found buried in the feedback. Lester Bangs declared it "genius", though also as psychologically disturbing. The album was reportedly returned to stores by the thousands after a few weeks. Though later admitting that the liner notes' list of instruments is fictitious and intended as parody, Reed maintains that MMM was and is a serious album. He has since stated though that at the time he had taken it seriously, he was also "very stoned". In the 2000s it was adapted for orchestral performance by the German ensemble Zeitkratzer.
By contrast, 1975's Coney Island Baby was mainly a warm and mellow album, though for its characters Reed still drew on the underbelly of city life. At this time his lover was a transgender woman, Rachel, mentioned in the dedication of "Coney Island Baby" and appearing in the photos on the cover of Reed's 1977 "best of" album, Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. While Rock and Roll Heart, his 1976 debut for his new record label Arista, fell short of expectations, Street Hassle (1978) was a return to form in the midst of the punk scene he had helped to inspire. But ironically Reed was dismissive of punk and rejected any affiliation with it. "I'm too literate to be into punk rock... The whole CBGB's, new Max's thing that everyone's into and what's going on in London — you don't seriously think I'm responsible for what's mostly rubbish?" The Bells (1979) featured jazz great Don Cherry, and was followed the following year by Growing Up in Public with guitarist Chuck Hammer. Around this period he also appeared as a sleazy record producer in Paul Simon's film One Trick Pony. Reed also played several unannounced one-off concerts in tiny downtown Manhattan clubs with the likes of Cale, Patti Smith, and David Byrne during this period. Cale later wrote the song "Woman" about Reed on his album BlackAcetate.
In 1980, Reed married British designer Sylvia Morales. They were divorced more than a decade later. While together, Morales inspired some of Reed's best known love songs, particularly "Think it Over" from 1980's Growing Up in Public and "Heavenly Arms" from 1982's The Blue Mask. After Legendary Hearts (1983) and New Sensations (1984) fared adequately on the charts, Reed was sufficiently rehabilitated as a public figure to become spokesman for Honda motorcycles.
On September 22, 1985, Reed performed at the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Illinois, USA. He performed "Doin' The Things That We Want To", "I Love You, Suzanne", and "New Sensations" from "New Sensations", and "Walk on The Wild Side".
In 1986, he joined the Amnesty International A Conspiracy of Hope Tour and was outspoken about New York's political issues and personalities on the 1989 album New York, commenting on crime, AIDS, Jesse Jackson, Kurt Waldheim, and Pope John Paul II.
Following Warhol's death after routine surgery in 1987, Reed again collaborated with John Cale on 1990's Songs for Drella (Drella - Warhol's nickname - is a blend of the words "Dracula" and "Cinderella"). The album marked an end to a 22-year estrangement. The album took the shape of a Warhol biography; on the album, Reed sings of his love for his late friend, but also criticizes both the doctors who were unable to save Warhol's life and Warhol's would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas.
In 1990, following a 20-year hiatus, the Velvet Underground reformed for a Cartier benefit in France. Reed released his sixteenth solo record, Magic and Loss in 1992, an album about mortality, inspired by the death of two close friends from cancer. In 1993, the Velvet Underground again reunited and toured throughout Europe, although plans for a North American tour were cancelled following another falling out between Reed and Cale. In 1994, Reed appeared in A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who, also known as Daltrey Sings Townshend. This was a two-night concert at Carnegie Hall produced by Roger Daltrey in celebration of his fiftieth birthday. In 1994, a CD and a VHS video were issued, and in 1998 a DVD was released. Reed performed a radically rearranged version of "Now And Then" from Psychoderelict.
In 1996, the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, Reed performed a song entitled "Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend" alongside former bandmates John Cale and Maureen Tucker, in dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, who had died the previous August. Reed has since been nominated for the Rock Hall as a solo artist twice, in 2000 and 2001, but has not been inducted.
His 1996 album, Set the Twilight Reeling, met with a lukewarm reception, but 2000's Ecstasy drew praise from most critics, including Robert Christgau. In 1996, Reed contributed songs and music to Time Rocker, an avant-garde theatrical interpretation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine staged by theater director Robert Wilson. The piece premiered in the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, and was later also shown at The Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
In 1998, the PBS TV show, American Masters aired Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' feature documentary Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart. This film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. and at the Berlin Film Festival in Germany went on to screen at over 50 festivals worldwide. In 1999, the film and Reed as its subject received a Grammy Award for best long form music video.
Since the late 1990s, Reed has been romantically linked to the musician, multi-media and performance artist Laurie Anderson, and the two have collaborated on a number of recordings together. Anderson contributed to "Call On Me" from Reed's project The Raven, to the tracks "Rouge" and "Rock Minuet" from Reed's Ecstasy, and to "Hang On To Your Emotions" from Reed's Set the Twilight Reeling. Reed contributed to "In Our Sleep" from Anderson's Bright Red and to "One Beautiful Evening" from her Life on a String. They were married on April 12, 2008.
On August 9, 2009, Reed performed as a subheadlining act at Lollapalooza in Chicago's Grant Park.
On October 30, 2009, Lou Reed performed the songs "Sweet Jane" and "White Light/White Heat" with Metallica at Madison Square Garden as part of the 25th-anniversary celebration of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Reed is the voice of Maltazard, the villain in the forthcoming Luc Besson animated film, Arthur and the Vengeance of Maltazard.
Reed plays the role of himself in Wim Wenders’ movie Palermo Shooting (2008)
Reed played at a benefit concert for Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs on January 22, 2010.
Reed contributed vocals to the third Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach. He guest stars on the track "Some Kind of Nature".
In 2009, Reed became an active member of The Jazz Foundation of America (JFA). Reed was a featured performer at the JFA's annual benefit "A Great Night in Harlem" in May 2009.