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!'