Reed died in Southampton, New York, of an ailment related to his recent liver transplant, according to his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who added he had been in poor health for months.
Reed shared a home in Southampton with his wife and fellow musician Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008.
Reed never approached the commercial success of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, but no songwriter to emerge after Dylan so radically expanded the territory of rock lyrics.
No band did more than the Velvet Underground to open rock music to the avant-garde — to experimental theatre, art, literature and film, to William Burroughs and Kurt Weill, to John Cage and Andy Warhol, Reed’s early patron.
Indie rock as we know it began in the 1960s with Reed and the Velvets; the punk, New Wave, and alternative rock movements of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s were all indebted to Reed, whose songs were covered by Patti Smith, Nirvana, and countless others.
“The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years,” record producer Brian Eno once said. “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”
Reed’s trademarks were a monotone of surprising emotional range and power; slashing, grinding guitar; and lyrics that were complex, yet conversational.
He was a cynic and a seeker who seemed to embody downtown Manhattan culture of the 1960s and ’70s and was as essential a New York artist as Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen.
Reed’s New York was a jaded city of drag queens, drug addicts and violence, but it was also as wondrous as any Allen comedy, with so many of Reed’s songs explorations of right and wrong and quests for transcendence.
He had one top 20 hit, ‘Walk On the Wild Side’, and many other songs that became standards among his admirers, from ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sweet Jane’ to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ and ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’.
The Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and their landmark debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, was added to the US Library of Congress’s registry in 2006.
Reed was born to be a suburban dropout. He hated school, loved rock ‘n’ roll, fought with his parents, and attacked them in song for forcing him to undergo electroshock therapy as a supposed “cure” for being bisexual.
His real break began in college. At Syracuse University, New York, he studied under Delmore Schwartz, whom Reed would call the first “great man” he ever encountered.
Reed lived in New York City after college, where he met Welsh viola player John Cale, with whom Reed soon performed in such makeshift groups as the Warlocks and the Primitives.
They were joined by guitarist-bassist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker and renamed themselves The Velvet Underground after a book about the sexual subculture.
By the mid-1960s, they were rehearsing at Warhol’s “Factory”, a meeting ground of art, music, orgies, drug parties, and screen tests for films that ended up being projected onto the band while it performed, part of what Warhol called the Floating Plastic Inevitable.
The mainstream press, still seeking a handle on The Beatles and Rolling Stones, was thrown entirely by the Velvet Underground. The New York Times at first could not find the words, calling the Velvets “Warhol’s jazz band” in a Jan 1966 story and “a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and Egyptian belly-dance music” just days later.
At Warhol’s suggestion, they performed and recorded with the sultry, German-born Nico, a “chanteuse” who sang lead on a handful of songs from their debut album.
A storm cloud over 1967’s Summer of Love, The Velvet Underground & Nico featured a now-iconic Warhol drawing of a (peelable) banana on the cover.
Reed made just three more albums with The Velvet Underground before leaving in 1970. Cale was pushed out by Reed in 1968 and was replaced by Doug Yule. Their sound turned more accessible, and the final album with Reed, Loaded, included two upbeat anthems, ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘Sweet Jane’.
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 Songs for Drella, a 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 with the 2002 concept album about Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven.