By Leah Greenblatt
Updated October 27, 2013 at 06:28 PM EDT
Credit: Juan Naharro Gimenez/WireImage/Getty Images

Lou Reed, one of the most seminal figures of the rock era, has died of undisclosed causes at age 71, according to a report on Rolling Stone. He underwent a liver transplant in May, which may be connected to his cause of death.

From his early days with the Velvet Underground to his pioneering solo work, Reed became both a working legend and a totem of alternative culture and eternal, scowling cool. Born Lewis Allan Reed in Brooklyn in 1942, he studied journalism, film directing, and creative writing at Syracuse University and worked as a songwriter for a small record label before forming VU with original members John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker in 1964.

The Velvet Underground would essentially become the house band for Andy Warhol’s burgeoning downtown scene (he promoted them heavily, and paired them with German model/chanteuse Nico for a time), and though their 1967 debut The Velvet Underground & Nico hardly caused a ripple commercially, their sound — steeped in drugs and sex and the darker edges of bohemian excess — was hugely influential. (Brian Eno is supposedly the one who said, “Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band.”)

The group cycled through multiple personnel changes throughout 1968’s White Light/White Heat, 1969’s The Velvet Underground, and 1970’s Loaded, and Reed left for good in 1970. After a short-lived stint in his father’s tax accounting firm, Reed signed with RCA Records and released his critically acclaimed self-titled debut. It too fell well short of making him a household name, but the album further burnished his reputation as a singular talent. His closest brush with mainstream success came with 1972’s Tranformer and its loping misfit anthem “Walk on the Wild Side.” (Songs like “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love” never charted, but remain staples of college dorm rooms and alt playlists.)

1975’s Metal Machine Music, a deliberately harsh experiment in dissonance and noise, divided listeners. Some saw it as an avant garde masterpiece; others found it unlistenable. But Reed never sought approval, and rarely offered it. His attitude, like his ambiguous sexuality and legendary drug consumption, was nearly as much a part of his myth-making as his music.

He continued to release solo albums throughout the ’80s, and reunited with John Cale in 1991 for the Warhol tribute Songs for Drella. His most recent work was another collaboration, with Metallica, on the 2011 song cycle Lulu. Twice divorced, he married longtime love and fellow artist Laurie Anderson in 2008; he never had children.

The Velvet Underground

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