"Listening to the radio absolutely transformed me," he told The Times in 1992. "It was like a huge, major-league signal that there was another world, another life out there that everything wasn't as horrible as where I was."
A giant of rock, Reed sent the same message as deafeningly harsh as it often was to generations of punk aficionados and mainstream fans for nearly 50 years. The guitarist whose dark vision colored music for decades and whose 1960s group the Velvet Underground inspired musicians around the world, died Sunday in Southampton, N.Y., according to his literary agent Andrew Wylie.
Reed, 71, died of complications from a May liver transplant, Wylie said. In March, Reed had canceled his scheduled appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio.
First as the Velvet Underground's principal songwriter and then as a solo artist, Reed continued to challenge musical and cultural conventions, becoming a pioneer of what came to be known as art rock and punk rock. Summing up Reed's influence, music producer Brian Eno once said that although the Velvet Underground sold only 30,000 copies of its debut album in five years, "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."
On Sunday, Greg Harris, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said in a statement that Reed "cultivated a singular musical aesthetic that managed to be both arty and earthy, reflecting his college-educated yet streetwise-honed rock and roll narratives."
His work "provided the framework for generations of artists," Harris said, including Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, R.E.M. and U2.
Reed was inducted into the Cleveland-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, well after he was established as a global figure. Vaclav Havel, the writer and Czech president who led the 1989 uprising known as the Velvet Revolution, extolled Reed and hosted him in Prague. In 1998, at Havel's request, Reed performed at a White House dinner in Havel's honor.
Although cutting edge, Reed was credited with "introducing avant-garde rock to the mainstream," Neil Portnow, president and chief executive of the Recording Academy, an industry group, said Sunday. "His uniquely stripped-down style of guitar playing and poetic lyrics have had a massive influence across many rock genres."
Reed reveled in his music's simplicity.
"One chord is fine," he once said. "Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into jazz."
A sonic assault was as important to Reed as his emotionally raw lyrics, and fans delighted in both.
John Cale, the Velvet Underground's original keyboardist and viola player, on Sunday called Reed "a fine songwriter and poet."
"I've lost my 'school-yard buddy,'" he said in a Twitter message.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 2, 1942, the son of accountant Sidney Reed and his wife, Toby, Reed grew up in the Long Island suburb of Freeport.
It wasn't a happy childhood for him or his family.
"Tyrannically presiding over their middle-class home, he slashed screeching chords on his electric guitar, practiced an effeminate way of walking, drew his sister aside in conspiratorial conferences and threatened to throw the mother of all moodies if everyone didn't pay complete attention to him," Victor Bockris wrote in his 1995 Reed biography, "Transformer."
When Reed was 17, his parents sent him to a psychiatric hospital where he was given 24 rounds of electroconvulsive therapy to curb his homosexual tendencies. Years later, in 1974, he released a song about the ordeal called "Kill Your Sons," a harsh condemnation of "two-bit psychiatrists" and a clueless family.