Reed was born in Freeport, Long Island, New York. Reed was a fan of rock and rhythm and blues, playing in several high school rock bands, and had recorded a doo wop-style single as a member of The Shades. Reed attended Syracuse University where he met poet Delmore Schwartz, who Reed credits for his simple poetic vernacular and the encouragement to become a writer. Reed also developed a taste for free jazz and experimental music. Reed said later his goals were "to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music," or to write the Great American Novel in a record album.
Reed moved to New York City, working as a songwriter for Pickwick records, and co-formed The Velvet Underground as lead guitarist/vocalist/lyricist. Though internally unstable (breaking up in 1970) and never commercially viable, the VU's reputation as the ultimate, most influential underground band has remained intact.
In 1972 Reed, now a solo artist, released the glam rock album Transformer, produced by David Bowie. He followed this with Berlin, which tells something like a love story of two junkies in that city. This, one of the more depressing albums ever made, includes "Caroline Says II" (violence), "The Kids" (prostitution and drug addiction), "The Bed" (suicide) and, unsurprisingly, "Sad Song."
Reed's chosen subject matter was far ahead of its time. Popular music would not catch up to him until the punks in the mid- to late-1970s, but even then his songs were unique: whether drenched in feedback or gently melodic, Reed usually sang about the disturbing, if not sordid, things other lyricists left out. "Walk on the Wild Side" is a wry and graphic salute to the misfits, male hustlers and transvestites at Andy Warhol's Factory. "Perfect Day" is an elegiac paean to Reed's addiction to heroin, later included on the soundtrack to Trainspotting. In his chosen material Reed followed, and updated, such authors as Allen Ginsberg and Jean Genet. Reed's persona was also far advanced, preferring black leather and S&M-like gear even in the hippie-infested 1960s.
In 1975, he produced the double studio album of pure guitar feedback Metal Machine Music. Some regarded it as an attempt to break his record company contract. Lester Bangs declared it genius. Though admitting that the liner notes' list of instruments used is fictitious and parodistic, Reed maintains that MMM was and is a serious album. His albums of the late 1970s are often regarded as a mixed affair by rock critics, owing at least partly to the addictions that were then overtaking Reed.
In the early 1980s, Reed gave up the drugs and depravity, both in his work and in his private life, to address more serious concerns, notably on his acclaimed comeback album The Blue Mask. He married Sylvia Morales (later divorced). Reed fired an angry salvo at his hometown's political problems on the hit album New York, denouncing crime, high rents, Jesse Jackson, even Pope John Paul II and Kurt Waldheim. When one-time Velvet Underground patron and producer Andy Warhol died after a routine surgery, Reed closed a 25-year hiatus to collaborate with fellow ex-VU John Cale on Songs for Drella, a Warhol biography in minimalist pop music. Touchingly affectionate and painfully confessional, often witty, Reed's vocals blister when singing of alleged medical errors and Valerie Solanas' 1968 assassination attempt on Warhol.
Reed continued on those dark notes with Magic and Loss, an album about mortality. In 1997 over thirty artists covered "Perfect Day" for the BBC's "Children in Need" appeal. In 2001 he was the victim of a hoax claiming he had died of a heroin overdose. In 2003, he released a 2-CD set, The Raven, based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
He is often seen in the company of fellow artist Laurie Anderson.