"They're gonna kill, kill your sons," he wrote, "until they run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run away."
In high school and at Syracuse University, he played rhythm guitar in bands, performing upbeat campus staples like "Twist and Shout." At the same time, he was cultivating the darker artist within, devouring the urban underworld stories of Hubert Selby Jr. and cementing a lifelong friendship with Syracuse instructor Delmore Schwartz, a talented poet who struggled with mental illness for decades.
Graduating from Syracuse with a bachelor's degree in English in 1964, Reed headed for New York City. The following year, he first performed with Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen "Moe" Tucker — a provocative bunch who came to call themselves the Velvet Underground.
The idea was to be exactly what the mid-'60s were not. The Velvet Underground aimed to rip the petals off flower power and focus on grimmer urban landscapes. It would not play blues or indulge in the popular R&B licks of the day, Reed vowed.
"This is going to be city," he said, reminiscing about the group's origin, at the 2008 South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. "This is going to be pure."
The group's 1967 debut album, "The Velvet Underground and Nico," showcased "Heroin," an ode to the drug by a user who sang that being high made him "better off than dead":
When the smack begins to flow
Then I really don't care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And all the politicians makin' crazy sounds
And everybody puttin' everybody else down
And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds
At the time, such subjects were off limits for song writers, Robert Hilburn, The Times' former rock critic, said Sunday.
Reed "talked about heroin and illicit sex at a time when the music industry didn't want to hear it," Hilburn said. "Critics loved him, but it took him years and years to find an audience."
The pop artist Andy Warhol was a fan almost immediately. He made the Velvet Underground his studio's house band and gave the group a front-and-center position in his series of multimedia events called Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
By the time the Velvet Underground dissolved in 1970, the group had released four albums and recorded enough material for the release of two others in the mid-1980s. Its best-known songs include "Sweet Jane" and "I'm Waiting for the Man."
As a solo performer in the 1970s, Reed had a distinctive persona.
"Back then he was publicly gay, pretended to shoot heroin onstage, and cultivated a 'Dachau panda' look, with cropped peroxide hair and black circles painted under his eyes," the New York Times reported in 1998. "But in 1980, Reed renounced druggy theatrics, even swore off intoxicants themselves, and became openly heterosexual, openly married."
Along the way, he tested even his most stalwart fans with the 1975 double album "Metal Machine Music," a compilation of guitar noise that has been called "one of the most perverse recordings of the modern era, at least by a mainstream artist."
Reed also had a number of smash hits on his own. In his 1972 album "Transformer," produced with David Bowie, he sang his famous "Walk on the Wild Side," an anthem to a variety of sexual experiences.
In the heat of the 1996 presidential campaign, he released "Sex With Your Parents," a song aiming "to mock and ridicule the right-wing Republican fundamentalists who are so abhorrent to every principle of freedom of expression."
His most recently released recorded work was "Lulu," a 2011 collaboration with the heavy metal act Metallica.
Reed was divorced twice. He is survived by his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008.
Times staff writers Todd Martens and Jessica Gelt contributed to this report.