A poet laureate of rock and roll is recovering from surgery for a liver transplant after years of addiction to heroin and alcohol.

Lou Reed — the 71-year-old founder of The Velvet Underground whose music epitomized the drug and counterculture of 1960s New York City — received a liver transplant at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Reed abruptly cancelled five concert dates in April for "unavoidable complications," before his wife Laurie Anderson informed the media of his condition. "It's as serious as it gets," she said. "He was dying. You don't get it for fun."

Anderson, a songwriter and performance artist, said the surgery went well. "It's a technological feat. I was completely awestruck. I find certain things about technology truly, deeply inspiring."

Reed's work has been influenced by addiction to drugs and alcohol, most evident in the controversial 1967 song "Heroin." Reed once told an interviewer, "I take drugs just because, in the 20th century, in a technological age living in the city, there are certain drugs you have to take just to keep yourself normal like a caveman, just to bring yourself up or down. But to attain equilibrium you need to take certain drugs. They don't get you high even, they just get you normal."

After the Velvet Underground failed to become a commercial success in the 1970s, Reed left the group for a solo career in 1971 and released the hit "Walk on the Wild Side" the next year. After releasing a double album in 1975 comprised of feedback loops he titled Metal Machine Music, he said, "No one is supposed to be able to do a thing like that and survive."

Following the death of two close friends from cancer, Reed released his sixteenth solo record in 1992 Magic and Loss, which deals with the subject of mortality.

Anderson had some choice words for American health care when speaking with media about her husband's condition, praising the Cleveland Clinic. "Fortunately we can outsource like corporations. It's medical tourism," she said. "The Cleveland clinic is massive. They have the best results for heart, liver and kidney transplants. Whenever I get discouraged about how stupid technology is and how greedy and stupid Americans are, I go to the Cleveland clinic because the people there are genuinely very kind and very smart."

That such an operation has become routine in modern medicine impressed Anderson. "This is no longer an operation that is life threatening," she said. "They put it [the new liver] in immediately and it started to work immediately. Every week it gets better. I can imagine a world where you can get everything transplanted."

Anderson said they'd flown to Cleveland for the surgery given the "dysfunctional" state of hospitals in New York, where they live.