The Hidden Truths of Lou Reed’s Musical Poetry

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Lou Reed performing in 2009 (Photo by Amy-Beth McNeely)

“I used to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Lou Reed nervously reminds his audience at St. Mark’s Church’s Poetry Project in the winter of 1971. A year earlier he had left the Velvet Underground and was returning to his first calling : Write Poems. The complete audio of this reading is one of the many literary interludes in the multimedia exhibition Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

From the musician’s archive, Lou Reed Papers 1958-2015 (Reed died in 2013 aged 71), housed in the library, the exhibit was curated by a team that includes his widow, Laurie Anderson, and Don Fleming and Jason Stern belong. The exhibition includes personal letters, photographs, posters, audio-video stations, and an immersive listening space featuring live performances and “Metal Machine Trio: The Creation of the Universe,” Reed’s sound art installation presented in a wall-sized video with Ambisonic (3D ) sound designed by Raj Patel of Acoustic Engineering Group Arup.

The most interesting subplots of the exhibition are Reed’s practices as a poet and literary figure. His showbiz persona as a proto-punk underworld Elvis—crazy, evil, and dangerous for interviews—long eclipsed the introspective verse he was. Alongside wordsmiths like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Laura Nyro, he helped transform pop songwriting by drawing on his roots in literary culture. As late as 2006, Reed told an interviewer, “I wanted to sit [William] Burroughs [Beat-era novels] and Ginsberg’s howling in a [rock] Song.” Appropriately, the entrance to the exhibition features a video of Reed reading “Romeo Had Juliette” (1989). Without music, the lyrics are thoughtful and snappy, animated by Reed’s trademark dry phrasing—the spoken-word poet’s empathy, which is colored in various shades of New York gray.

Ephemera from the Lou Reed Papers, permanently housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (Photo by Alex Teplitzky)

An entire room is devoted solely to this literary identity: Reed as a hardworking English major who graduated with honors; the job-working poet among the poets published in magazines high times to life to The Paris Reviah; the older rocker who doubled in the MTV era as the leather-clad global ambassador of poetry. And Reed’s newly released volume, I will be your mirror: The collected texts (Hachette Books, 2020), could be required reading in a New York Poetics course.

Of course, the main attraction of the exhibition will be how Lewis Allan Reed became one of the many Lou Reeds that live in the world’s collective consciousness. This development is further distilled in newly remastered recordings, Lou Reed: Music and Words, May 1965 (Lights in the Attic Records, 2022). These original demos, some of which are featured in the exhibit, are based on unopened tapes that Reed sent himself as “poor man’s copyright” over half a century ago, and include stripped down versions of classics like “Heroin” and “Pale Blue Eyes’ (1967) and a series of previously unknown songs, showing a songwriter fluent in multiple folk and pop forms as well read in the darker pockets of modern literature.

This new LP, the early iteration of Reed’s “Waiting for My Man” (1967), like its later incarnation as the Velvet Underground anthem, famously takes middle-class white listeners on a journey to score at a Harlem heroin shooting gallery. But the exhibition shows that the songwriter grew up a safe distance from those mean streets. Candy came from out on the island, as the man sings in “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” (1972), as does Reed, who was born in 1942 and grew up in suburban Freeport, Long Island. The exhibition panels show that he was fascinated by doo-wop and early hits by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. His Syracuse professor, the poet Delmore Schwartz, taught him how to get comparatively high on books by reading aloud from Joyce Finnegans Wake (1939). (For a deep dive into those formative years, the curators have released an intimate, revealing interview with Reed’s classmate and lifelong friend at Syracuse University, musician Garland Jeffreys.)

The Primitives (left to right: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, John Cale). From the Lou Reed Archive, Music Division, NY Public Library for the Performing Arts (Courtesy Canal Street Communications, Inc., © 2022 Canal Street Communications, Inc.)

After graduating in 1964, Reed took a job writing multi-genre pop fodder for music publisher Pickwick International in New York, where during a studio session he met his future VU bandmate, the Welsh-born, classically-trained avant-garde musician John Cale. As the exhibition shows, things then got really interesting. At night, Reed and his band were performing in downtown clubs when filmmaker Barbara Rubin introduced them to Andy Warhol, who immediately became her former manager. In this white-hot milieu, Reed, encouraged by Warhol, took full ownership of his songwriting alchemy: he took the succinct economics that structures a pop hit like Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love” (1959) to replace the sugary palaver of pop lyrics through stories about lovers, addicts, dropouts, rent-boys, artists and rebels that he knew firsthand and picked up from reading novels like Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last exit to Brooklyn (1964).

In his intro to I will be your mirrorReed says he tried to write songs about the “sad chaos” of real life. “We are the people who are desperate beyond emotion,” as he put it in his prose poem We Are the People (1970) (recently recited by Iggy Pop in a new video). However dark or violent, Reed’s tight song stories draw on humorous and twisted and poignant metaphors, serving up pop clichés to turn them on their head and reveal hidden truths. “You will reap what you sow,” says this unexpected, singing coda to “Perfect Day” (1972), Reed’s warped homage to young love.

Ephemera from the Lou Reed Papers, permanently housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (Photo by Alex Teplitzky)

While its wayward characters peer through filthy windows and seek transcendence and twilight, they don’t place much emphasis on self-care, or even self-care even“What do you think I would see,” sings the singer in “Candy Says” (1967), “if I could get away from myself.” And what we would blithely call “toxic” in people or relationships, Reed represents as unforgiving conditions in life, and – as he shows in the LP with social awareness new York — everyday sadism also characterizes urban spaces and political life. Desire and its cousin, ambition, are the drugs no one can kick. His shrewdest lyrics meld cryptic confession, perverse humiliation and twisted exorcism, built around simply three chords and augmented by some of rock’s finest session musicians and engineers.

Caught between the twisted stars shows that there is timely deliverance and even some solace to be found in this Reedian corpus, and one has to wonder at the resulting glory and shame – the purely physical toll of it all. He never took a break. Still, Reed continued to draw on these literary leanings, through two collaborations with director Robert Wilson (time rocker1996, based on HG Wells, and poetry2000, inspired by Edgar Allen Poe), and his estate produced a posthumous collection of poetry called Do angels need a haircut? (Anthology Editions, 2018). The exhibition also reveals that in Reed’s final decades, members of Britain’s rock songwriting royalty such as Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page regularly sent him limited editions of their latest material to solicit his approval, just as generations of already successful younger rockers collaborated with him, to replenish their artistic street credit.

Lou Reed performing in 2009 (Photo by Amy-Beth McNeely)

Renewed literary credibility probably motivated Reed to join the poetry community at St Marks Church in 1971. In poetry, our least commodifiable form among cultural media, he’s likely regained creative abilities credited to him by his most famous and perhaps profoundly influenced fan, David Bowie, who tells PBS American Masters Documentary filmmaker in 1997 that Reed was somehow reimagining the intricate art of rock songwriting by exemplifying John Lennon’s blunt advice to aspiring writers: “Say what you mean, rhyme it, put it on a backbeat.”

It sounds deceptively easy. But as the ancient Greek poets knew – and so did Reed – poetry is the first element of music.

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars continues through March 4, 2023 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (40 Lincoln Center Plaza, Upper West Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Don Fleming and Jason Stern.

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