On ViewNew York Public Library For The Performing Arts
Caught Between the Twisted Stars
June 9, 2022 – March 4, 2023
Donald And Mary Oenslager Gallery
Lou Reed Listening Room In The Vincent Astor Gallery
The papers of a larger-than-life art rocker can add up. Thanks to the performance artist Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed’s wife for twenty-one years, an intriguing archive is now cataloged and available for spelunking at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There are over a hundred linear feet of material and an additional forty thousand computer files. Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars, an exhibition at the library borrows its title from “Romeo Had Juliette,” a gritty eighties ballad by the late artist. The show is curated by Reed archivist Don Fleming and Reed’s former assistant, Jason Stern. In the library galleries, you can listen to intimate and rare recordings such as a staticky tape of Reed singing lovingly to his early mentor Andy Warhol about art as business. Walking through, you start to think Reed always managed to look sculpted, ironic, and cool. Portraits of Reed are satisfyingly iconic, each one like raw material for a Warhol silkscreen.
Among the many things the talk-singing guitar showman knew how to do was pose. At the photo shoot for the 1983 album Legendary Hearts, Reed looks resolute as he holds a Mad Max-style motorcycle helmet under his arm. At another photo shoot, this time for a 1997 concert at the Supper Club in New York, he smokes a cigar and sports a cravat. With a thin mustache and slicked-back hair, he looks part crooner and part winking cartoon villain. The year before that, an album release poster for Set the Twilight Reeling runs handwritten lyrics down the bridge of Reed’s nose, beginning with the imperative “Take me for what I am.” But, what is he?
Really Lou Reed was many Lou Reeds. For example, in a gallery located underneath the rest of the exhibition, I listened for as long as I could to his loud, lyricless, feedback-heavy, musical harangues of demanding Metal Machine Music. They sound like recordings made in an airplane hangar under attack. “Radical innovator” is one way Laurie Anderson summed up Reed at his posthumous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. He released an impressive twenty-two studio albums and thirty-one compilations and live albums during his lifetime. Anderson said she initially struggled with the rage she heard on the 2011 Lou Reed and Metallica album Lulu. But David Bowie told her he knew audiences would catch up with it and recognize its brilliance as they have with Reed’s moody, literary 1973 album Berlin, about bohemian, drug-addled romance.
As you might expect, there is a significant body of popular writing and a growing scholarship about Reed and his mythic outlaw persona. Almost five hundred pages long, Lou Reed: A Life (2017), is just one of the biographies on the expanding Lou Reed bookshelf. Its author, Anthony DeCurtis, tries to sort out how much Reed was playing a part onstage and how much he was self-destructive. DeCurtis tracks the saga of Reed’s life, starting with dreadful early years. (His parents took him for electroshock therapy after he suffered a nervous breakdown during a year at NYU. Likely, they lumped his bisexuality in with depression and mood swings among what they considered conditions needing treatment.) According to DeCurtis, the immediate critical and public reception for his new releases was never what Reed hoped. These sometimes lukewarm or mocking responses possibly contributed to his perfectionism and the storminess of his creative relationships even as he developed high-profile friendships with luminaries like Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel. (Reed discovered that Communists in that country had previously jailed their citizens for playing his music.)
An illuminating chapter on Reed in Daniel Kane’s 2017 book “Do You Have a Band?” charts the evolution of Reed’s poetic sensibility as a continuation of the storytelling tradition of blues music in light of the heroic, spiritually-infused vernacular of the Beats and his proximity to the experimental spontaneity and conversational tone of the New York School poets. Kane provides an in-depth analysis of Reed’s early song “Heroin.” Kane hears “Heroin” as a queer song. (The heroin needle could be a phallic symbol and Reed’s fantasy in the song of a sailor suit a kind of gay cosplay). Kane also feels that “Heroin” makes fun of “self-important dropouts ascribing deep meaning to their habit” and “Beat-era theatrics and longings for transformative experiences.”
The show at the library is rightfully celebratory, a series of discoveries and ample seeds for additional critical formulations. A copy of an issue of the literary magazine The Transatlantic Review, published in 1975, lays open in one of many museum cases. Featuring a selection of American poetry compiled by photographer, poet, and Andy Warhol collaborator Gerard Malanga, the issue includes work by Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and two little-known poems by Reed. Here’s one of them, “He Thought of Insects in the Lazy Darkness”:
I was thinking of our nights together—(2)—
And realizing how good you were,
Accused you hastily of lapsing taste (for loving me).
I then thought, in a most delicious instant
That stands beyond all reflection,
Of dissolving you like a mint or
Like a ladybug.
He thought of insects in the lazy darkness.
This peculiar poem suggests playfulness and a semi-sweet, self-deprecating romantic ambivalence, or maybe more sinister violence. It also echoes some of Reed’s better-known songs like “Pale Blue Eyes,” 1969. (“Sometimes I feel so happy/ But mostly, you just make me mad.”) Or “Andy’s Chest,” which Reed supposedly wrote for Warhol to cheer him up after the writer Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968. (“If I could be any one of the things/ In this world that bite/ Instead of a dentured ocelot on a leash/ I'd rather be a kite.”)
Reed published some of his songs as poems, but “Insects in the Lazy Darkness,” like Reed’s other early poems, is just words, no music, a brief and intriguing suggestion. The archives at the New York Public Library offer similarly intriguing possibilities, perhaps even pointing to more exhibitions to come. Here comes Lou Reed. Again. At least in spirit.