New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Caught between twisted stars
June 9, 2022 – March 4, 2023
Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery
June 9, 2022 – January 7, 2023
Lou Reed Listening Room in the Vincent Astor Gallery
The papers of a larger-than-life art rocker can add up. Thanks to performance artist Laurie Anderson, wife of Lou Reed for twenty-one years, an intriguing archive is now cataloged and available for caving at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. There are over one hundred linear feet of material and forty thousand additional computer files. Lou Reed: Caught Between Twisted Stars, an exhibit at the library borrows its title from “Romeo Had Juliet,” a gritty ’80s ballad by the late artist. The exhibit is curated by Reed archivist Don Fleming and former Reed assistant Jason Stern. In the library’s galleries, you can listen to intimate and rare recordings such as a static tape of Reed singing lovingly to his former mentor Andy Warhol about art as business. As you browse, you start to think that Reed has always managed to look sculpted, ironic, and cool. Reed’s portraits are satisfyingly iconic, each as raw material for a Warhol serigraph.
Among the many things the talking guitar showman knew how to do was pose. During the photo shoot for the 1983 album Legendary HeartsReed looks resolute as he holds a madmax-style motorcycle helmet under the arm. In another photo shoot, this time for a 1997 concert at New York’s Supper Club, he smokes a cigar and sports a tie. With a thin mustache and slicked back hair, he looks like both a crooner and a cartoon villain. The year before, 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 it?
Truly Lou Reed was a lot of Lou Reeds. For example, in a gallery below the rest of the exhibition, I listened as long as I could to his loud, wordless musical harangues, full of feedback, demanding metal machine music. Sounds like recordings made in an aircraft hangar under attack. “Radical innovator” is how Laurie Anderson summed up Reed during his posthumous induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He released an impressive twenty-two studio albums and thirty-one compilations and live albums during his lifetime. Anderson said she first struggled with the rage she heard on Lou Reed and Metallica’s 2011 album. Lulu. But David Bowie told him he knew audiences would catch up to him and recognize his brilliance as they did with Reed’s whimsical and literary 1973 album. Berlinabout bohemian and drugged romance.
As you would expect, there is a significant body of popular writing and growing scholarship on Reed and his mythical outlaw persona. Nearly five hundred pages, Lou Reed: A Life (2017), is just one of several biographies in Lou Reed’s expanding library. Its author, Anthony DeCurtis, tries to determine how much of a role Reed played on stage and how self-destructive he was. DeCurtis follows the saga of Reed’s life, beginning with the dreadful early years. (His parents took him for electroconvulsive therapy after he had a nervous breakdown for a year at NYU. They probably grouped his bisexuality with depression and mood swings among what they considered conditions requiring treatment.) According to DeCurtis, the immediate criticism and public reception of his new releases was never what Reed hoped for. These sometimes lukewarm or mocking responses may have contributed to his perfectionism and the storminess of his creative relationships even as he developed high-level friendships with luminaries like Czechoslovak President Václav Havel. (Reed discovered that Communists there had already imprisoned their citizens for playing his music.)
An illuminating chapter on Reed in Daniel Kane’s 2017 book”Do you have a group? » traces the evolution of Reed’s poetic sensibility as a continuation of the narrative tradition of blues music in light of the heroic and spiritually steeped vernacular of the Beats and its proximity to the experimental spontaneity and conversational tone of the poets of the New York school. Kane provides an in-depth analysis of Reed’s debut song “Heroin”. Kane hears “Heroin” as a queer song. (The heroine needle could be a phallic symbol and Reed’s fantasy in the song of a sailor suit a kind of gay cosplay). Kane also thinks “Heroin” pokes fun at “self-important dropouts ascribing deep meaning to their habit” and “Beat-era theaters and yearnings for transformative experiences.”
The show at the library is rightly a celebration, a series of discoveries and many seeds for further critical formulations. A copy of an issue of the literary journal The Transatlantic Review, published in 1975, is on display in one of the museum’s many showcases. Featuring a selection of American poetry compiled by photographer, poet and Andy Warhol collaborator Gerard Malanga, the issue includes works by Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and two little-known poems by Reed. Here is one of them, “He was thinking of insects in the lazy darkness”:
I was thinking about our nights together—(2)—
And realizing how good you were,
I hastily accused you of lacking taste (of loving me).
I then thought, in a most delicious moment
which surpasses all thought,
To dissolve you like a mint or
Like a ladybug.
He thought of insects in the lazy darkness.
This particular poem suggests playfulness and a semi-sweet, self-deprecating romantic ambivalence, or perhaps a more sinister violence. It also echoes some of Reed’s best-known songs like 1969’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” (“Sometimes I feel so happy / But mostly you drive me crazy.”) or “Andy’s Chest,” which Reed would have written for Warhol. to cheer him up after writer Valerie Solanas shot him in 1968. (“If I could be one of the things / In this biting world / Instead of a toothy 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 all words, no music, a brief, intriguing suggestion. The archives of the New York Public Library offer equally intriguing possibilities, perhaps even heralding other exhibitions to come. This is Lou Reed. Still. At least in spirit.