The Riff
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The Riff

Lou Reed’s R&R Odyssey

A fab show traces the long strange trip of the Godfather of Punk

I remember it like yesterday: my phone chat with Lou Reed (1942-2013). It was scheduled for 15 minutes, a Q&A for a podcast on popphoto.com, to run with a 2007 story on Reed’s photography in American Photo magazine, where I worked. I listened to Reed’s 1989 magnum opus New York for interview prep while walking in midtown. I researched his bio and his, let’s say, mixed reputation with interviewers. All this made me nervous as hell.

At first, he gave me a hard time, but we clicked when talking about his prized photos. In that era, they were surrealistic shots of NYC skylines, artfully blurred by low light and shutter lag. All seemed fine until I mentioned something (which was true): “Funny thing is, when your images arrived in our art department, someone said they look like Rudy Giuliani’s pictures of New York.”

[Lord knows how that quip left my lips. Mayor Rudy’s pics had run in the mag; no doubt about the pictorial resemblance. A silence fell.]

“I hope you’re not comparing my pictures with Rudy’s,” Reed began in a low tone.

“Oh no, yours are much better!” I backpedaled before he erupted in interrogatory fire: “I hope you’re not doing this story for the wrong reasons, are you? Like, because I’m a celebrity? Like your buddy Rudy?” He was starting to shout. “Maybe I should just pull this story! I take my photography very seriously!”

“That’s exactly the point,” I concurred, and somehow we got back to discussing his art and lowered the temperature. A couple of minutes shy of the allotted 15, his fixer jumped in to wrap up the call. (Whew!)

Of course, I was a damn fool that day, and we know Lou Reed did not suffer fools kindly. But as evidenced by a multimedia marvel — Caught Between the Twisted Stars, on exhibit at New York City’s Library for the Performing Arts through March 4 — Reed’s gruff side is all part of the charm.

And all part of a highly complex dude. The creative tyrant could be a sweetheart; former Velvet Underground bandmate Moe Tucker addressed a ’95 postcard to him as “Dear Honeybun.” The godfather of punk was a poet and storyteller at heart. The interview warrior was deeply into Tai Chi. The rebellious, bisexual hedonist turned out to be a sober family man. What to make of Lou Reed’s legacy?

The Collection

“When Lou died, he left everything to me,” writes Laurie Anderson — Reed’s wife, muse, artistic foil, and fellow provocateur — in museum notes. “It was overwhelming, and it took me a while to imagine what to do with it.”

After negotiations stalled with the Henry Ransom Center in Austin, TX, Anderson (who protested Texas’ 2015 law allowing guns on college campuses) turned Reed’s entire archive over to the New York Public Library, where it’s housed at the Performing Arts branch. Now a slice of it is free to see in Lou’s stomping grounds — with curators Don Fleming and Jason Stern making sense of it all.

This show recalls pre-Covid exhibitions on David Bowie and the Ramones. By comparison, the Reed show offers as much steak as sizzle — a true exploration of the man behind the mythology.

“This collection is to inspire people. Here’s a lot of his music and how he did it,” Anderson told the New York Times. “But it’s not and can’t be a real picture of the man. You don’t get to be Lou Reed overnight.”

The Vanguard

At the exhibition’s front gate is a video clip of the song that bequeathed its title. It’s a mullet-shorn Reed reciting one of his finest lyrics — ”Romeo Had Juliet” from his ’89 New York LP — as it was written: a poem. The song and album restored Reed as a delineator of the urban demimonde that he first weighed in on in the late ’60s.

The opening room swirls in the Velvet Underground, Reed’s avant-garde rock band that broke ground for (take your pick) punk, glam, new wave, goth, no wave, underground, grunge … and other alt-rock subgenres. Photos and clips trace the band from its early years — when Andy Warhol served as manager and hooked them up with German chanteuse Nico — through their reunions in the ’90s and aughts (For a fascinating take on the VU through everyone’s eyes, check out the 2021 Todd Hayes documentary The Velvet Underground.)

In the NYPL, we see psychedelia in B&W. Artifacts range from candid photos of Lou with Andy to ’66 videos of the band droning away as the in-house band for Warhol’s Factory; from thrilling audio of live shows at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 to Reed’s sweet elegy to VU guitarist Sterling Morrison (1942-95) in The New York Times Magazine shortly after his death.

Especially heartening are film clips of a reunited VU performing in 1990-93, with multitasker John Cale singing in place of the late Nico on signature songs like “Femme Fatale” and Cale out-wacking Reed’s manic guitar with his violin wails on “Heroin.” Reed and Cale also duet on gems from Songs for Drella, their 1990 tribute to Warhol.

The VU put Lou Reed on the map — but within four years of its birth, the mercurial leader had dismantled the band: firing Warhol (and parting with Nico) in ’67, forcing out musical partner Cale the next year, then walking away himself in ’70, marching to his own solo muse.

The Writer

If Reed had a chip on his shoulder, it likely stemmed from his rocky upbringing. Born in Brooklyn, he moved with his family at age 9 to the nascent suburb of Freeport, Long Island. In 2015 Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, wrote about family struggles during Lou’s adolescence, as he grappled with his isolation in the ’burbs, seesawing sexuality, dyslexia, depression, and anxiety; often self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, not to mention anger issues.

During his freshman year at New York University, Reed suffered a nervous breakdown, and his worried parents reluctantly agreed with a psychiatrist’s verdict: electroconvulsive therapy.

However much Reed resented the treatment, it did predicate a taste of conventional success: graduating cum laude with a B.A. in English from Syracuse University. Much credit goes to his literary mentorship with SU prof and poet/author Delmore Schwartz. “I wanted to write the Great American Novel,” Reed recalled, “but I also loved rock ’n’ roll.”

The show’s second room collects literary emblems, from influences like Schwartz and Allen Ginsberg to Reed’s Q&A with former Czech president Vaclav Havel (a mutual-admiration gabfest). We see pivotal poems and hear tapes of Reed’s readings at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project: confessional, wildly imagistic, galloping free verse recited with cool aplomb and manic intensity.

Letters include one from a Life reporter apologizing for the “editing” of Reed’s poem “Cans,” which ran with an ’89 photo essay shot by Eugene Richards about NYC can collectors. Reed rightly took umbrage as some verses were cut with no warning. It’s not nice to fool with Lou Reed’s poetry!

At some point, Reed — who’d been playing in bands since high school — decided poems and stories had more impact when set to music. Around the corner from the literary room is a true relic: a demo tape Reed made with John Cale in 1965, half a year before the Velvet Underground coalesced when both men were busking on NYC streets.

Reed had mailed the tape to himself as a “poor man’s copyright.” Acoustic versions of “Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin,” and “Pale Blue Eyes” sound like early Dylan on a very trippy day, complete with Reed’s picking & harmonica and the pair’s country-style harmonies. Reed never opened the package; it was found with his CDs. Now digitized, the tapes are mesmerizing.

The Performer

The main hall overviews Reed’s solo career via photographs, posters, films, memorabilia, and the requisite guitars. We see photo shoots behind classic Reed album covers (Transformer, The Blue Mask, New York) while portraits reflect Lou’s simpatico vibe with everyone from David Bowie and Iggy Pop to longtime creative partners: stage director Robert Wilson, producer and sound guru Hal Willner, and Reed’s wife, multimedia artist Laurie Anderson.

As fate would have it, Reed found his ideal artistic foil in Anderson. They were together from 1992 through his death; they wed in 2008. In their own iconoclastic ways, they could out-weird each other.

It all must’ve made for great dinner-table talk.

Both having vibrant solo careers, Lou and Laurie lit each other’s fire but rarely collaborated — they’re no John & Yoko. One exception is an avant-jazz trio with Reed on guitar, Anderson on violin, and John Zorn on saxophone; we see 2008 clips of them wigging out in performances at NYC’s art space The Stone, evincing a mutual love of avant-garde sound collage.

Nearby is a corner exhibit on Metal Machine Music, Reed’s infamous 1975 double-album in which he confounded the music world with 64 minutes of guitar feedback and electronic noise. “This record was supposed to have ended my career,” Reed says with a grin to a town-hall audience years later. “It had the largest amount of returns that anyone ever had in a lifetime.”

Still, he defends the work as a sonic experiment: “I wanted to do what I love about rock without being confined to a song,” he says. “No one could believe it was serious. But it was serious.” Decades later, some critics came to agree.

Reed would return to a similar avant-garde dirge — now live and in a more creative context — with Metal Machine Trio (2008), whose performances are in surround sound in the NYPL Listening Room, one floor below.

By contrast, Reed’s electrifying stage presence lights up a corner film room showing loops from the Lou Reed Video Collection.

Here people congregate to watch evolving clips from early VU interviews to Reed’s seminal Rock and Roll Animal set. One highlight shows a short-cropped blonde cooing his Top 40 hit “Walk on the Wild Side” in a loose live version.

The loops culminate in Reed’s final collaboration (2011) with Metallica on the fan-divisive Lulu project.

The Connoisseur

To all his music, Reed brought his own eclecticism as a fan. The final room opens with his records, including a set of 45-RPMs (digitized and programmable) centered on doo-wop, and R&B. Behind glass are shelved LPs ranging from Doc Pomus to Patti Smith; Dion to Captain Beefheart; Laurie Anderson to VU mates Nico and John Cale; Thelonius Monk to Ziggy Stardust.

Nearby is a wall full of televised Lou interviews, in which he explicates his art and tastes while fending off all doubters. So in one corner of the room we hear Reed dissing the Beatles (and pretty much all Brit-rockers); in the other is a typed letter from Paul McCartney with an advance copy of Flaming Pie, which Macca says is “sent to extremely groovy people such as yourself.”

Sprawled upward on the wall are myriad covers of albums, books, and films in which Reed appeared; below are deets and relics, like sparring letters with frenemy critic Lester Bangs across from Reed’s Tai Chi swords. A video shows an elder Reed reminiscing with photographer Mick Rock as they flip through prints: “I got lucky,” Rock says about the classic cover shot for Transformer, to which Reed replies, “If you get lucky nine times, it’s not luck.”

Outside the main show is an amazingly detailed replica of the bric-a-brac studio of Reed’s longtime cohort Hal Willmer (1956–20), who produced and advised him for decades. The pair co-hosted the New York Shuffle radio show, where they would spin records and pontificate on their choices.

The Listening Room is one floor below (near the Amsterdam Avenue exit), replete with surround-sound gear and cushy benches. Here one can submerge in avant-garde musings such as drones by the Metal Machine Trio.

More captivating is another set — Find Your Note: Hudson River Wind Meditations — of tone poems displayed with Reed’s photos of the river, some of which resemble Rudy’s images.

Reed said this music could accompany practices like Tai Chi. The electronica is alternately soothing and grating, steadfast and erratic, brilliant and inscrutable, brazen and mysterious.

Sort of like the artist.

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars runs through March 4, 2023.

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