It’s the brutally early hour of 9:30 a.m., and I’m at the press showing for Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars, the new exhibit of the songwriter’s archives. (It’s now open to the public, no need to suffer.) The New York Times was given a sneak peak of the exhibit, housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, presumably because when you help start the Iraq War, you get to set your own hours. For everybody else, getting a press preview of the Fender 12 used for the Velvet Underground reunion and the receipt for the dog collar worn on the cover of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal meant waking up right around Candy Darling’s bedtime.
The guided tour was co-led by Jason Stern (Reed’s Technical Director and archivist) and Don Fleming (Reed’s archivist, who may also be familiar to a certain type as the guitarist/vocalist in Gumball and the producer of one of the best Pacific Northwest rock albums of the 1990s), with occasional interjections by the exhibit’s co-curator (and Reed’s widow), the revered visual artist and avant-Sprechgesang-er Laurie Anderson.
In theory, rock ’n’ roll doesn’t belong in a library. Outside certain Van Halen-esque sex-scenarios, the ethos of R&B’s thick witted step-child is built on the idea that school is perpetually out. It’s a bad theory. For one, rock ’n’ roll is nearly a century old; it’s as much an anachronism as books. Secondly, Lou Reed, the pride of Freeport, Long Island, who, with the Velvet Underground, created a viable alternative to the Beatles—and who would later lend his penetrating hepness to poetry, tai chi, and Metallica—rarely subscribed to any theory so existentially limiting as “rock ’n’ roll is this, book learnin’ is that.” Rock ’n’ roll, as far as it might matter anyway, was whatever Lou Reed was into at the time.
Rock ’n’ roll, as far as it might matter anyway, was whatever Lou Reed was into at the time
The exhibit’s title comes from the opening lines of the most “return to form” album of all of Lou Reed’s return to form albums, 1989’s New York. The line, as sung/spoken on “Romeo Had Juliette,” is followed by “the plotted lines/the faulty map/that brought Columbus to New York.”
Caught Between the Twisted Stars is being staged five blocks north of Columbus Circle, but narrative shoehorning aside, the exhibit is less about the themes within and surrounding Reed’s work than a celebration of the work itself.
A centerpiece of the show is a previously unheard version of “Waiting for the Man.” The John Cale/Lou Reed (then calling themselves the “Falling Spikes”) demo, from 1965, is a folk song, gently finger-picked, with Cale and Reed doing some coffee shop harmonizing on top. It’s a far cry from the choo-choo-chugging invitation to die young that, two years later, would appear on the Velvet Underground and Nico debut. To the curators, what’s interesting is the nascent style of Reed’s self-taught guitar playing, the fact that Reed plays harmonica on it, and the sweet novelty of the track’s existence and discovery. What the exhibit declines to provide is any context for two baby-faced geniuses Mama and Papa-ing about going to Harlem to score heroin. In a similar (no pun intended) vein, the receipt for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal dog collar is provided without comment, as a neat-o tchotchke for the fans.
None of this is a problem because, as Lou Reed knew better than most, a piece of work should be judged on how it fulfills the artist’s intent, not how it fails to fulfill the critic's (or fan’s) preconceived notions. The exhibit is meant to be a display of Lou Reed’s possessions and work, not a complete history of sunglasses and deviance. Still, Laurie Anderson stated at the onset of the tour that she hopes that the exhibit might provide inspiration for young artists, saying the free exhibit provided an opportunity where “any kid in New York can listen to a young musician trying to make it work.”
It occurs to one’s mind that, for those unlucky few unfamiliar with the 10,000 bands that came free with the purchase of the first Velvet Underground record, explaining the historical appeal of some of Lou Reed’s youthful proclivities might help that goal along. Not that art, evidence of process, and the artifacts of a beautiful life aren’t compelling or inspiring on their own. Far from it. But, historically speaking, young artists have also been known to occasionally draw inspiration from the aspirational potential of hard drugs and weird sex as much as they do from classic guitars and books autographed by Vaclav Havel.
When asked about context, Don Fleming explained that he and Stern followed Anderson’s lead. “The quotes are the most important things,” Fleming said, they are the process explainers and context providers from the artist himself that are affixed as posters throughout the exhibit. “Laurie pointed out that the text can’t be small because it makes your eyes get tired. You’ve got to edit it down to the bare minimum.”
For the Lou Reed fan (of any level) the exhibit has holy grails galore. Worth the price of admission alone—even if it wasn’t free—is the digitized catalog of all Lou Reed recordings, featuring an early demo of “Perfect Day,” where lyrical perfection is imminent with “it’s such a summer day” holding its place. There’s a sweet babboo exchange of Valentine’s Day messages between Reed and (Velvet Underground drummer) Moe Tucker. There’s a letter to Reed from Lester Bangs on CREEM stationary. There’s a bookshelf of Reed’s office record collection which contains the Iggy Pop, Bill Laswell, Blondie, and multiple Garland Jeffreys albums that one would expect, along with surprises like Fucked Up, Bongwater, and the Godfathers.
There’s a letter to Reed from Lester Bangs on CREEM stationary
One dimly lit room of the library is devoted to a sound installation, developed, in 2012, by Reed and the design firm Arup, that the curators claimed was included to approximate the sound and feeling of playing Metal Machine Music live on stage. While Arup’s Raj Patel assured CREEM that the recording would become significantly louder as it went on, the whooshes and whirrs that emanated from the mono, stereo, quadraphonic, and full ambisonic spatial speakers—especially after the promise of a Lou-like live-show's distortion and decay—seemed to be played at an anticlimactically sensible volume. It’s possible that too many high volume listens of “White Light/White Heat” has scrambled this listener’s perspective, but what was played for the press felt less “re-creation of performing Reed’s widely despised/revered continuations of La Monte Young’s journeys through drone,” and more “playing a house noise show in that town from Footloose.” Still, the pristine sound quality did make clear what Stern called the “very deliberate, very precise” nature of Reed’s most misunderstood album.
While the attendees stood in silent appreciation of the tones rising around them, the guided cosplaying of experimental rock stardom was interrupted by Laurie Anderson introducing another journalist to her tai chi instructor. It wouldn’t have been polite to shush her. This was, after all, more than anyone else still alive, her party.
At the start of the tour, Anderson waved in the direction of the library and said, “It’s weird to see your best friend on that side.” It was unclear whether the “other side” referred to the library or the veil, but at one point during the walkthrough, Reed’s widow was off to the side, wearing headphones and smiling in her own private digression, watching a video of her absent-but-present best friend playing guitar and singing.
After the tour, there was an outdoor tai chi exhibition, led by Lou Reed’s teacher, Master Ren GuangYi. Watching the martial art practitioners, all of whom wore matching white shirts emblazoned with Reed’s likeness, were Lincoln Center construction workers on their lunch break. The men took in the synchronized, flowing movements in polite bemusement. One said to his coworkers, without a hint of hostility, “you fucking go out in fucking Brooklyn at nine in the fucking morning, and you can see them do this… you should fucking join in.” His friend responded, “They’re not really in sync though.” The scene embodied the two sides of Lou Reed’s city and art; wry, earthy observation—delivered in a borough accent—and striving for transcendence, wearing a Lou Reed t-shirt, as much for the street as the library.