The Hidden Truths of Lou Reed’s Musical Poetry

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 the Poetry Project of St. Mark’s Church in the winter of 1971. A year earlier, he’d quit the Velvet Underground and returned to his first vocation: writing poetry. The complete audio from that 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. 

Culled from the musician’s archive, Lou Reed Papers 1958–2015 (Reed died in 2013 at age 71), housed at the library, the exhibition was curated by a team that includes his widow, Laurie Anderson, and Don Fleming and Jason Stern. The exhibition includes personal letters, photographs, posters, audio-video stations, and an immersive listening room that features 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 the acoustical engineering group Arup.

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

The exhibition’s most interesting subplots are Reed’s practices as a poet and literary figure. His showbiz persona as a protopunk Elvis to the underworld — mad, bad, and dangerous to interview — has long obscured the introspective versifier 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 recently as 2006, Reed told an interviewer: “I wanted to put [William] Burroughs’s [Beat-era novels] and Ginsberg’s Howl into a [rock] song.” Fittingly the exhibition’s entrance features video of Reed reading “Romeo Had Juliette” (1989). Stripped of music, the lyrics are reflective and jagged, animated by Reed’s hallmark deadpan phrasing — the spoken word poet’s empathy colored in various New York grays. 

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

One entire room is devoted exclusively to that literary identity: Reed as a studious English major who graduated with distinction; the jobbing poet among poets publishing in magazines from High Times to Life to The Paris Review; the older rocker doubling as poetry’s leather-clad global ambassador in the MTV era. And Reed’s newly republished volume, I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Collected Lyrics (Hachette Books, 2020), could be required reading in a course on the poetics of New York. 

Of course, how Lewis Allan Reed became those many Lou Reeds living within the world’s collective consciousness will be the exhibition’s main attraction. That evolution is further distilled in newly remastered recordings, Lou Reed: Music and Words, May 1965 (Lights in the Attic Records, 2022). These original demos, some featured in the exhibition, draw on unopened tapes Reed had mailed to himself over half a century ago as a “poor man’s copyright,” containing stripped-down versions of classics like “Heroin” and “Pale Blue Eyes” (1967), and a range of previously unknown songs that showcase a songwriter fluent in multiple folk and pop forms, just as he was well read in the darker pockets of modern literature. 

This new LP’s early iteration of Reed’s “Waiting for My Man” (1967), like its later incarnation as a Velvet Underground anthem, famously takes White middle-class listeners along for a trip to score in a Harlem heroin shooting gallery. But the exhibition shows that the songwriter was raised 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), and so too did Reed, who was born in 1942 and raised in suburban Freeport, Long Island. The exhibition’s wall charts indicate that he was enthralled by doo-wop and early hits by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. His Syracuse professor, poet Delmore Schwartz, taught him how to get comparably high from books, reading aloud from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). (For a deep dive into these formative years, the curators have posted an intimate, revealing interview with Reed’s Syracuse University classmate and lifelong friend, 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.)

Upon graduation in 1964, Reed took a job writing multi-genre pop fodder for the Pickwick International music publishing house in New York where, during a studio session, he met his future VU bandmate, the Wales-born, classically trained avant-garde musician John Cale. As the exhibition shows, that’s when things really got interesting. By night, Reed and his band were gigging in downtown clubs when filmmaker Barbara Rubin introduced them to Andy Warhol, who immediately became their erstwhile manager. It was in that white-hot milieu that Reed, encouraged by Warhol, took full possession of his songwriting alchemy: he’d take the concise economy that structures a pop hit like Dion and the Belmonts’ “Teenager in Love” (1959) and replace the pop lyrics’ saccharine palaver with stories about lovers, addicts, dropouts, hustlers, artists, and rebels he knew firsthand and had absorbed by reading novels like Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) — adding his voice to generational peers already mining this vein of inventive, searing personal witness, including poets Gregory Corso, John Wieners, and Frank Lima

In his intro to I’ll Be Your Mirror, Reed says he sought to write songs about the “mournful chaos” in real life. “We are the people who are desperate beyond emotion,” as he puts it in his prose poem “We Are the People” (1970) (recently recited by Iggy Pop in a new video). However grim or violent, Reed’s terse song-stories rely on humorous and torqued and poignant metaphors, and serve up pop cliches in order to turn them inside out and reveal hidden truths. “You’re gonna reap just what you sow,” goes that unexpected crooning coda to “Perfect Day” (1972), Reed’s warped homage to young love. 

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

As his wayward characters gaze through dirty windows seeking transcendence and twilight, they don’t put much stock in self-care, or even in self: “What do you think I’d see,” the singer croons in “Candy Says” (1967), “if I could walk away from me.” And what we’d blithely call “toxic” in people or relationships, Reed presents as inexorable conditions in life, and — as he shows in the socially conscious LP New York — everyday sadism informs urban spaces and political life, too. Desire and its cousin, ambition, are the drugs no one can kick. His most sly lyrics merge cryptic confession, kinky abjection, and oblique exorcism, built simply around three chords and augmented by some of the best session musicians and sound engineering in rock history. 

Caught Between the Twisted Stars shows there’s timely liberation and even some solace to be found in this Reedian corpus, and much to wonder about the resulting fame and infamy — the sheer physical toll of it all. He never took a break. Still Reed kept drawing on those literary leanings, through two collaborations with director Robert Wilson (Time Rocker, 1996, based on H.G. Wells, and POE-try, 2000, inspired by Edgar Allen Poe), and his estate produced a posthumous poetry collection called Do Angels Need Haircuts? (Anthology Editions, 2018). The exhibition also establishes that in Reed’s final decades, members of British rock songwriting royalty like Paul McCartney and Jimmy Page regularly sent him limited editions of their latest material, seeking his approval, just as generations of already successful younger rockers collaborated with him to replenish their artistic street cred.  

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

Renewing his literary credibility probably motivated Reed to turn to the poetry community based at St. Marks Church back in 1971. In poetry, our least commodifiable form among cultural mediums, he likely recouped creative chops ascribed to him by his most famous and maybe most profoundly influenced fan, David Bowie, who tells PBS’s American Masters documentarians in 1997 that Reed somehow remade the complicated art of rock songwriting by exemplifying John Lennon’s blunt advice to aspiring writers: “Say what you mean, make it rhyme, put it to a backbeat.” 

It sounds deceptively easy. But as the ancient Greek poets knew — and Reed did, too — poetry is music’s first element.

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


No votes yet.
Please wait...