On ViewThe New York Public Library For The Performing Arts At Lincoln Center
Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars
June 9–March 23, 2023
The title of the archival exhibition Caught Between the Twisted Stars is excerpted from the song “Romeo Had Juliette” on Lou Reed’s 1989 release New York. On the surface, Reed’s greatest muse was New York City and its counterculture denizens: heroes, villains, and victims embroiled in street-hardened sparring matches with controlled substances, the façade of glamor or, in the case of young Pedro who finds a book of magic in a garbage can in the song “Dirty Boulevard,” the desire simply to “fly, fly away.” Reed’s music of the sixties and seventies transported listeners to the back rooms and allies of a grittier Downtown, his poetic vision amplified by a sonic repertoire as diverse and penetrating as his powers of lyrical observation. In the decades that followed, his achievements remained rich and complex, and assessing his legacy—his lived reality intertwined with a literary and musical imagination messaged through an iconic public persona—demands multiple routes of exploration.
Caught Between the Twisted Stars does not attempt to tie Lou Reed into a tidy package. Rather, it invites visitors to consider one of rock’s more enduring innovators through materials preserved in the Lou Reed papers, donated by Laurie Anderson in 2017 to the NYPL’s Performing Arts Music & Recorded Sound Division. Supplemented by objects and documents from additional collections at NYPL, including the Salvatore Mercuri Velvet Underground Collection and the Jim Carroll papers, as well as personal materials owned by Anderson, the exhibition offers documents, manuscripts, and ephemera; sound and video recordings; guitars and artwork; Reed’s record collection and, notably, a large number of photographs. Showcasing diverse gems from his extensive papers, it pays tribute to the artist by publicly unveiling his archive for the benefit of scholarship. Curators here smartly have kept didactic materials to the minimum, allowing primary materials to form the loose narrative.
Overall, this exhibition toggles between Reed’s artistic trajectory and the subject categories of his archive. One gallery highlights Reed’s written oeuvre: colorfully illustrated poems for The Raven, a 2003 collaborative musical exploration of Edgar Allen Poe; Reed’s preface to a reprint of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by his literary hero and mentor Delmore Schwartz; and, for the genuine document fetishist, detached pages from a small notebook where lyrics to masterpieces such as “Sally Can’t Dance” were first scribbled out. Galleries devoted to the Velvet Underground and Reed’s relationship with Andy Warhol are energized by the drone of early Velvet’s performances on video and photographs of legendary Factory habitués. Here, archival materials are not limited to the sixties , as we encounter album cover contact sheets for the poignant Reed/John Cale 1990 Andy Warhol song cycle, Songs for Drella, and a clipping of Reed’s “Sterling Morrison: Velvet Warrior,” published in 1995 in the New York Times as a tribute the VU’s late guitarist. Such objects reveal the enduring psychic attachments Reed maintained with some of his earliest collaborators.
Viewers should keep in mind that the majority of the Lou Reed papers originate from his professional office, Sister Ray Enterprises. The business of rock and roll is, therefore, front and center, and one section features “merch” spanning decades, along with concert posters, stage playlists, special-edition vinyl albums and even petty cash reimbursement slips that offer a first-hand glimpse into Reed’s life within the popular music industry. Visitors will do well to dwell on Reed’s carefully crafted visual identity that owes much to his immensely photogenic presence. In the hands of top photographers like Mick Rock, Reed became the visual paragon for detached New York cool on well-known album covers like Transformer, and in more seemingly casual portraits, including Hanging Around, a 1976 black and white photographic print of the musician in his apartment. A series of stunning large color photographs by Len Prince from 1996 offers Reed, hair slicked back and with a pencil-thin mustache, as a suave Casanova, possibly vying for the role of Most Interesting Man in the World. Reed was no stranger to the power of the visual: hints and shades of the Warhol aesthetic recur throughout Reed’s merchandising, and his own prowess as a photographer is evident in images scattered throughout the exhibition (a selection of his cameras is included in his archive).
As one would expect, the true depth of this exhibition lies in an abundance of audio and video recordings, including a rediscovered 1965 demo of the songs “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man.” At listening stations one can assess alternate versions of such well-known songs, and a video compilation of concert footage and interviews drawn from throughout Reed’s trajectory includes a publicity sit-down with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich of Metallica for their collaborative album Lulu. Reed often had contentious relationships with interviewers—one thinks of his entertaining scraps with Lester Bangs of Creem during the seventies —and one should not expect that during such exchanges he was necessarily forthcoming about the deeper recesses of his lyrical inspirations and personal subjects. On that front the Reed has offered some clues within his compilations of poetry, including the volume Between Thought and Expression, published in 1991, but the truest essence of Lou Reed is found first and foremost within his musical statements that endure most powerfully in primary forms.