‘You don’t become Lou Reed overnight,” a new exhibition proves it

A new exhibition, “Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars,” offers glimpses of a life in rock ’n’ roll and tracks the evolution of a polarizing music legend. (Photos: NYTimes)
NEW YORK, United States — At a glance, it is a modest artifact: a 5-inch reel of audiotape, housed in a plain cardboard box. Its wrapping bears a postmark of May 11, 1965, and the sender and addressee are the same: Lewis Reed.اضافة اعلان

But if there is a “Rosebud” in Lou Reed’s archive — a telltale totem from youth — this is it. The box, still unopened, was found in Reed’s office after his death in 2013. It was only after the New York Public Library acquired his materials four years later from Reed’s wife, artist Laurie Anderson, that archivists finally opened it and played the tape. What they found were some of the earliest known recordings of songs that Reed wrote for the Velvet Underground, his groundbreaking 1960s band, in stripped-down, almost folky acoustic versions that may leave fans and scholars stunned.

The tape is at the center of “Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars,” the first exhibition drawn from Reed’s archive, which will open Thursday at the Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center.

The full archive is enormous, with about 600 hours of audio, along with videos, correspondence, legal paperwork, and forms of documentation that range from photos of a White House visit in 1998 to endless petty-cash receipts from life on the road in the 1970s. There are tour rehearsals, audio experiments, handwritten lyrics, stacks of Velvet Underground bootlegs and even Coney Island Mermaid Parade banners from 2010, when Reed and Anderson served as king and queen.

To Anderson’s delight, it is available for exploration by anyone with a library card, although, as she notes, the full character of Reed himself — irascible, sentimental, obsessed with sound and tech — cannot be conveyed from his scraps.

“This collection is to inspire people,” Anderson said in an interview at her New York studio, where a portrait of Reed performing in dark shades looms on a wall. “It’s not necessarily to say, ‘Here’s the real Lou Reed.’ That’s never what it was meant to be. Here’s a lot of his music and how he did it. Be inspired by it. But it’s not and can’t be a real picture of the man.”

The exhibition, which runs until March 4, 2023, has a sampling of items from Reed’s complete archive, which takes up 112 linear feet of shelf space and has 2.5 terabytes of digital files, making it one of the library’s largest audiovisual collections. The show was curated by Don Fleming, a music producer and archivist, and Jason Stern, who worked with Reed in the last few years of his life.

Visitors will first encounter a video of Reed calmly reciting the world-gone-to-hell lyrics of “Romeo Had Juliette,” from his 1989 album “New York” (“Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, into the filthy Hudson what a shock”), establishing Reed as poet, provocateur, and chronicler of Manhattan’s demimondes. Other galleries showcase Reed’s time with the Velvet Underground, his solo work, and his poetry. A listening room will feature the meditation music Reed created as a practitioner of tai chi and an immersive version of “Metal Machine Music,” his notoriously abrasive 1975 album.

Except for Reed’s personal Rolodex, every item in the library collection is accessible to the public. Discoveries have already been made, like a previously unknown song, “Open Invitation,” that was found on a cassette from the mid-1980s — a rock ’n’ roll tune about tai chi, the martial art that became Reed’s great passion late in life.

Just last month, Fleming and Stern realized they had misdated a tape labeled “Electric Rock Symphony,” assuming it was a 1970s demo for “Metal Machine Music.” After examining the tape further, and comparing its audio to that of others in the collection, they now believe it was made in 1966, or possibly 1965, a sign of how long the “Metal Machine” technique — feedback-driven guitar drones, adapted from composer La Monte Young — had gestated.

The biggest discovery so far is the May 1965 tape. Reed had shown it to friends, though its contents were unknown even to the Velvets’ most determined bootleg hunters. Featuring Reed playing acoustic guitar and harmonizing with John Cale like coffeehouse folk performers, the tape’s versions of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Pale Blue Eyes”, and “Heroin” are miles away from the explosive sound the two young men would develop just months later with the Velvet Underground.

On Aug. 26, the specialty reissue label Light in the Attic will inaugurate a series of Lou Reed archival albums with the release of “Words & Music, May 1965,” with 11 cuts from that tape, along with other early recordings. Among those early tracks is Reed softly singing the spiritual “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” in 1963 or 1964 with fingerpicked guitar accompaniment.

For Anderson, those tapes are a sign of the twisting path that Reed took to become an artist. “That’s a valuable thing for people to understand,” she said. “You don’t become Lou Reed overnight.”

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