Lou Reed fans rejoice. The innovative singer-songwriter’s vast archive — including previously unheard songs, rare videos and unpublished poetry — is currently on view at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars, the first large-scale exhibition of Reed’s archive, which opened on Thursday (June 9), was curated by Don Fleming and Jason Stern, who served as the archivist for the Lou Reed Archive, and as Reed’s technical director and archivist during his lifetime, respectively. It contains audio, film, photography, articles, books and poems from the late songwriter, musician, performer, poet and photographer, spanning his creative beginnings in high school, the Velvet Underground and his solo career.
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Speaking to Billboard, Fleming recalled how the journey to this exhibition started about seven years ago, when he and Stern first started going through all the boxes in storage that Reed had kept for decades, both in a 10 x 15-foot storage unit and at the Sister Ray Enterprises office. While they worked through the materials in those spaces, the archive was acquired by the library in 2017, and Fleming and Stern were tasked with mounting the exhibition.
“[The Library for the Performing Arts] saw us as a natural fit for putting the exhibition together, because we already knew so intimately what was in there. So we were really happy to do that because we wanted to, finally, after all these years, have the public see all these cool things that we’ve been seeing all along,” said Fleming.
The exhibition takes a semi-chronological approach, but divides aspects of Reed’s career thematically, with rooms dedicated to his work with the Velvet Underground—in the 1960s as well as when the band reunited briefly in the 1990s—followed by a poetry room representing the creatively rich time between the Velvet Underground’s disbanding and Reed’s solo career. The centerpiece of the exhibition, which Fleming and Stern named the “passion realism room” after the liner notes of Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music, encompasses the 40-some years of Reed’s post-Velvets career.
Caught Between the Twisted Stars also has a screening room. “We not only had hundreds of hours of audio that no one’s ever heard, but Lou had collected, amassed a lot of videos, mostly references of him on television shows or different things. So we’ve made a whole day’s worth of screenings of material from that collection,” said Fleming.
One notable find from the archives is a demo tape from May 1965 that Reed mailed to himself but never opened up. Fleming and Stern recall searching for the tape and stumbling upon it by surprise. “We’d heard of [the demo], we knew it existed,” said Stern. “We were literally packing up the boxes of Sister Ray Enterprises after cataloging just about everything, and one of the last parts of the office that we were boxing up is what contained this tape.” The tape contains a recording of Lou Reed and fellow Velvet Underground founding member John Cale performing Reed’s compositions as folk songs. “It just sounds like Bob Dylan. He’s got a harmonica with the neck brace, and it’s got the whole Dylan sound,” said Fleming. “We knew that this period existed for Lou, and we knew that John and Lou had actually been on street corners busking songs in this manner, but no one had ever heard what it actually sounded like, and so for the first time, we were able to hear that.” The demos will be released as a standalone record titled Words & Music, May 1965 on Light in the Attic Records in partnership with his widow, musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson.
Fleming and Stern explained that they wanted Reed’s voice to be felt throughout the exhibition. “You’re going to see Lou’s text all over every wall, because every section, it was about the deliberate nature of how he knew he what he was doing when it comes to every facet of his career. Lou was very open about his decision making and his process and his intentions,” said Stern. “We just let the guy speak for himself wherever we could”
The curators hope that this exhibition provides perspective on the breadth of Reed’s work. “We just wanted to shine a light on the fact that this guy never stopped evolving, that he kept moving forward one way or the other, all of this time, decade after decade,” said Stern. “It was important to make sure that people [could] see that Lou contained a lot of layers.”
Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars is open at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center until March 2023, although, as is most often the case with libraries, Reed’s archive will continue to be available to curious minds once the exhibition wraps. You can plan your visit here.