I once saw Lou Reed on a bicycle. No, it wasn’t a hallucination. That I’m aware of at least. It was 2007 and I had just graduated college. Unemployed with not much to do, I spent my time wandering aimlessly around the city while applying for jobs at the precipice of the 2008 subprime mortgage-induced economic crash. One sunny day strolling along the Hudson River, a cranky-looking 60-something man cycled by with determined energy. I did a double-take. It was Lou Reed! Though I know he had softened (a bit) with age and his relationship with fellow Downtown icon Laurie Anderson, it was still a shock to see the “Walk On the Wild Side” musician enjoying—ok, maybe tolerating—a beautiful summer day rather than crawling out of a gutter to skulk around the bad old days of the Meatpacking District at midnight.
That wasn’t the only time I ran into Lou. Four years later, now a gallery assistant at Sikkema Jenkins & Co, I spotted Lou and Laurie at the opening of dancer Trisha Brown’s exhibition. Then, like on the Hudson, I just stared creepily, intimidated and in awe, of the quintessential NYC literary rock star. If I had known then what I know now—that the gallery would fire me in six months and Lou would pass away in two years, I would have thrown caution to the wind and said something irredeemably awkward like: “I love you, Lou!”
But I didn’t and I still regret it.
All this goes to say that when I recently visited the current show Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars at the New York Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, I could feel the familiar tingle of the klepto urge stirring. I mean, I ain’t got nothing at all!
Titled after the first line of the song “Romeo Had Juliette” off of his 1989 album New York (I wish they went with other lines from the later verses like “I’ll Take Manhattan In A Garbage Bag” or “It’s Hard To Give A Shit These Days” but whatever), Caught Between the Twisted Stars is culled from Lou’s massive archives, which are housed at the library. Originally, Lou Reed’s archives were set to head to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which also houses the archives of James Joyce and Don DeLillo. However, Laurie Anderson decided against it after Texas made it legal to be armed to the teeth on college campuses.
Good choice. Lou Reed doesn’t make sense in Texas. Lou and his songwriting landscape are NYC through and through. Not only in the constant presence of the city in his songs, but Lou’s own lyrical split between unflinching darkness with surprisingly romantic and even saccharine tenderness. That conundrum is what it’s like living in NYC and it’s who Lou Reed was. A man who could pen both “Perfect Day” and “The Kids.” Curated by Don Fleming, archivist for the Lou Reed Archive, and Jason Stern, Lou’s Technical Director and Archivist before Reed’s death in 2013, Caught Between the Twisted Stars explores both of these sides of Lou, including an immersive Lou Reed Listening Room that allows viewers to relax to the soothing sounds of the intended quadraphonic mix of Lou’s grating masterpiece Metal Machine Music. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s chilled-out Dream House this is not.
The exhibition predictably displays inclusions found in most musician-centered archival exhibitions: guitars, tour posters, demo tapes, and fan-pleasing memorabilia like the helmet from the cover of Legendary Hearts. However, this isn’t Planet Hollywood and Reed wasn’t your average musician. There’s much more to not only covet but scrawl down on your looting wish list, which, of course, I did in a fit of fanatical mania:
Fan-made “Transformer” Christmas sweater vest
Festive and Lou Reed are two things I never thought of together. Sure, he does have a song about the Village Halloween Parade, but that’s about as seasonal as it gets. But, boy, was I wrong! Lou is perfect for Christmas! Imagine sitting next to the warm glow of sparkling lights on Christmas morning while slurping down as much nog as you can stand. What would be more effective than Lou Reed’s wild yet vacant froggy-eyed stare to remind relatives that you better find “Pancake Factor Number 1, eyeliner, rose hips, and lip gloss, such fun” in your stocking! (“You’re a slick little giiiiiirl”). A perfect day if you ask me! Though I’m not partial to sweater vests, I’ll make an exception for this delightfully demented fan-made Christmas sweater. While I’m half of the mind to start a letter-writing campaign to bully Lou Reed’s Estate to start mass-producing these in time for this year’s holidays, the unhinged idol-worshiping aspect is too wholesomely deranged to overpower with wanton consumerism. So fuck capitalism, I’m going to pinch it!
Handwritten lyrics from “Sally Can’t Dance”
“And I said no no no no NOOOOOO, BAAAABY FAAAACE!” I know it’s not a popular opinion, but Lou’s 1974 album Sally Can’t Dance is one of my most beloved. Ok, it’s less unpopular than saying my preferred is his baffling collaboration with Metallica, Lulu, which was nearly conspicuously absent from the exhibition, with exception of a rolled-up poster tube shoved in the back of a crowded display table (I noticed). Perhaps something in his archives explains what the fuck was up with “Brandenberg Gate,” particularly James Hetfield’s repeated holler, “SMALL TOWN GURLLLLL!” Nevertheless, while Sally Can’t Dance was a commercial success, it was, shall we say, not one of Lou’s favorites: “I hate that album. Sally Can’t Dance is tedious. Could you imagine putting out Sally Can’t Dance with your name on it? Dyeing my hair and all that shit? That’s what they wanted, that’s what they got. Sally Can’t Dance went into the top ten without a single, and I said, ‘Ah, what a piece of shit.’”
Jesus Christ, Lou, settle down. To me, Sally Can’t Dance is a magnum opus of plastic sleaze—up there with David Bowie’s Young Americans but with more electroshock therapy. Though Lou’s slurring monotone delivery reaches transcendent heights, the true joy of the album is the juxtaposition between the utter bleakness of the lyrics—as bleak, I’d argue, as his seminal bleak album Berlin—and the cheery rock ‘n’ roll sound, including a blaring enthusiastic horn section. Jarring, yes. A perfect party ruiner, definitely! Just take the lyrics of the eponymous track: “She was the first girl in her neighborhood who got raped on Tompkins Square, real good. Now she wears a sword, like Napoleon and she kills the boys and acts like a son.” Um. Yikes! Earlier in the song, poor Sally is also found “in the trunk of a Ford.” If rape and murder aren’t your speed, how about the shining stand-out track “Kill Your Sons,” a bile-soaked ode to psychiatric malpractice (“All your two-bit psychiatrists are giving you electric shock. They said they’d let you live at home with mom and dad instead of mental hospitals. But every time you tried to read a book, you couldn’t get to page 17 ’cause you forgot where you were. So you couldn’t even read.”)! Uplifting! This is why I’m prepared to shatter the glass case holding these small humble notebook pages on which Lou penned the lyrics for this delightfully depressing yet danceable album.
“Sally Can’t Dance” tour photos by Lau Buur Nielsen
I told you I love Sally Can’t Dance. I’ll take these too. Please and thank you! Oh, to give you more of a sense of why I also want these photos, the Sally Can’t Dance tour is also notable for bestowing us with this characteristically cranky sarcasm-drenched press conference. “I’m high on life,” Lou bluntly deadpans while slurping on a Bloody Mary. The influence of Andy Warhol’s own trademark evasive interview style is also quite apparent here. “You’re a man of few words. Why is this?” a reporter (stupidly) asks. “I don’t have anything to say,” Lou remarks. Even so, it’s worth a watch:
Receipt for studded dog collar from the Pleasure Chest
I’m not in the habit of collecting receipts, my own or anyone else’s. I’ve watched enough Cooking with Hoarders to know it’s a slippery slope between that and dumping a bucket of your own shit in your backyard because the toilet is plugged with precious oddities you couldn’t possibly part with while rats and roaches scurry over decades-long expired food. Though Lou’s associate Andy Warhol may have also been a hoarder under the guise of his “Time Capsules,” it’s still a one-way ticket to concerned relatives bringing you onto an A&E show as they shovel a mountain of your prized plastic bags into a dumpster. That being said, I’ll make an exception for just one of the receipts in a vitrine in Caught Between the Twisted Stars: proof of purchase of a studded and spiked dog collar that Reed wore on the cover of his 1974 live album Rock ’n’ Roll Animal. A perfect piece of perverse and proto-Goth history! Paired with his black-painted nails, black leather pants, black tee, and gaunt face, the cover of Rock ’n’ Roll Animal solidified Reed as an androgynous neighborhood threat. Where did Reed buy this icon of filth fashion? New York’s premiere sordid destination: The Pleasure Chest, which yes, still exists!
Songs for Drella poster
What would an illicit Lou Reed shopping spree be without something Warholian? While there are many sweet photographs of Lou and Andy from the Velvet Underground’s banana album heyday, those don’t call to my sticky fingers as much as this silkscreened poster in honor of Reed and fellow VU member John Cale’s posthumous Warhol tribute album Songs for Drella (Drella being a Factory-made nickname for the silver-haired artist–a combo of Cinderella and Dracula) that reunited the sometimes antagonistic duo. Why? Not only because this silkscreen seems to be a layered visual history of the Velvet Underground and Warhol, but Songs for Drella is also a better biography of Warhol than Blake Gopnik’s exhausting 900-page tome I’m still struggling to finish. “There’s no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh,” Reed intones on the album’s jaunty opener “Smalltown,” in which a young Andy dreams of New York and stalking his own filth elder, Truman Capote (“…adorable lisping Capote, my hero. Oh, do you think I could meet him? I’d camp out at his front door”). Look at that…Brevity!
The Velvet Underground concert poster
While we’re picking out posters, what would my pilfered collection be without a Velvet Underground piece? I’ll take this mugshot-like lineup of the VU, advertising their shows at the legendary Max’s Kansas City. Though I’m enticed by Lou’s thousand-yard stare here, it’s Moe Tucker’s coy peek that really makes this nab-worthy. Speaking of the VU’s drummer and one-time Tea Party rally flag-waver (remember the Tea Party?), Tucker stars in some of Caught Between the Twisted Stars’s most unexpected moments, including a series of photographs of Moe and Lou tossing around a football like your all-American good ole boys and girls, not leather-bound, speed freak, junk sick, aural-assaulters penning and playing songs about “Heroin” and BDSM (“Venus in Furs”). If that wasn’t weird enough, a series of holiday greeting cards from Tucker to Reed reveals that she addressed him as…wait for it… “Honeybun”! Aw!
Lou Reed’s astrological charts by Billy Name
I don’t believe in astrology bullshit, though I know some of you may say that’s so Aries of me. Despite loving Harvey Sid Fischer’s crackpot astrology songs, our fate as foretold by the stars and planets is not for me. I’m a New Yorker, not a West Coast woo girl. However, so were Lou and Billy Name but apparently, that didn’t stop them from dipping their toes into astrology. Otherwise known as Billy Linich, Billy Name was of the main “mole people,” the amphetamine queens who loitered around Warhol’s Silver Factory, literally living and lurking in a darkened corner of the formerly industrial space. You may recognize Name’s, well, name from some of the best photographs of those heavily romanticized pre-Solanas psychosis 1960s Factory days, though Name’s influence goes much deeper than a few well-timed snapshots. Name was actually the person to make the Silver Factory silver, covering it in foil as he did in his own apartment. Unbeknownst to me until Caught Between the Twisted Stars, Name was also somewhat of an astrologist. Admittedly, since I don’t go for new-age woo-woo stuff, I’m not that familiar with even how to read these charts. However, I can’t help but notice it doesn’t seem to be your, uh, typical fare. Bondage? Catastrophe? Homosexuality?! Sign me up!
Lou Reed’s Tai Chi weapons
Meditative. Zen. These are not words that I’d necessarily use to describe the man who made perhaps the most memorably nihilistic gesture in rock ‘n’ roll history: 1975’s Metal Machine Music. Though Reed himself offers an alternative interpretation of the album full of ear-piercing feedback in a filmed interview elsewhere in the exhibition, noting that he wanted to touch people with music (how sweet!), Metal Machine Music was–and remains–the pinnacle of musical misanthropy. Which is why you’d be forgiven if you assumed Lou’s weapons hung high on the wall at the New York Public Library were for disemboweling rather than performing slow and methodical Tai Chi forms. But the proof is in the exhibition with photographs of Lou by an unnamed photographer wielding these weapons in his trademark sunglasses at what looks to be a park. Perhaps he joined the badass elderly Chinese Tai Chi practitioners who throw their swords around on the East River every morning under the Manhattan Bridge. A nearby wall text quotes Lou on his practice: “Not to get too flowery here but I want more out of life than a gold record and fame. I want to mature like a warrior. I want to learn the power and grace I never had a chance to learn. Tai Chi puts you in touch with the invisible power of–yes–the universe. Change your energy, change your mind.” Ok, maybe he was a little bit woo…
Lou’s Tai Chi enthusiasm is a strange factoid in his extremely strange career. And it’s also one which I, and a group of my Nick Cave stan friends, once used to…lose at a game of rock ‘n’ roll trivia at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. In the drawing duel round, we attempted to sketch a rotten and unrecognizable version of Lou doing his forms. Pathetic! To make up for this crushing loss that somehow I still fume over ten years later, I’m going to swipe these weapons. Will I use them for Tai Chi? Probably not. Will I use them to threaten people when they take too long descending the subway stairs? Most definitely.
Lou’s court summons for public obscenity
Lest we get too comfortable thinking that Lou is a big softie. Better pocket this summons from Miami Beach for public obscenity at his June 1, 1973 concert at the Miami Beach Auditorium. His crimes? Obscene language and making obscene gestures. Tsk tsk! Naughty! I only wish I knew what the offending gestures were! Miming shooting heroin? Licking an audience’s “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather”? WE DEMAND TO KNOW! It’s also important to note that Reed wasn’t the only Filthy Dreams favorite to get slapped with an obscenity charge in Miami Beach. A few years earlier, Jim Morrison got nabbed for obscenity after allegedly exposing himself to the crowd. Who could be mad at that?!
Queen Mermaid Laurie Anderson, King Neptune Lou Reed, and Royal Mer-Dog Lola Belle Banners from the 2010 Coney Island Mermaid Parade
Alright, this will be the hardest heist to pull off but since I visited Caught Between the Twisted Stars on the exact day of the post-pandemic return of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, it’s only fair. I deserve it! While this year’s Masters of Ceremonies were cabaret icon Justin Vivian Bond and former NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi, that twosome pales in comparison to the hilarious image of perpetually grumpy Lou Reed heading up a parade full of half-naked, body-painted, glittering, sea foam-soaked mermaids. At the time, The Village Voice was less than impressed with Lou’s King Neptune banner, describing it as “downright ridiculous”: “…he resembles Andy Dick with moobs. And what’s with that crotch thrust? Looks like he’s trying to hump a fish.” They’re not wrong. Lola Belle, the mer-dog, seemed to get the best portrait. Even still, that doesn’t mean I won’t cover my apartment walls with these kitschy banners!
Photos of Lou Reed at the White House with Czech President Václav Havel, along with Bill and Hillary Clinton (1998)
What would be a better way to convince your Q Aunt that Lou Reed was guzzling infant adrenochrome with Bill and Hillary than a few snapshots of Lou during his White House visit in 1998? Though inspiring your Q cousin to go find Lou Reed alive in a local Pizza Hut basement would undoubtedly be a cause worth stealing these photographs for, the actual story is also fascinating. Lou and the rest of the Velvet Underground were a favorite of Czech President and playwright Václav Havel, who smuggled one of their albums through customs after a visit to the US in the late 1960s. The Velvets music inspired young dissident artists and musicians in then Czechoslovakia and Havel even credits the VU for inspiring the country’s Velvet Revolution in 1989, ending communist rule. Years later, now president of the Czech Republic, Havel insisted on having Reed perform at the White House, which went about as well as expected, at least in the preparation. According to Boundary Stones, “Reed proceeded to turn up his amplifier so loud that the White House’s chandeliers were shaking. Then-social secretary Capricia Marshall asked him to turn it down a bit. ‘You’ll kill whoever’s sitting in front of this speaker,’ she reportedly said. Reed refused. ‘This is my art, my music,’ he supposedly responded in a huff.” Despite this momentary battle, Reed played a 35-minute set to a stodgy and frigid DC audience, probably made much more frigid by the looming impeachment scandal. One man, however, seemed to enjoy it. As The Washington Post reported, “The audience was attentive but seemed subdued, except for Vice President Gore, whose chair rocked constantly…” Al knows how to take a walk on the wild side.
Lou’s 1958 Freeport High School yearbook
What would stolen filth elder collectibles be without at least one item related to embarrassing youth? Here I’ll snag Lou’s junior year yearbook with evidence of his early band: The Shades. Just look at those ties. Just look at those SHADES. How cool, man!
If Caught Between the Twisted Stars has a centerpiece–or crown jewels, it is a cassette tape discovered in Lou’s archive recorded by Lou and John Cale from 1965 featuring demos that would become some of The Velvet Underground’s most famous songs such as “Pale Blue Eyes,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and “Heroin,” as well as even “Men of Good Fortune” that would find a home on Lou’s 1973 depression-fest Berlin. Now, I should be clear not all of the tracks on this cassette, which Lou mailed to himself as a poor man’s copyright, were classics. The song I listened to–”Buttercup Song or, Never Get Emotionally Involved with a Man, Woman, Beast, or Child”–was about as good as its sounds, which is not good at all!
Despite the curators talking up this find in all the written materials and press about the exhibition, I covet another cassette much more fervently and ferociously, located in an adjacent room thematically organized around Lou’s poetic ambitions. This cassette captures Lou’s reading at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in 1971 during the short span of time when he declared, to the Poetry Project audience, that he was no longer playing music. Instead, he would pursue poetry. This sudden, if short-lived, shift wasn’t exactly a surprise. Lou’s mentor at Syracuse University, poet Delmore Schwartz, was an enormous influence on his writing and life. And while it seems, from today’s perspective that quitting music after the Velvet Underground is a dumb career move, we have to remember that the VU wasn’t exactly a commercial or critical success in its time. Everyone with a vinyl collection pretending to endure “The Black Angel’s Death Song” without grinding their teeth down to nubs came later.
Like the 1965 tape, however, there are glimpses of later Lou, as in his reading of “Andy’s Chest,” a poem that would become the second song on Transformer. On the Poetry Project tape, Reed introduces this poem by reminiscing about Warhol’s shooting at the hands of SCUM Manifesto‘s Valerie Solanas, who must have been recently released from prison. Lou speaks of being shocked and appalled at the shooting, even though they otherwise laughed at violence at the time, and describes photographs of Warhol’s scarred torso as “beautiful.” Beyond even the poems themselves, it’s this looser, more unguarded banter that makes this tape a keeper. Just take Lou’s introduction to his poem “Black Lipstick”: “This is because I always wished somebody made black lipstick and then I saw a friend of mine that wore it and I said, ‘Where’d you get it?’ and they said, “Oh man, everybody’s wearing it.’ I said, ‘I thought I came up with something new.’ They said, ‘No, man.'”
And since I know you’re curious, fellow Filthy Dreams kleptos, and I call dibs on the tape, here is that poem as a parting gift:
(If lipstick were black
you’d wear it
If love were straight
you’d curl it
If life were wet
you’d burn it.
If death were free
you’d earn it
If you were death
I’d hiss you
If you were life
I’d catch you
If you were here
I’d kiss you
But since you’re not
I’ll miss you)