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New York Public Library exhibition pays proper respect to native son Lou Reed

From the moment I heard his slightly nasal, more-speaking-than-singing voice over whatever glorious racket the band was making, I’ve been bewitched by Lou Reed.

Lou Reed and band performing at The Bottom Line in New York City as part of the Legendary Hearts US Tour, 1983. Robert Quine, guitar; Fernando Saunders, bass; and Fred Maher, drums.© Jane L. Wechsler. Lou Reed Papers, Music & Recorded Sound Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

NEW YORK — I can be fickle, or maybe it’s my ADHD. I’ll be all in on an album or an artist and then, gradually or in an instant, I’ll be out, onto the next thing. I still listen to Roxy Music, The Replacements, D’Angelo, and Lana Del Rey, but the infatuation is over.

And my reverence for artists rarely grows over years, much less decades. Even in the case of divine beings like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Patti Smith, and Prince, my curiosity was eventually quenched. Their place in the pantheon was established; my heart was full.

The exception has always been Lou Reed. From the moment I heard his slightly nasal, more-speaking-than-singing voice over whatever glorious racket the band was making — my first exposure was either “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal” or “1969: The Velvet Underground Live,” both released in 1974, when I was 9 — I’ve been bewitched by Reed and all that that entails: The music, the words, the Warhol, the attitude, the androgyny, the fragility, the ferocity. Even now, at 57, I can’t get enough.

So I made it a priority to visit “Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars” before it closes March 4. It’s the first exhibition of material culled from Reed’s archive, which, thanks to his widow, Laurie Anderson, now resides at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. (Anderson planned to give it to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, but she changed her mind after the state passed a law allowing people to carry guns on college campuses.)


Lou Reed papers, music, and recorded sound are all on display at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.Max Touhey/www.metouhey.com

Reed’s things belong in New York because Reed, who died in 2013 at the age of 71, was New York. The Long Island native’s innate New Yorkness — surly, smart, droll, abrasive — was a large part of his persona and appeal. (The title of the exhibition is a lyric from “Romeo Had Juliette,” a standout track on Reed’s 1989 album, “New York.”) “We’re not looking to get every rock star in the world,” Kevin Parks, curator of the library’s Music & Recorded Sound Division, told me. “But Lou Reed is a very special case. He’s specifically of this city, and the idea that his archive will live here in perpetuity makes so much sense.”


By contrast, the Bob Dylan Center, which opened last spring, is in, of all places, Tulsa, Okla. Dylan isn’t an Okie; he grew up in Minnesota. But Woody Guthrie, who was a major influence on Dylan, did grow up in Oklahoma and the Woody Guthrie Center is in Tulsa, so it made some sense to put the two together. (FWIW, I visited the Dylan Center last fall and recommend it.)

Petty Cash Receipts for Lou Reed's stage clothes from The Pleasure Chest, NYC, Dec. 15, 1973. Lou Reed Papers, Music & Recorded Sound Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

“Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars” is free, but to enjoy it properly you’ll need time. Because in addition to all the cool ephemera — handwritten lyrics; personal photos; a note from Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker that begins “Dear Honeybun”; the silver motorcycle helmet that appears on the cover of Reed’s 1983 album “Legendary Hearts”; a receipt for a studded dog collar purchased for $13.50 at a place called the Pleasure Chest; a 1973 court summons claiming Reed made an “obscene gesture” at a show in Miami; a signed edition from poet/mentor Delmore Schwartz, who was a professor of Reed’s at Syracuse University — there’s a lot of audio.


In fact, there are more than 600 hours of early demos, rehearsals, and unreleased live recordings. At one of the exhibition’s many listening stations, I put on headphones to hear a snarling Reed, backed by guitarist Robert Quine, bassist Fernando Saunders, and drummer Fred Maher, playing a particularly incendiary version of “Kill Your Sons,” recorded somewhere in Europe in the ‘80s. For anyone who only knows “Walk on the Wild Side” or “Sweet Jane,” there’s much to explore here — from the severe (a quadraphonic mix of Reed’s 1975 LP “Metal Machine Music”) to the sublime (a home demo of the song “Perfect Day.”)

Lou Reed’s box of Doo-Wop, Rhythm & Blues, and Rock & Roll 45s. Photo by NYPL/Jonathan Blanc. Lou Reed Papers, Music & Recorded Sound Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Among the most remarkable nuggets unearthed by the collection’s curators, Don Fleming and Jason Stern, is a 1965 tape featuring Reed, then just 23, singing (with John Cale) embryonic versions of future classics “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Heroin.” The strummed songs — simple and folky, without the menace or mournfulness of the eventual VU versions — have been released as “Words & Music, May 1965,” with a deluxe edition that includes Reed’s even earlier covers of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Let Me Follow You Down,” and the spiritual “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” (The release is the first of a planned archival series from Light in the Attic Records.)


There’s a lot to digest in this exhibit. I didn’t even mention the entertaining video interview with the late Hal Willner, a confidant and collaborator of Reed’s who worked closely with him on his final project, the 2016 box set comprising the first 14 studio and two live albums Reed released after leaving the Velvet Underground. Willner, who died in 2020 from the effects of COVID-19, confirms in the interview what fans of Reed strongly suspected: He was a brilliant, hard-to-please guy with an immense work ethic. Truly one of a kind.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.