“It’s a little surreal, seeing my best friend’s face blown up so big,” says multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, gesturing to a giant photo of her late husband, Lou Reed’s, at the beginning of a media tour of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ stunning exhibit on the legendary singer, songwriter and Velvet Underground co-founder. It is open to the public — and free of charge — beginning Thursday (June 9).
“We’ve been working for years to put this together,” she continued, “and I just wanted to say that it’s my dream to have [the archive of] this great poet of New York in the Public Library.” While she did not mention this during the tour, the archive was originally intended to join those of James Joyce, Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo at the University of Texas, but Anderson changed her mind after a handgun law allowing people to carry handguns on college campuses was passed in the state; the NYPL acquired much of the archive in 2017.
Anderson, along with curators Don Fleming and Jason Stern and audio expert Raj Patel, led a lucky 20 or so journalists on a tour of the multi-room exhibit, which opens Thursday and is basically like a dream tour of Reed’s personal archive, and then some: Along with dozens of photos, letters, lyric sheets, and ephemera down to receipts, includes guitars, posters, a large percentage of his record collection — ranging from copies of his solo and Velvets records, including bootlegs, as well as his box of doo-wop 45s — a large number of video interviews and performances, a special room with a sonically precise audio playback of his legendary “Metal Machine Trio” sound installation, as he would have heard them onstage — and a lovingly rendered re-creation of the office of his longtime collaborator and best friend, Hal Willner, that’s like a peek into an eccentric genius’ personal wonderland.
There are many oddity moments, several revolving around the Velvets: a photo of Reed and Velvets drummer and lifelong friend Maureen Tucker tossing a football; a couple of postcards from her addressed “Dear Honeybun” (Lou Reed is just about the last person one could imagine being called “Honeybun”). There’s a 12-string electric Fender that he played on the Velvets’ third album and many live gigs. And most riveting of all to the curators, a 1965 reel-to-reel tape recorded with John Cale containing demo versions of future Velvets songs, with several unreleased tracks (that recording, and a few early songs, will be featured on the forthcoming “Words & Music, 1965” album, the first release from the estate’s Lou Reed collection). Reed had mailed the recording to himself as a “poor man’s copyright” but never opened it. The curators said they had searched and searched for the tape, only to find it hiding in plain sight, filed along with the CDs behind Reed’s desk.
Along with his record collection are personal notes that were found inside some of the albums, including ones from Paul McCartney — noting that Reed was among the few “groovy people” to receive an advance copy of his 1997 album “Flaming Pie” — and Jimmy Page.
There are also hours and hours of interviews and live performances, as well as a section devoted to Reed’s Tai Chi weapons (he was an avid practitioner of the sport later in life). There’s an autographed book from former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, who has said the name of the country’s “Velvet Revolution” was directly inspired by the Velvet Underground.
There’s also an original copy of the poem he’d written that was published in Life magazine, a copy of the magazine containing an edited version of the poem, Reed’s letter complaining about the edit (of which he was apparently not informed in advance) and a letter from the editor apologizing.
Along with insightful conversations, some of the video interviews apparently feature the famously confrontational Reed. “If he didn’t like what an interviewer said, something spectacular might come out of his mouth,” Fleming noted.
Willner’s wife ,Sheila Rogers, led visitors around the recreation of his office, which must be seen to be believed.
Downstairs, a soundproofed room contains a full concert set-up for the “Metal Machine Music” recordings, which renders the ambitious works in sterling sonic detail.
The main exhibit will be on display from Thursday through March 4, 2023; the Listening Room closes on Jan. 7. Note that it is located at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, not the main branch on Fifth Avenue.