What is it like to sift through the archives of a cultural icon? That’s a question Don Fleming knows the answer to on a deep level. “There were all of these boxes in storage and nobody really knew what was in them,” Fleming says of his wide-eyed wonder. “So we’d go from box to box, all being opened for the first time in years. Some were not that interesting. Others were mind-blowing.”
Thus began seven years of work constructing the expansive exhibit that would eventually become Lou Reed: Caught Between the Stars. Launched last week at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, it’s the first large-scale exhibit focusing on the life and work of the indelible artist, writer, singer, guitarist, poet and New York City native. “This is a person who always pushed boundaries,” explains Fleming, a musician and producer who is a co-curator of the endeavor. “From the beginning to the end, he just never lets up.”
The legend of Lou Reed is still as vibrant today as it was during his heyday and since his death in 2013 aged 71. Aside from being the frontman of the Velvet Underground and the force behind popular songs like Walk on the Wild Side (his biggest hit , the David Bowie and Mick Ronson-produced single peaked at No 16 on the Billboard Hot 100), Reed’s creative output during his life was as voracious as it was insatiable. The proof of those qualities comes to visceral life in the exhibit, pulling a veil off an enigmatic icon who had a constant urge to create. Rare personal artifacts ranging from greeting cards to rare demos and hard-to-find releases represent everything from Reed’s biggest commercial successes to his more obscure work as a poet.
“We have the demos that people can listen to from a tape he mailed to himself on May 11th, 1965 to copyright it,” explains co-curator Jason Stern who previously worked as Reed’s technical assistant as just one example of the exhibit’s treasures. “They were the earliest versions of the songs which would later become really big hits (like the 1967 seven-minute Velvet Underground classic Heroin). Every recording starts with ‘Words and music by Lou Reed.’” Another demo, meanwhile, served as the very first recording of his 1972 track Perfect Day. His then-wife Betty Kronstad is heard on vocals while Reed accompanies her on the piano.
“We really tried to shine a light on the fact Lou was a multifaceted, multi-layered person,” says Stern. “There’s a lot of people who have a surface-level exposure to his work, whether only knowing the Velvet Underground or a couple of popular singles, but we wanted to focus on the multitudes.” That means including an entire section devoted to Reed’s poetry, a facet of his output he solely worked on in the early 70s. It was during a point while Reed was in a sort of limbo between his time fronting the Velvet Underground to later becoming a distinctly solo act.
“It was a period of his life that a lot of biographies just gloss over,” Stern explains. “He moved to Long Island and wrote a poetry manuscript that actually got rejected from a publisher. But he approached his songwriting in the same way as his poetry, and in reality he took a literary approach to writing songs.” Fleming, meanwhile, says that he considers Reed a writer first. “His lyrics and poetry were kind of one and the same.” (Reed studied poetry at Syracuse University, after all.)
His writing also includes a stark, subversive streak with Reed’s unique voice sometimes focusing on darker themes with abrasive language. It’s a quality that may come as a surprise to those who only know Reed from the sunshine-y lyrics of songs like Perfect Day. Fleming explains it’s a quality Reed embodied that has its roots in the fact that Reed heard that Bob Dylan said he wrote about things that were ripped from reality. “So the same year the Beatles came out with I Wanna Hold Your Hand, he wrote Heroin,” Fleming explains of the song, a rumination of Reed’s own tumultuous relationship with the drug. In essence, that was Reed defiantly juxtaposing his own art with the popular culture of the early 60s. “His lyrics can be dark and deep.”
So dark, in fact, that the team behind the exhibit were nervous that an institution like the New York Public Library may balk at showcasing some of Reed’s saltiest material in its hallowed halls. Aside from drugs, some of his songs deal with issues ranging from domestic violence to prostitution. “To their credit, they said, ‘We don’t censor anything. Whatever you want in the show is in the show,’” Fleming recalls of their reaction. “That gave us leeway to put things in and not worry too much about it.”
Having said that, Fleming does concede that Reed’s status as a boundary pusher has two sides. “Culturally, it’s an interesting time because some of the boundaries he pushed are not new boundaries for people,” he muses, attempting to explain the star’s complicated nature. “He helped expand boundaries on some levels, but other things I feel like he’s not on the right side of the fence culturally. But I think it’s important to let the work speak for itself. Some people might get upset at some of the things in there, but we didn’t want to shy away from them. To have to try to clean things up with Lou, it wouldn’t be right.”
At the same time, the exhibit showcases a tender side to his personality. “[His tenderness] is not part of his public persona for the most part,” Stern points out. That includes greeting cards where he calls his wife “Honeybun” and rare photographs depicting Reed and the Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker during some downtime. “We see them throwing a football around and I remember being struck by the oddity of it.” Reed’s close creative relationship with the late Hal Willner, the producer and Saturday Night Live music supervisor who died in 2020, is also represented via a meticulous recreation of Willner’s studio. (Among other projects, he and Reed concocted 86 two-hour episodes of a freewheeling radio show dubbed New York Shuffle before Reed’s death.)
For the masterminds behind the exhibit, whether Stern, Fleming and or Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson (who was intimately involved as well), it was a near decade-long passion project that culminated in an opening reception that both celebrated their own work and the work of the artist they were honoring.
“I was overwhelmed,” says Stern of its reception so far. “I can still remember being a very frightened 25-year-old being interviewed by Lou to become his technical assistant. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, but it went so well he asked me on the spot when I could start.”
For the next two years and until his death, Stern spent every day with him. “I’ve never forgotten how much he’s done for me. So for me, this [exhibit] has been a huge labor of love.”