The Lou Reed Collection comprises around three hundred linear feet of paper records, electronic records, and photographs; some thirty-six hundred audio recordings; and some thirteen hundred video recordings.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LOU REED / THE LOU REED COLLECTION, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
This morning, on what would have been Lou Reed’s seventy-fifth birthday, Laurie Anderson, in an event at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center Plaza, announced that the library is acquiring Reed’s complete archive. The collection is vast and wonderful—around three hundred linear feet of paper records, electronic records, and photographs; some thirty-six hundred audio recordings; and some thirteen hundred video recordings. The first group, papers and artifacts, is currently being catalogued at the Library Services Center, in Long Island City; recordings and video will follow. The materials span from Reed’s high-school band to the Velvet Underground to his final performances, in 2013. Today, at every hour on the hour, Reed recordings will play in the library’s café; for the next two weeks, collection highlights will be on display; on March 13th, there will be a performance of “The Raven” and Reed’s poetry, and on March 15th, there will be a performance of Drones—glorious feedback made with Reed’s amps and guitars.
Last week, I talked to Anderson and the collection’s archivist, Don Fleming, at Anderson’s sunny studio, downtown. It was Presidents’ Day, and Anderson entered the room beaming, wearing a jacket with an American-flag pin. “Don for President!” she said, and hugged him hello. Fleming, sixty, is a longtime musician (Velvet Monkeys, B.A.L.L., Gumball), producer (Sonic Youth, Hole), and archivist (Alan Lomax, Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson). He first met Reed when he let Reed use his phone, many years ago, in the Shimmy Disc building. He resembles a kindly mad scientist: tall, with black-framed glasses and a cloud of white hair. Together with Reed’s archivists, Jason Stern and Jim Cass, he has worked on the collection for about three years. Reed died in 2013, and Anderson, who inherited most of his estate, had found the vastness of this material, much of which had been in storage for decades, overwhelming. “Basically, getting the collection, for me, was sort of like a fifteen-story building falling all on me, in a way,” she said. “It was like, What am I going to do with this?”
“You had suggestions that ranged from build your own museum shaped like two ‘L’s to just make a bonfire and set it all on fire,” Fleming said.
“The L and L Art Ranch, which we had always planned to make,” Anderson said. She held up her hands in the shape of two intersecting “L”s—Laurie and Lou. “Lou was going to retire and just play the guitar all the time, in a kind of roadhouse. And we’d have our stuff there.” And Tai Chi. “And a club where he could play every night, because that’s what he really wanted to do, just play with people. We weren’t planning on cattle or anything like that.” Maybe in New Mexico. “But we were always alive in this scenario,” she said. “He did not stretch his imagination past his life. He always believed he would live.”
Anderson, from the beginning, wanted people to have access to the complete collection, and wanted much of it digitized and made available online. So she and Fleming reached out to the performing-arts library, which has extensive music collections and artists’ archives. “We were really impressed with the performing-arts people,” Anderson said.
“There’s an extremely well-detailed history of his life as a performer in this collection,” Fleming said. “I mean, all of the studio work is in there, too. But the depth of the paperwork on the touring is amazing.” Details from, say, Tokyo in 1975, or a toll booth in the middle of the night, in Minnesota.
“$3.10 for gas,” Anderson said. “You’re like, Wow—the reality of the touring musician.”
It’s much more than toll-booth receipts. A few days before, I’d gone to Long Island City to explore the archive for myself. Jonathan Hiam, the curator of the American-music division and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, had pulled a sampling of the various types of materials, in boxes spread across a big table, and I delved in. Among other things, I discovered: a small fan-made Velvet Underground kaleidoscope, with pictures of the band inside and out; a manila folder marked “florida arrest” in pencil, full of documents pertaining to a 1973 onstage-obscenity charge; a photo of Reed with John Cale, looking rather blockheaded, Moe Tucker, and Sterling Morrison, with a Post-it note on the back that said “John doesn’t like”; a letter from Martin Scorsese urging Reed to meet with Johnny Depp, whom he wanted to star in a planned film of “Dirty Boulevard”; a note from Mick Rock, with a huge handwritten P.S.: “For your record, Victor Bockris will get nothing from me”; a fax from Anderson, from New York to Italy: “Hello Darlin’! Hope your flight was super smooth & that you’ve been out for a plate of pasta”; a handwritten note from Václav Havel that begins “Dear Lou, Welcome in Prague!” and ends “PS: Strangely enough, I am still president of this interesting country.” I flipped through part of Reed’s vinyl collection, pleased by each new detail it revealed: Roxy Music, the Jim Carroll Band, David Johansen, Bread’s “Lost Without Your Love” (!), Lennon and Ono’s “Milk and Honey,” Richard Pryor, Yo La Tengo, Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” and his own “Metal Machine Music,” unopened, in shrink wrap. I held Reed’s tour rider, stipulating what kind of Scotch he wanted, and how much; a store-bought Valentine (“You are a special person in my life . . .”) from Moe Tucker, on which she’d added “Dear Honeybun” and “love & hugs, Moe”; a letter confirming Reed’s purchase of a pair of Taoist priest’s sashes “from the late Qing/early Minguo period”; French press clippings from the Velvets’ 1993 reunion tour (“Le Velvet Underground ressucité”); a concert photo album inscribed to Reed from Luciano Pavarotti; and, incredibly, Reed’s bar tab from Max’s Kansas City.