“But you can’t be Shakespeare and you can't be Joyce / So what is left instead?” So sang Lou Reed on his 1992 album Magic and Loss. As revealed in a new book atmospherically capturing a night in 1971 when Reed appeared to dabble with giving up music for literature, it wasn’t the only time the questing former Velvet Underground frontman wondered about his true artistic calling.

Lou Reed, 1971. Photo by Andrew Cifranic, courtesy the Plain Dealer Photo Archive

In artistic terms, would you say Lou Reed was best described as:

  1. the godfather of punk; or
  2. a poète maudit et manqué?

Your feelings about this will depend on how tolerant you are of being asked vapid, self-serving questions and, just maybe, on your knowledge of French. The correct answer, inevitably, is: f) a bit of both (“un peu des deux”), a truth underlined by this slender, imaginatively assembled volume which captures young(ish; he was twenty-nine, which, viewed through the lens of the genuinely young, is actually pretty ancient) Lou tentatively poised between his then-inglorious past as then-uncelebrated leader of the then-unlamented Velvet Underground (the near-future would have something to say about early history’s first take on the VU) and a solo career that would deliver a slew of sunny, feelgood hits (especially on the album Berlin). “I must redefine myself,” he wrote around this time, “because the self I wanted to become is occupied by another body.”

From Do Angels Need Haircuts?, published by Anthology Editions

Anyway, on 10 March 1971, apparently undecided about his next professional move, Reed gave a spoken-word performance to a cool, downtown New York crowd, including Allen Ginsberg, at the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. He recited poems, prose and some Velvets lyrics (“Lady Godiva’s Operation”, “Sister Ray”, “Heroin” and more) as well as early versions of words that would resurface on later solo music releases (“Andy’s Chest”, “Coney Island Baby”). And what Reed read that night he recorded on a C90 cassette.

The book reproduces some of the verse, as well as Reed’s spoken introductions. In a short, delicately moving essay, Laurie Anderson, Reed’s long-term partner, refers to the latter as “Avant-garde stand-up… parallel poems.” Indeed, the shift between the two isn’t always immediately evident (the publication includes a seven-inch vinyl recording of part of the recital so that you can hear Reed riffling and shuffling bits of paper as he delivers his words with lispy urgency).

  • ARC052_LouReed_EPK_ColdspringJournal
  • ARC052_LouReed_Press_Photo_3
  • The Coldspring Journal #9, 1976
  • Lou Reed, 1971. Photo by Jeff Albertson, courtesy the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

There’s a piece written for a former manager who had played basketball and, explains Reed in his introduction, “thought that singing a song was like making a hook shot”. The poem begins:

Playing music is not like athletics:
one may improve with age.

The introductions are sometimes better than the poems. The one to “Lipstick” runs with Warholian fervour:

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.”

How are you going to better that when you get to the poem itself? “Unadorned poetry was perhaps too limited a form for all his theater of voices,” offers Anne Waldman, who recalls a conversation with Reed about TS Eliot, the myth of Parsifal and the open wound, but notes that his words were “perhaps best served with accompaniment”. If you know Reed’s 1989 album New York, you may find it hard to disagree that this latter-day Beat was at his best when he was setting his gritty, sardonic, rapid-fire observations of life’s splendours and miseries to explicit musical beats:

Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em:
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says.
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.

(“Dirty Boulevard”)

He was no less sardonic, of course, even when striking a more Blakean Songs-of-Innocence note, as in the opening verses of “Small Town”, the first track on his and John Cale’s tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs to Drella:

When you’re growing up in a small town
When you’re growing up in a small town
When you’re growing up in a small town
You say, “No one famous ever came from here.” …

Where did Picasso come from?
There’s no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh.
If art is the tip of the iceberg
I’m the part sinking below.

 

Cover with wrap & seven-inch vinyl

Do Angels Need Haircuts? is not a big book that sets out to summarize the life’s work of a major creative force. Rather, it’s a slim collection, a “little bouquet”, says Waldman, aimed at bodying forth a “tangential moment”. I’ve read it twice—and I’m halfway through writing my review before the minute hand on my old-ass wind-up watch has even got back to the top of the dial again since I started.* But if the text is sparse it’s very good, and the production is imaginatively varied: there are nice portraits (printed on a different, glossy stock, for the pleasure of paper fetishists everywhere), reproductions of the covers of magazines in which Reed’s poetry was reproduced, and that seven-inch vinyl record tucked in the book’s back pocket. All in all, it’s a lovely little time capsule.

 

Recommended listening:

Lou Reed, New York (1989)
Lou Reed / John Cale, Songs for Drella (1990)

 

* An exaggeration.

 

Do Angels Need Haircuts? Early Poems by Lou Reed

Out now with Lou Reed Archive/Anthology Editions

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