August 18, 2017

Listen Out Loud: Lou Reed Archive Comes Home to Lincoln Center

Lou Reed's passport Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

Lou Reed’s passport
Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

On March 2—which would have been Lou Reed’s 75th birthday—the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (NYPLPA) announced its acquisition of the late musician’s complete archives. The press conference, held at NYPLPA’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, in Lincoln Center, touched off a two-week celebration showcasing Reed’s work, including displays of selected items from the archives at NYPLPA and the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, as well as several public programs.

At approximately 300 linear feet of paper records, electronic records, and photographs, plus approximately 3,600 audio and 1,300 video recordings, the Lou Reed archives document a prodigious and influential career—from his 1958 high school band to a final performance in Paris months before his death, from liver cancer, in September 2013.

In addition to his work with the Velvet Underground and many years spent recording and performing as a solo musician, Reed was a composer, poet, writer, photographer, and documenter of his tai chi practice. The collection holds studio notes, galleys and proofs of album covers and books, master and unreleased recordings, interviews, documentation of all Reed’s major tours and many guest performances, business papers, personal correspondence, lyrics, poster art, fan gifts, and other rare ephemera. The photography collection contains both pictures of Reed and his own work—Reed was an accomplished photographer with several gallery shows and printed collections to his name.

Reed was a lifelong New Yorker and a quintessential New York musician, and his widow—artist, filmmaker, and musician Laurie Anderson—felt strongly that the collection should find a home at New York Public Library. “What better place to have this than in the heart of the city he worked in and loved?” Anderson asked.

REED, RECORDKEEPER

Notebook with lyrics Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

Notebook with lyrics
Photo credit: Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library

Reed was known for saving everything from recording masters to tour receipts—their father was an accountant, explained Reed’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, and he understood the value of keeping a paper trail. He left an office’s worth of material and a storage locker holding more than 200 boxes, and in the years following his death it fell to Anderson, along with Reed’s two archivists, Jason Stern and Jim Cass, to organize it all. Anderson’s booking agent, Linda Brumbach, suggested she get in touch with independent archivist Don Fleming.

Fleming, a music producer, has worked to conserve the collection of American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, now held by the Library of Congress, as well as with the families of writers Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson on their archives. After an initial meeting with Anderson in April 2014, Fleming began his work with her, Stern, and Cass to conduct an initial inventory of the collection, cataloging and photographing items as they went. Audio items were also itemized to estimate the transfer costs. Working one or two days a week, the process took close to a year.

“During all of this we were talking about what kind of collection it is, and where it might fit best,” Fleming recalled. Anderson had long been a fan of NYPL’s digital collections; that level of access, Fleming told LJ, is “what we love about the library, and [why] Laurie was really interested in talking to them… the way that they’re trying to use archives in digital ways. She’s so forward thinking with technology that that’s where she wanted this to go immediately.” Anderson contacted NYPL in 2015 to inquire about the library’s interest; the answer was an immediate yes.

A HOME AT LINCOLN CENTER

NYPLPA was the team’s first choice for the archives’ home. After the Velvet Underground dissolved, Reed’s first solo show in the United States was at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in 1973. “It was kind of his welcome home show,” said Weiner at the March 2 event. “So we’re really happy that on this occasion…Lou is once again welcomed into the hearts and minds of New York City through the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts.”

Arrangements were finalized in December 2016, and paper and other non-audio materials were delivered to NPYL’s Library Services Center in Long Island City for processing. (Anderson has retained Reed’s equipment, guitars, and several boxes of awards, as that was outside the scope of what NYPLPA could accommodate. Most of the less iconic gear was auctioned off on eBay in 2014 to help finance work on the archives.)

Jonathan Hiam, curator of NYPL’s American Music Collection and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at NYPLPA, was excited about working with the collection from the start. Reed “was a consummate New Yorker,” he told LJ. “He was a lover of the library, and of course his artistic legacy fits squarely in with the types of materials we collect here.”

Anderson worked closely with NYPLPA throughout the accession process. “It was amazing to see the level of detail and focus that she put towards answering all the questions that had to be answered as we went along,” said Fleming.

Processing the paper materials will take about a year, Hiam said; in addition to straightforward material such as receipts and contracts, there are thousands of photographs in which the subjects have not yet been identified. “And the fan art! Fan letters, of course, there are a ton of those and those are a blast. But also the gifts that people would send—photography, drawings, recordings…a sweater.”

Sweater knitted by fan, Lou Reed archives at NYPLPA

Sweater knitted by fan
Photo credit: Lisa Peet

Even though the collection was well-cataloged, said Hiam, he still found surprises as he made his way through Reed’s boxes. “Frankly, there were more original manuscript lyrics and poetry than I thought would be in there, because he didn’t save a lot of those types of things…he always wanted to move forward.” Producer Hal Willner, who collaborated on Reed’s final project before his death, the boxed set Lou Reed: The RCA & Arista Album Collection, concurred: there “aren’t many—Lou believed the word ‘outtake’ meant ‘out.’ ”

Reed’s recordings and hard drives are scheduled to arrive at NYPL within the next year. Unique items—unreleased tapes, videotapes, demos, and concert bootlegs—will first be treated to stabilize them at MagicShop Archive & Restoration Studios in Brooklyn, and then digitized. The process of examining the audio isn’t only about listening, Fleming noted. One of his favorite discoveries was a test pressing for Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music bearing a typed label in one corner with the recording information. The label was later used as a graphic element on the final album cover and Fleming, a fan of the cult record as a teenager, said, “It was like this light bulb that went off—oh my God, that’s why that’s there!”

“I can only imagine that there’s going to be some material included in those recordings that is really significant and really special,” Hiam told LJ. “A lot of things are tantalizingly labeled.” One of the most mysterious and exciting items is a five-inch reel-to-reel tape that Reed mailed to himself in 1965 to register it through the “poor man’s copyright.” Although it is believed to be from the first Velvet Underground demo sessions in Queens, it has remained in its sealed envelope and has yet to be played. “It’s a puzzle to figure out exactly what we’re going to do with that,” said Hiam. “We’re working on that now…. It’s a fun and daring thing to take on publicly.”

PLANS FOR THE ARCHIVE

The Lou Reed Archives team has further plans for the collection.

Fleming is working with Anderson, Stern, Willner, and pop culture publisher Anthology Editions on a book featuring Reed’s personal essays, poems, and photographs from the archives. The volume will include an audio card with recordings of Reed reading his poetry, including his first major reading, in 1971, at the St. Marks Poetry Project. “It’s still being developed,” said Fleming, “but that’s the idea—to immediately start finding ways to make things out of this archive.”

Another idea, still in the planning stages, is for a soundproof, contained room within the library where patrons could book time to listen to work by Reed—or any other artist—without headphones. “When we first visited the place, we asked them, ‘Where do people get to listen to the music?’ And they showed us the tables where they put on headphones,” Fleming recalled. “Immediately we [said], ‘Is there somewhere in the building where there could be enough space to build out a little listening room with the highest tech gear like Lou would use to listen to stuff loud?’ ” NYPL has been amenable to the idea, he told LJ, and he and Anderson are hoping to make the Lou Reed Listening Room a reality.

“Over the next year…some of these other projects will begin to take better shape,” said Hiam. “Once we know everything that’s in there and how to handle it, and we’ve done the preservation work we need to do, then we can start to see how it will fit into modes of access and wider projects.” He hopes to see a larger exhibit drawing from the full archive sometime in the next few years, and predicts that the material received from Anderson’s team is not the full extent of what will eventually become the Lou Reed Archives. “Once the public sees an archiving project like this, a local hero come into the library…we start to get quite a few people contacting us to tell us ‘hey, I’ve got this,’ or ‘Lou Reed gave me this.’ So once an archive initially comes in, then there’s this period where we start to…snowball,” Hiam told LJ. “People are excited to contribute and be part of this.”

Hiam is enthusiastic about the archives’ reception. “I don’t think we really have anything here in music and recorded sound that’s quite this size and scope, but because [Reed] had such an impact upon popular culture, I think there’s going to be something for everyone.”

Added Anderson at the March 2 event, “Lou had a cast of Shakespearean characters and wrote down what they said and what they might have thought. [His songs were] really many novels in short form. So I know he’d be so thrilled to be at the library.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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