The gloriously rude Lou Reed keeps sounding better with age

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars can be seen at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center until next March


NEW YORK - CIRCA 1976: Lou Reed poses for the cover session for his album Coney Island Baby circa 1976 in New York City (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

August 04, 2022 11:25

If there was a competition to name the rudest Jew in New York, living or dead, the qualifying rounds alone would take months. But one of the finalists would be Lou Reed. Songwriter, guitarist, founder of the Velvet Underground — Reed is admired for all this, but he is notorious, at least in New York, for his spectacular rudeness.

The Swedish Jewish actor Erland Josephson once went to New York for an awards ceremony, and left under the impression that he had met a fellow honoree called Lee Rude. It was an easy mistake to make, if it was a mistake at all.

Reed dispensed the rudeness so lavishly that it was almost a form of generosity. Almost, but not quite. When the old misery died in 2013, his widow, the performance artist Laurie Anderson, inherited Reed’s archive.

It turns out that when Mr. “Rock n Roll Animal” wasn’t shooting methamphetamine, drinking Johnny Walker Black or, more recently, waving Tai Chi swords around in passive-aggressive assertion that time might have given him the aspect of an angry bullfrog but it most certainly had not withered his rudeness, Reed was putting all his stuff in boxes.

Just as you might expect from the rock monster who was born Lewis Rubinstein, the son of an accountant.

There were more than 600 boxes. Anderson gave them to the New York Public Library, and the Library has now selected some of the more interesting items for Caught Between The Twisted Stars, an exhibition at Lincoln Center.

Reed was an aspiring poet before he became a rude boy, and among the early photos of Reed playing with his college band is a certificate, recording for posterity that he was such a good student at Syracuse University that he made it onto the Dean’s List for Spring, 1964.

A year or two later, and the rudeness has begun. There are photos of Reed with Andy Warhol (sunglasses, not smiling), and films of Reed jamming with the Velvets at the Factory (sunglasses, not smiling).

There are fascinating ¼-inch reel-to-reels containing mixes of the Velvets’ famously unfunny third album, which you can listen to on headphones, and the cassette tapes on which Billy
Name recorded the Velvets’ last shows at Max’s Kansas City in August 1970, by which time the group were so broken down by the public’s indifference that Reed sounds like he is smiling, but in a melancholy way —as if, like Hamlet, he had of late lost all his rudeness, he knew not wherefore.

In fact, he was only just starting.

After retreating to his father’s accountancy office to work on his poems, Reed rebounded into the Seventies. Promoted and produced by David Bowie, who lifted some of his best material from Reed, and generally off his head with drunk and drugs, Reed’s records were hit and miss but his rudeness was consistently off the charts.

In 1973, Reed insulted his new fans and his record company by putting out a double album of electronic howling noises called Metal Machine Music. You can hear parts of it in this exhibition in a custom-designed listening space which replicates how Reed heard Metal Machine Music when he performed it live to a captive audience. It is an insult to the ears but not, I decided as I staggered to the exit, to the intelligence.

Connoisseurs of the gratuitous obnoxious will cherish the exchange of letters between an irate Reed and the editors of TIME magazine, who had printed one of his poems but trimmed it without asking him.

Reed admirers of longer standing will already know his live album Take No Prisoners (1978). The songs sound fine but Reed’s patter, a mixture of offensive jokes and off-the-cuff insult, is in a class of its own.

It was a hard act to follow, especially when he had sobered up. He tried to be awful to the end but the interview clips show him mellowing into a mere curmudgeon.

His music, though, sounds better and better with time and I wondered if much of his rudeness came from an excess of sensitivity in a business largely populated by criminals and idiots. I was reminded of his superbly rude reply to the question “Are you Jewish?”
“Aren’t all the best people?”

“Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars” can be seen at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center (Donald and Mary Oenslager Gallery) until 4 March 2023.

The Lou Reed Listening Room is in the Vincent Astor Gallery until 7 January 2023.

August 04, 2022 11:25

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