Pin It
Laurie Anderson
Laurie AndersonPhotogrpahy Ebru Yildiz

Laurie Anderson on the lost poetry of Lou Reed

What the artist, musician, and filmmaker learned about her late husband while compiling an anthology of his 1970s poetry

On the night of March 10, 1971, Laurie Anderson’s future husband Lou Reed was giving his first poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, a renowned venue for experimental poetry where the audience included Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll. The previous summer, Reed had quit the Velvet Underground, a band that had expanded the possibilities of avant-garde rock music by combining feedback, drones, and violas with lyrics that chronicled the jittery glamour of 1960s New York. Reed got up in front of an unfamiliar audience to read out his poems and short stories about love, music, lipstick, and whisky, recording the first 45 minutes on a tape recorder propped up next to him.

Anderson isn’t certain where she was on that night, but it’s pretty likely she was just a few blocks away, at a talk on 14th Street in Manhattan, probing the latest conceptual art theory with her circle of avant-garde practitioners. The artist, musician, and filmmaker has lived in New York since the late 60s, finding early recognition for off-the-wall performances in which she played the violin while wearing skates frozen into a block of ice, or placed magnetic tape on her bow to invent a new instrument. In 1981, she became an unlikely household name in the UK with the surprise chart success of “O Superman” – eight-and-a-half minutes of vocoder-processed vocals mourning the Iranian hostage crisis, which was released as a single and reached #2 in the UK charts.

Anderson and Reed’s paths didn’t cross until 30 years after his tentative foray into poetry. Since his death from liver disease in 2013, Anderson has been sorting through Reed’s huge archive of notes, lyrics, and recordings. The poems he read out at St. Mark’s that night are now being published in Do Angels Need Haircuts?, a compact poetry collection featuring an afterword by Anderson, the first in a series of retrospectives from Reed’s archives being issued with the New York Public Library.

Leaping from the quotidian to the profound in the space of a line, Reed’s poems often bury their wisdom in deadpan humour. Some couplets read as simply as nursery rhymes, concealing an acerbic streak: “If lipstick were black you’d wear it / If love were straight you’d curl it,” runs the opening of “Lipstick”. Others tap into the psychedelic experimentation of the late 60s, like the droning wordspill of “Murder Mystery”, which had previously provided the lyrics and title of a Velvet Underground song.

On that night, Reed perhaps thought he was swapping rock and roll for writing, a career he felt pulled towards through the encouragement of his college professor, the poet Delmore Schwartz. In the end, he began recording his debut solo album just a few months later, with the iconic Transformer LP arriving the next year. Do Angels Need Haircuts? Is a glimpse of a brief but pivotal moment in the life of an artist who is still, Anderson thinks, rather misunderstood.

This reading was obviously a big deal for the young Lou Reed – he was out to prove himself as a writer, with poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jim Carroll in the audience. So how did Lou fit into the New York City poetry scene of 1971?

Laurie Anderson: He was jumping into a scene that wasn’t particularly his. He was coming from the rock world and suddenly he goes, “I’m a poet.” There were people who were also crossing over – people like Ginsberg, who would show up at a rock club and do a reading – but these worlds were surprisingly discrete, they had walls around them. Of course we blended sometimes, and it was mostly at the Factory – (Andy) Warhol was the person who brought musicians and visual artists together in the same place – but they would drift apart and away from each other. So Lou dipping into the poetry scene, it was kind of a new and daring thing for him to do, to say, “Now I’m a poet.” So, how did other poets react? I think Anne Waldman said that best in the intro (to the book). She was saying how people really welcomed him, ‘cos they wanted to claim him as their own – “Yeah! Come on in, be a poet for a while. It just gives us a little more sexy edge.” So there was definitely a sense of division, but also interchangeability.

You describe his stage presence as “a complicated mix of nervousness and bravado.” Do you think he felt like that when he was playing music too, or was it because of the switch to poetry?

Laurie Anderson: Well, this is the young Lou Reed, the boy! I think it was the poetry thing. You had a different swagger if you were in a rock club. There were a lot more drugs in the rock clubs also, so you could kind of be out there and get on stage and people are throwing stuff at you. I imagine that he must have been a little bit shocked at the poetry scene being so generally civilised.

Before the rock thing, he had been in a kind of academic situation with Delmore (Schwartz, who was Reed’s professor and mentor at Syracuse University). I actually always thought of Lou more as a playwright than as a songwriter or a poet, because he’s building these incredible characters and they have these really distinct voices. He’s not the songwriter talking to you, it wasn’t second person like that. It was like, “Here’s Candy, from out on the Island,” you know? And, “Here’s little Joe” – and who are these people? They’re like Shakespearean characters, it’s wild.

Do you have a favourite poem from the book?

Laurie Anderson: “We Are The People”. It’s just intense and contemporary and political and demanding and analytical and forward-thinking. I think it’s really wonderful.

I was thinking about some similarities in your work, as writers and lyricists, and you seem to share a very deadpan humour – so deadpan that you might be afraid to laugh, in Lou’s case. Do you think Lou’s audience knew what to make of his humour?

Laurie Anderson: This was St. Mark’s, people were laughing. They knew what to laugh at. But for us, so many years later, we’re a little bit more tone deaf to that kind of thing. Also, it’s harder to know whether to laugh when you’re not there. It’s like when you listen to a comedy act with no laugh track, you’re like, “Is that funny?” An audience develops a personality very quickly. Sometimes they laugh at everything, and sometimes they’re not funny. So there’s that to keep in mind, plus the many years that have passed since this performance.

On the other hand, many things just shine right off the page, and they’re just hilarious, straight up. He was a very, very, very funny person. A really dry, sharp sense of humour. And the other thing I think that’s not part of his myth is that he was so sweet and kind. And so able to cry! How many men do you know who’ll just begin to cry? Not many. You know, it’s kinda awkward when they do – it’s like, “Wow, what’s wrong with that guy?” Lou didn’t have that. He was willing to do that, and when you look at what he wrote, of course he was like that. He was an extremely emotional person. I think that part of the rough stuff, his reputation with some journalists for being really a jerk, was about protecting himself. I mean, not to say that he couldn’t be a jerk – he could. But a lot of journalists are also like, “But he never did that to me! He really liked me. He was a little crusty at first and then we became best friends and then we talked for the next 15 years.” So he was a very, very complicated person, is what I’m trying to say.

“(Lou) was a very, very, very funny person. A really dry, sharp sense of humour. The other thing that’s not part of his myth is that he was so sweet and kind. And so able to cry!” – Laurie Anderson

So when you were together, did you know about the young Lou, about his rock and roll years?

Laurie Anderson: No, I didn’t. Not until he was dead. Because when I met him, I didn’t really know who he was. I actually thought he was British! I’m not proud of that, but I didn’t know who he was, really. And he pursued me. It was very weird. When I met him I thought, “Okay, I know this guy is well known, but I am not gonna be a fangirl and go back and look at who he was. I’m going to meet the person I’m meeting now.” And that’s who I met, and that’s who I lived with for 21 years. And so, really, I knew those songs from his later interpretations of them, and I didn’t ever go scooting around into his past. I really didn’t. I was very cautious about not wanting to do that, and just being with the person I was with. Because we change so radically throughout our lives, I didn’t want to be with someone who wasn’t there anymore. That was one of the big surprises of working on this book and working on this archive.

You write in your afterword that “it wasn’t until a lot later that I fell in love with the young bad boy Lou”. Do you think you would have liked each other, at the time?

Laurie Anderson: Yeah, with his cavalier way that he presented himself as a poet, I loved it. You know, he’s full of surprises. When you look at somebody’s life as a whole and they’re not going to change it anymore, you see it in a very different light. I’m awestruck by how hard he tried to make everything good. He tried so hard. He never gave up.

You’ve explained that Lou wrote in his head, put it down, and never changed a line – working to Ginsberg’s maxim of “first thought, best thought.”

Laurie Anderson: I don’t know about throughout his life, but even Anne (Waldman) was saying that as a young poet he was “first thought, best thought”, and that’s definitely how he was when I met him.

How does that compare to your writing process?

Laurie Anderson: Oh, I’m painstaking. I can write the same sentence for a year. I’m a re-writer. I mean, I love having exciting first thoughts, but often they go through a lot of changes as I’m working on things.

In your film Heart of a Dog, where you talk about the death of your rat terrier, Lolabelle, you come up with a phrase that’s really stuck with me: “the purpose of death is the release of love”.

Laurie Anderson: Yeah, that’s something I’ve seen in most deaths that I’ve experienced – not just my dog, but my mother, my husband, my father. That’s been something I’ve gradually learned each time in a little more intense way, is that that seems to be what’s going on.

In that film you look to Buddhist ideas about death to help you process the mystery of the experience. Death seems to be dealt with more directly in the Buddhist worldview. Do you think people could prepare themselves better for the inevitability of death?

Laurie Anderson: Oh, I would never give any advice to people about that. And it’s up to everybody how they want to do that. I find it valuable to think about (death) a little bit. Other people live their lives the way they like, and if they don’t want to think about it for one second, that’s another way to do it. Everything is right, you know? I really do think that people find their own way and it will always be right, because they’ll use their instinct and they really will do what they really feel. Even if that’s just completely ignoring it and one day they’re just dead – “okay, fine.”

Lead image by Ebru Yildiz. Do Angels Need Haircuts?: Early Poems by Lou Reed is out now via Anthology Editions