Inside Lou Reed’s Archives

Newly discovered recordings and songs are now on display at the New York Public Library

Lou Reed
Lou Reed performing in 1975 Photo by Michael Putland / Getty Images

When musician Lou Reed died in 2013, he left the contents of his archive to his wife, artist Laurie Anderson. The collection of recordings, papers, photos, letters, lyrics and receipts spanned hundreds of feet of shelf space; the audio alone totaled 600 hours. 

Deciding what to do with the archive felt “like a 15-story building falling on me,” Anderson told the New York Times’ Ben Sisario in 2017.

What would her husband have wanted? Before his death, Reed had spoken “not one sentence” about his wishes, she said.

In 2017, on what would have been Reed’s 75th birthday, the New York Public Library announced that it would acquire the archive, making it public once it was fully cataloged. That process, the Times wrote, would take “at least a year.” 

Now, five years later, those efforts are finally complete. “Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars,” the first large-scale exhibition on the multitalented musician, will be on view through 2023. 

Lou Reed’s box of 45s
Lou Reed’s box of doo-wop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll 45s Photo by NYPL / Jonathan Blanc. Lou Reed Papers, Music & Recorded Sound Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

For the experts sorting through the collection, the enormity of the task was daunting. Before the arrangement with the library was finalized, Anderson hired archivist Don Fleming (who is now a co-curator of the exhibition). 

“There were all of these boxes in storage and nobody really knew what was in them,” Fleming tells the Guardian’s Rob LeDonne. “So we’d go from box to box, all being opened for the first time in years. Some were not that interesting. Others were mind-blowing.”

Born in 1942, Reed was a guitarist, singer, songwriter and poet. Famous both as a member of the band the Velvet Underground and for his solo career (when he produced his biggest hit, “Walk on the Wild Side”), he spent most of his career in New York. Punk icon Patti Smith once described him as “our generation’s New York poet, championing its misfits as Whitman had championed its workingman and Lorca its persecuted.”

Velvet Underground session tape
A Velvet Underground session tape Lou Reed Papers, Music & Recorded Sound Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The archive has produced some interesting finds, including a newly discovered song, “Open Invitation,” from the 1980s, reports the Times’ Sisario. But the biggest surprise was a tape dated May 11, 1965, which was left inside a cardboard box in Reed’s office. 

When archivists finally played it, they found themselves listening to some of the earliest known recordings of Reed’s Velvet Underground songs. But these acoustic recordings, as the Times puts it, “are miles away from the explosive sound” that the band would develop “just months later.”

Anderson tells the Times that these early recordings exemplify the long, circuitous path Reed walked to develop his musical style. 

“That’s a valuable thing for people to understand,” she adds. “You don’t become Lou Reed overnight.”

The exhibition also showcases some of Reed’s works of poetry. He is much better known as a songwriter than as a poet. But as Fleming tells the Guardian, “his lyrics and poetry were kind of one and the same.” 

Lou Reed and band in 1983
Lou Reed and band (Robert Quine, Fernando Saunders and Fred Maher) performing at the Bottom Line in New York City in 1983 © Jane L. Wechsler. Lou Reed Papers, Music & Recorded Sound Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

The entire collection is publicly available (minus Reed’s personal rolodex), per the Times. Videos of his live performances span the 1960s to 2012. His written works, which are now organized together, include album liner notes, handwritten lyrics, sheet music, short stories and speeches. Other items on view: Reed’s high school yearbook, his personal record collection, tour itineraries, contracts, press clippings, fan mail, passports—and even his eyeglasses. 

The collection’s eclectic nature is perhaps fitting. As Anderson tells NPR’s John Schaefer, Reed’s songs chronicled “a Shakespearean panoply of characters.”

“They were all New Yorkers,” she adds. “And there they are, living in the library.”

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars” is on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center through March 4, 2023.

Editor’s note, July 20, 2022: A previous version of this story misidentified a photo of a Velvet Underground session tape from 1968 as a Lou Reed demo tape from 1965.