Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars Exhibit

I was in New York City yesterday. As part of my visit, I made sure to see the exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts that focuses on Lou Reed’s life and career. It’s titled “Caught Between the Twisted Stars” after a line from a poem that he wrote. I’ve wanted to see the exhibit ever since I saw a headline about it in the New York Times months ago. This was my opportunity to literally immerse myself in learning about an incredibly influential artist and musician.

The exhibit has prominent disclaimers that it is for mature audiences only, and that the opinions expressed may be outdated or offensive. I thought this was nice; rather than being preachy, it was an acknowledgment of time passing. Perhaps this was silly, but as soon as I even saw the row of exhibit guides, I got excited. I got to “be Clara” as a friend said: I went to the exhibit alone and could take my time in soaking up a part of music history.

“Caught Between the Twisted Stars” begins with a video of Lou Reed reciting the poem from which the exhibit gets its title. There’s also a brief biography before there are photos and promotional materials for The Velvet Underground. The exhibit wasn’t fully chronological: it kind of jumps back and forth through time. Each part of the exhibit seemed to be organized more conceptually than anything else. Photos and lyrics from The Velvet Underground are mixed with demo tapes from Lou Reed’s folk era. Later, the exhibit delves into his poetry: it talks about an influential professor from when he was at Syracuse; there are copies of his published poems; and a few handwritten lyric sheets. (Is it just me, or do all artists seem to have bad handwriting?)

I liked the way the exhibit concluded. It had a bookshelf behind plexiglass with letters from Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney as well as old 45s; the conceit appeared to be that it was part of his house. Fanzines were laid out on a desk. Old yearbooks from 1958 were open to pictures of Lou Reed in his first band, The Jades. (This, of course, prompted me to look up those recordings. I’ll talk more about that in my Monthly Obsessions post for September.)

After that, there was a wall of TVs with interviews. My favorite was one that appeared to be from the 1990s. He talked about what rock ‘n roll feels like and gestured to his heart. And that made me so happy because that’s what I feel, too.

on lou reed & bisexuality

I love The Velvet Underground, and I love Lou Reed even more. I remember when he died; by happenstance, I met up with a fellow music nerd not long afterwards and asked if they’d heard the news. They replied that they listened to all his music that day – just feeling it, letting themselves reflect on who Lou was, the impact he’d left.

Another, less-commonly discussed impact is Lou’s open discussion of his bisexuality. While not quite a queer icon, many, like myself, have appreciated that someone so widely revered in the music community was…not straight.

The thing is, I feel as though that that’s something erased from his narrative, and the narrative of “classic rock” in general. He wrote a song called “Venus in Furs” about BDSM, yet he’s been repackaged into one of the many white men who form the canon of “traditional” music that you, your dad, and most of your (let’s be real, male) friends listen to on repeat.

I was in a bookstore not too long ago and found myself in the “nonfiction” section. There were several books on Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. I immediately flipped to the indices of each book to see if “bisexual” was referenced. When that failed, I read through the section of the books that deal with Lou’s teenage years, when he was subjected to electroshock therapy to cure his homosexual urges.

No references, even though he wrote the 1974 song “Kill Your Sons” about it.

Nothing.

Why? Is it just that difficult for us to accept that someone so influential can also be queer?