Meet Ex-rocker Turned Poet, Lou Reed, in 'Do Angels Need Haircuts?'
Reed's brand of experimental and reactionary art always contained some of his trademarks in tone, syntax, and content.
The summer of 1970 ended with a total bummer, which was that Lou Reed decided to quit The Velvet Underground. At the ripe old age of 28, he moved back home to Long Island and attempted to make it not as a rock star but as a writer. Within a year, he would be playing music again. But there was this very brief slice of time when he was attempting to walk most self-evidently in the footsteps of his mentor, Delmore Schwartz. He began to wade into the New York poetry scene and eventually ended up giving his first big reading at Saint Mark's Church in March of 1971. At 8:30PM, Wednesday the 10th, on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, it was pay what you can to come see a double bill of Reed and Jim Carroll.
According to a calendar in the Village Voice, that same night over at the East 14th street YMCA, you could find a panel on "Women in Art" for a dollar. That's probably where Laurie Anderson was while Reed was trying out his new thing. Larry Fagin, who was Poetry Project staff at the time, got up and made his couple of announcements. You know, just the general housekeeping and other events that are coming up, and then he simply said, "this is Lou Reed." Reed approached the podium with his notes and also, blessedly, with a portable cassette recorder. On a 90-minute Norelco tape with a lifetime guarantee, which he later labeled "Poetry Reading '71", Reed proceeded to record his own debut on the poetry scene right there from the podium.
He got the first 45 minutes of it on side A. Side B is blank, but among the 21 pieces he did capture, there are lyrics from some Velvet Underground songs, a short piece of prose, and other types of poetry. It's this tape that forms the essential spine of Do Angels Need Haircuts?, the first product derived from newly collected material in the Lou Reed Archive. This book can be read in the same 45 minutes or so that it took Reed to record it—but you can be haunted by it and think about it and return to it and consult with it for a heck of a lot more than 45 minutes. If this is what we can expect from archivist Don Fleming and his stewardship Reed's incredible legacy, we have much cause for optimism.
Reed really did evolve tremendously as an intellectual over the course of his life, so to see such a detailed, close-up crystallization of this one rather short season at its culmination on that one-of-a-kind evening is incredible. The portrait it paints of him is so specific and clear it's easy to say it makes you feel like you were there that night. And even though his brief foray into the profession of writing didn't last, it did somehow contain all the bare bones of Reed that we knew over time. Reed's brand of experimental and reactionary art always contained some of his trademarks in tone, syntax, and content.
You can hear it in the way he introduces each poem: bluntly, in a semi-parody of aggression, hilariously, and yet so earnest, so invested in trying to genuinely go forward and accomplish something in the company of an audience. You can hear it in the way he recites Velvet Underground lyrics, the sameness and difference in his performance of the same words as songs instead of poems. You can hear it in the beats he keeps on the quick, silly poems that rhyme. You can hear it in the cacophonous way he presents his multi-voiced murder mystery tale. You can hear it in the gritty, queer portraiture of the title short story. And you literally can hear all of this because Do Angels Need Haircuts? includes a vinyl copy of the recording that Reed made that night.
Beyond the text of the reading, including all the introductory snippets, there are some other beautiful artifacts that really put you in the entirety of this event's time and place. There are Mick Rock's photographs of Reed holding the portable cassette recorder. There are pictures of journals and magazines where some of the things that Reed read that night ultimately got published, like the fall of 1971 edition of the Harvard Advocate that sold for $1 and a 1976 edition of Unmuzzled Ox where his work appeared alongside the likes of Ed Sanders, Kathy Acker, Daniel Berrigan, John Baldessari, Lucy Lippard, and Allen Ginsberg.
The poetry scene in New York in 1971 seems genuinely prepared to get into Lou Reed. Anne Waldman was in the audience that night and remembers in her foreword that Reed's performance was awesome. Where Delmore Schwartz had thought Reed could do greater things than front the Velvets, Waldman recalls thinking Reed could make it as both a rockstar and poet. She was living down the block from the venue where Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable would play and would have side conversations with Reed about T.S. Eliot.
And then there's Laurie Anderson's beautiful conclusion, which is really just an opening salvo of reassurance to everyone that wow, does she have Lou Reed's number. He had so many selves that she has yet to entirely discover, but the big deal is: she's up for it. These books will have many serious readers. The Lou Reed Archive should keep them coming.