When the 28-year-old Lou Reed stepped off the Max's Kansas City stage that night on August 23rd, 1970, he stepped into his fathers car and they drove back to his childhood home in Freeport, Long Island. When he left the stage he left the band - it was his final night with the Velvet Underground. Much more importantly, however, he also left behind music. Thus began Lou Reeds writing career
Lou Reed left the limelight of New York City and dove headfirst into the quiet(er) world of writing. He would not emerge again publicly until the following Spring when on March 10, 1971 he took the stage at the St. Marks Poetry Project and read some original poems. Famously, before reading his first poem of the night "We Are The People", he declared himself a poet.
In the Lou Reed Papers we have a cassette of another poetry reading Lou Reed gave at the St. Mark's Poetry Project later that year. It has been digitized by the NYPL. In it you can hear, and understand for perhaps the first time, the poetry of some of the Velvet Undergrounds most famous songs.
On his why he reads his lyrics as poetry, Lou Reed said in a 1992 interview with Mark Scheerer for Showbiz Today,
Songs that you might not think are funny are funnier without the music, on the other side of the coin there are a lot of things that are a lot harsher. People have told me chilling.
(Lou Reed Papers)
In the LPA exhibit focusing on Lou Reed's entire life and career, "Lou Reed: Caught Between The Twisted Stars", visitors first sight of Reed is a recitation of "Romeo Had Juliette", off his 1989 album New York, for A&E Revue in 1991.
Not simply the source of the exhibit title, it serves to highlight Reed's own opinions on his poetry and the versatility of his lyrics.
Accompanying this introductory video, on the wall immediately next to it in the exhibit is a quote from Reed:
I spent almost three months writing those words. I put my whole weight on it, and I tried to find a way to surround the words properly, to surround them with the perfect setting for the jewels, so to speak, and to get the rhythm of the words working in the right way against the beat, and then get the nuances in the vocal so that listeners could hear the words – that was the raison d’être for this album. The lyrics should sound really simple and with a really easy flow to them.
The first serious instance we have of Lou Reed's writing are found in his self-published poetry zine Lonely Woman Quarterly, Spring 1962, while he was undergraduate studying Literature at Syracuse University. During his time at Syracuse he famously wrote "Heroin" which he would read at the St. Marks Poetry Project in 1971.
The sentiment that Rock & Roll could be more permeated his entire life, that there could be more to the music that he loved was something he expressed on multiple occasions and in different ways. In a 1985 interview for NBC News Today Los Angeles with Rona Elliot, Reed says of his early writing,
I was right out of college and I had these great novelist ambitions about it. I wanted the Velvet Underground to write about adult themes. I wanted to make Rock & Roll songs about things that really matter.
I never considered [Velvet Underground songs as] the edge. If it had been a novel, nobody'd think twice about it. That's the thing. People had, and I think still have, a contempt for the form. What I was writing about was no big deal, it just hadn't taken place in Rock & Roll. I just thought of the Rock & Roll format as a sonnet, a contemporary sonnet. Three chords, turn it up to eleven, there you go.
If it was all autobiographical I'd be dead 100 times. And another things is, there isn't enough about me to write about that's just that interesting. I always wrote about the people around me. ... I wanted it to be really real. Like Clint playing Dirty Harry, I want you to really believe I was like that, that was really what I was all about.
In a 1990 interview on Dutch TV show Onrust! for the occasion of the release of album Songs for Drella (1990), Reed speaks about his love of writing:
Writing is really amazing. It never ceases to amaze me, what you find out when you're writing. It seems you can think about something for the longest time but it's only when you enter the formal act of writing - commuting things to paper - that I really gain that clarity. Not just sitting thinking. The process of writing is when I find things out. I do a lot of rewriting.
His explanation in this interview of his righting and rewriting process include some insight as to why there are so few pieces of handwritten lyrics in the Lou Reed Papers:
I got a computer, it helps somebody like me enormously because I can't read my handwriting. It's a very serious problem for me because you have notes over here and you're trying to write quickly and you can't read any of it. All these great insights, all these universal truths, you can't read any of it. They're completely gone.
And he concludes with his perspective on his writing process:
More than anything I love writing. Just the process of writing. It never ceases to amaze me how much I just love doing that. I mean, it was a long time before I understood that and I don't know why I would deny myself the pleasure of doing it, but I do. I hold off for a long time with it; give my brain a chance to get going on a subject. It's no good to just sit right down, [my brain's] got a subject then I forget about it. Consciously. Then I sit down and write, and with any kind of luck [knocks on wood table] something will have been happening".
In the 1992 Mark Scheerer interview he also talked about the publishing of his 1991 collection of poetry and lyrics "Between Thought and Expression",
My interest in the collection was that it would tell a story almost like a novel. It's taking you through 3 decades. I see improvement.
I think it can hold it's own to contemporary poetry. But I'd like it to do a lot better than that.
A decade later Lou Reed would continue to blur the lines lines between Music and Poetry, releasing album The Raven (2003). In a series of 2003 "AOL Sessions" videos, Lou Reed explained
One day Robert Wilson came to me and said "You should write a play about Edgar Allan Poe". I took this very seriously and reread a lot of Poe and eventually wrote a play that was about different works of Edgar Allan Poe which has now been rewritten for Music.
On June 16, 1977 Lou Reed was the recipient of a Coordinating Council of Literary Magazine (CCLM) award for his poem "The Slide", published in Unmuzzled Ox, Vol. IV, No. 1.
At New York's Gotham Book Mart, in midtown Manhattan, Reed was proffered the award by Senator and 1968 Presidential Candidate Eugene McCarthy. According to poet and editor of Unmuzzled Ox Michael Andre, who described the event following the senators death in 2005, McCarthy didn't know who Reed was:
Before handing Lou the check, the senator whispered, “Who is this fellow? Some sort of singer?”
Pictured from left to right: Eugene McCarthy, Michael Andre, Lou Reed.
(Rolling Stone Magazine, Issue 241, Photograph by Lisa Kahane)