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As co-founder of The Velvet Underground in the 1960s, Lou Reed helped change the direction of music. As a solo artist, he challenged convention and never stopped experimenting. And through a new exhibition about his creative life at the New York Public Library, the enigmatic musician's work continues to challenge perceptions. Christopher Booker reports.
This year would have brought Lou Reed's 80th birthday as co-founder of The Velvet Underground, the influential 1960s art rock band, he helped change the direction of pop music. As a solo artist, he never stopped experimenting, and a special correspondent Christopher Booker reports. Even after Lou Reed's death in 2013, the enigmatic musicians work continues to challenge perceptions.
The retelling of Lou Reed's creative life currently on display at the New York Public Library is a tale told with an eclectic mix of objects, their yearbook photos and posters for all gigs and a box of his childhood collection of 405s. Their guitars, Tai Chi swords and petty cash receipts, including this slip for a leather studded collar and then the same color we can be seen wearing on the cover for his 1974 album Rock 'n' Roll Animal.
And while the collection offers a portrait of the work of the famed frontman of the Velvet Underground, and celebrated solo artist, those who knew and love read best say there's still a lot to learn.
Laurie Anderson, Musician and Artist: What I love about this exhibition, and when what sets it apart from other things, really is it scholarship,
Musician and artists Laurie Anderson spent over 20 years by Reed side. The couple met in the early 90s and married in 2008. It was Anderson who chose the New York Public Library is the home of Reed's archive. Were there discussions with Lou before he passed about what he wanted to happen with his work?
No, I had to make that up. It was heavy was also a big privilege, you know, that he trusted me to do that. In the whole show, I see parts of Lou but not the real Lou. There's no way you can really do a show about a person were really complicated.
And Reed was a complicated artist. The exhibit offers a tour through his work. But the presentation hides the multiyear task of sifting and sorting through all of his materials and creating a clear narrative. The work that fell the archivist Don Fleming and Jason Stern.
Jason Stern, Archivist:
I remember moving the boxes from the storage unit into the office. And that was like, I can't remember it was something like three, maybe four that like fully packed van rides back and forth.
The process started over seven years ago, Fleming and stern serving as detect his in conservationists gathering stacks of unpublished writings, poetry and recorded materials.
Don Fleming, Archivist:
The important thing was we wanted to determine how much original audio we had. And that was the exciting part because from the beginning, we saw that there was a lot.
Nearly 700 hours worth. But it was what they found in a box in Reed's office near the end of the process that would offer an entirely unexpected and relatively unknown link in the creative life of Lou Reed.
I just thought this one's weird. What is this?
It was a box that had been mailed from Lou Reed to Lou Reed on May 11, 1965.
We thought it might be a tape we already had. Because we knew that Lou had gone into the studio that night at Pickwick, where he was working at the time as a songwriter, and recorded several songs that same exact date that it stamped on the tape.
At the time, Reed was working as a songwriter for the Queens based Pickwick Studios, writing little commercial jingles and recording quick cheap knockoff versions of popular songs like this 1964. But this box did not contain another jingle.
We all have goosebumps sitting there at the studio listening to it. Come on. I mean, I distinctly remember just like chills, goosebumps like the whole thing.
Did you have knowledge of this tape?
I'd seen it on the shelf. And for years in the studio and I just, you know, like she thinks it just don't register. He didn't keep it in a vault or anything like that it was just something on the shelf.
This tape, which it said sealed for over 50 years, contains the earliest known recordings of Lou Reed and his Velvet Underground bandmates, John Cale playing demo versions of some of their most famous songs.
And it was like opening up a time capsule and hearing probably the first recording of these hugely important songs waiting for the man heroine —
Pale Blue Eyes.
Pale Blue Eyes. Yes. So this is really like the prologue to the 50-year body of work that shows you how you get from Blue, the Pickwick Studio songwriter guy, to the guy who's in the Velvet Underground.
But the first song of the tape is a song no one ever heard before called Man of Good Fortune.
I heard this before. I don't recognize this. This is like the missing link. This was like a thing that really shows like how he developed into what he became. And I think mainly as really a poet who became a musician, a writer first, I was the other you should die.
The songs about empathy. And this is an incredible thing. They're not about, hey, hey, look at me. Or what I need is this, or I want to hold your hand, you know, that they were like, I'm going to be you for a second and see things from through your eyes.
For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Christopher Booker.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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