Lou Reed Asking a Poet’s Questions

By Regina Weinreich
Lou Reed in 1971 Jeff Albertson, courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“Do Angels Need Haircuts?”
Lou Reed
Anthology Editions, $30

whiskey . . .
how I do love you.”

“This is a song I wrote about whiskey, which I happen to like,” writes a young Lou Reed, almost apologetic, because a much cooler Nico wrote in Rolling Stone that everyone had turned to wine. “Shows the generation gap I suppose,” he concludes, not mentioning the drugs that inspired his signature songs, “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.” 

Poetry and related notes are the substance of a new book, “Do Angels Need Haircuts? Early Poems by Lou Reed,” a compilation of writings and photographs, cover images from rare poetry zines, and a seven-inch record of previously unreleased audio of a 1971 reading at St. Mark’s Church.

“Do Angels Need Haircuts?” is the title of a short story included here, an homage to John Rechy’s “City of Night.” Only a poet would ask such a question, part whimsy, part metaphysics, a surreal take on the human juxtaposed with the divine. In this case, the poet Lou Reed, better known as a bad-boy rocker, was testing his creative chops in August 1970, when he quit his band, the Velvet Underground, to reinvent himself, contributing verse to small press publications. 

At St. Mark’s Church in March 1971, at a reading memorialized in this volume, he announced “I’m a poet” to a crowd that included poesy heavyweights — Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg — and downtown royalty like Andy Warhol people and Velvet Underground fans. But now that he was validated in this vocation, he added that if he were ever to be so foolish as to return to rock ’n’ roll, the ghost of his mentor, Delmore Schwartz, would surely haunt him. 

In six months, he was back to rock star status, a solo artist.

Arguably, the early work of artists is best buried with them. Not so for Lou Reed, as the contents of this handsome package, work found in his archive after his death in October 2013, attests. A window into his early creative life and the milieu that nurtured and repelled him, the volume is a treasure for Lou Reed enthusiasts and rock fanatics. It also looks into the formative psyche of an unusual and gentle soul, in contrast to his reputed behavior. 

As explained in the book’s wise introduction by the poet Anne Waldman, a founder of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church who was present for “Lou’s debut moment on the poetry stage,” no one begs for another poet, but “as rock star you are craved for, you conquer the world. I’m not sure Lou chose his path; it chose him.” As history proved, he was both rock icon and beat poet, the poetry connecting him to a coterie of fellow rock writers of the era, including Jim Carroll, Richard Hell, and Patti Smith. 

It would be another 20 years before Lou Reed would meet the multimedia performance artist Laurie Anderson in 1991. She always maintained they had a great love. After he died, she discovered this cache of unknown material, and as she said at a celebration of the book and the acquisition of his archive at the New York Public Library in May, she married “the young bad boy Lou,” and now had to get to know the poete maudit after his death. What a complicated situation, she exclaimed. “Now he is my muse.”

The evening, attended by musicians such as Eric Andersen and Garland Jeffreys, included readings by Hal Willner, a music producer and longtime Reed pal, and Lou’s sister, Merrill Reed Weiner, who read a lyric describing his envy of her trying on a wig, contemplating the constraints of gender identity: 

My sister tries on wigs in the department store.
“Let me try,” I say. 
“No,” she says, “I’ll not have my brother acting the transvestite.” 

He ponders his situation, “trapped in convention, / stand and look the same,” while she, “lacking $34.95, / remained so also.”

She said this never happened.

With similar sensibility, the note for “FORCE IT” reads playfully, “Not a faucet, but ‘Force It’ ”:

If you TRY TO 
if you try to force it out,
you will only break
your spout. . . .

This drives some men quite insane. 

Another poem has him coveting black lipstick, a nod to glam rock in the era of David Bowie: 

If lipstick were black
you’d wear it
If love were straight
you’d curl it
If life were wet
you’d burn it.
If death were free
you’d earn it.

The accompanying notes explain that he wished somebody made black lipstick, until a friend told him, “Everybody’s wearing it.” 

Another pleasure of this package is a 45 r.p.m. recording with Lou Reed’s reading of the title story, plus “A Bad Trip,” “Since Half the World Is H2O,” and a politically resonant “We Are the People.” 

Listening, I realized “Lipstick” was a meditation on creation, how the thing you dream of making might already have been there all along, a philosophical point illustrated in his artistic risks, such as one experimental work, “The Murder Mystery.” Reed wondered about all those famous poets, “concrete poets, white poets, purple poets, zebra poets, carpet poets, wall painter,” those poets who always try to do two things at once. 

Taking a stereo record with channels A and B, he asked, “What if we do A and B at the same time just talking?” The result, pages of alternating lines, juxtaposing black with red, looks like another significant stylistic experiment of the time, the cut-up technique of rearranging text invented by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, A plus B creating something new, entity C, more than the sum of A and B. Surreal jumps, collage, create dynamic imagery read in any combination. Bowie worked with cut-ups for his lyrics, too. Whether phrases such as “fire on the carpet / tickle polyester” work on the page, the reader will have to determine.

Photographs follow, of young, pretty Lou Reed, a mass of dark curls, brows and long lashes, holding a tape recorder. Archival notes from Sonic Youth’s music producer, Don Fleming, explain the audio source for the Poetry Project reading, a Norelco C90 cassette tape, which is shown, looking like the antique that it is. Lou recorded the first 45 minutes of the reading with a portable cassette recorder on the lectern with his notes. It contains 21 pieces in various genres on Side A, including published letters to a sex therapist and lyrics from five Velvet Underground songs, 11 poems, one “little short story,” lyrics for “Andy Warhol’s Chest,” and ending with “The Coach and the Glory of Love.” There is no audio on Side B.

As a crossover artist, Lou Reed enjoys good company: Kathy Acker, Ed Sanders, Robert Creeley, Tennessee Williams, Bockris/Wylie, Ginsberg, and others. In her afterword, Laurie Anderson discusses crossover artists, informing Reed’s adventurous spirit. 

At St. Mark’s Church in later decades he would mix it up with Allen Ginsberg, reading his verse while Ginsberg sang the songs of William Blake and played the harmonium. Uptown, Reed experimented with visual art, too, exhibiting his high-gloss photos at Hermes on Madison Avenue, while downtown he performed his earsplitting “metal machine music” in Gramercy Park. 

Whatever you make of “Do Angels Need Haircuts?” Lou Reed remains a singular American original. Good to know, he wrote “Heroin” as a response: “The Beatles had just come out with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ ”

Regina Weinreich is the author of “Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics.” She lives in Montauk and Manhattan. 

Lou Reed lived in Springs at the time of his death.

M. Tucker Photo