It’s simple to forget that you’re in a library when you enter the Lou Reed listening room at the newest exhibit, “Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars,” at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Bumping “Metal Machine Music” in the original quadraphonic mix plays around the room to give you the feeling that you are totally submerged in the audio. The audio was specifically created by Raj Patel, Principal at Arup and principal developer of the Metal Machine Trio, to replicate Reed’s personal experience.
While having the library play “Metal Machine Music” at 90 dB every morning for two months straight might initially appear out of place, you’ll quickly discover that it fits right in when you see the entire exhibition. Its purpose is to force you to pause, remain still, and fully engage in the educational process—which is the whole point of being in a library.
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The listening room is really located near the conclusion of the entire exhibition, which, to put it mildly, is a treasure trove of memorabilia from Lou Reed’s life and career. As you go through the dimly illuminated museum hall, you’ll notice that exhibiting Reed in this way has a distinct, one-of-a-kind quality that can only result from the incredible care and attention curators Don Fleming and Jason Stern so obviously paid.
Highlights include original poetry, Reed’s actual college degree, musical instruments, and, of course, the infamous 1965 secret tape that was never played during Reed’s lifetime. These holiday cards were sent to and from Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, and they address each other in pet names. But one of the best things about all of these nuances is the chance to really sift through it all and take it all in. This is what makes them come together as perhaps more than the sum of their parts.
This attitude is felt more strongly when it comes to artists like Lou Reed, one of history’s greatest rock stars for whom star power is in abundance yet full museum curatorial treatment is still very uncommon. It’s an opportunity to view Lou Reed and his life in a whole new light to see everything clearly labelled and organised in a thoughtful place meant for reading and learning. Due to the format alone, many of the years of his life that receive very little attention elsewhere can be seen here.
Near the end of the display, a sizable catalogue of Reed’s record collection fills the room. Once more, this is a site where you should take it all in and explore. Along with a few carefully chosen shelves of other favourites, the walls are covered in personal copies and bootlegs, which Lou Reed loved to collect. We were all able to learn more about Lou Reed and view him from a different perspective thanks to the New York Public Library. Although a rock star may not seem appropriate for a library setting, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has demonstrated how valuable and special thinking outside the box can be.