Published in a “Special Poetry Supplement” to The Harvard Advocate, Vol. CIV, No. 3-4 (Fall 1971).
Having swapped out his usual moniker “Lou” for “Louis,” Lou Reed might just have passed unrecognized in the Fall 1971 issue of The Harvard Advocate. Luckily, in his contributor’s note, he tersely reassures us that yes, “Louis Reed…formerly of the Velvet Underground, writes poetry now.”
The finality of that description belies the twenty-four solo albums, forty years of performance, and reversion to “Lou” that Reed will undergo in the decades following this publication. But this issue of the Advocate seems to have caught him in a unique transitional moment between career phases, recuperating in his parents’ Long Island home, producing work that combines past and future song lyrics with free verse.
Lou Reed was born in Brooklyn in 1942 and raised in Freeport, Long Island, where he was once prescribed electroshock therapy for homosexual behavior. He attended Syracuse from 1960-1964, during which he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz, who would become a friend and lifelong inspiration. After several unsuccessful New York garage band stints, Reed finally put together the Velvet Underground in November of 1965, serving as lead singer and songwriter. As the band’s stardom rose, it was co-opted, along with the other worthy musicians of 1965 New York, into the galaxy of Andy Warhol. Under the direction of the artist’s Factory studio, the Velvet Underground toured the country with Warhol’s roadshow the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and recorded their legendary 1967 debut with German singer Nico.
But after making four albums in four years, and after losing both Warhol and Nico, Reed “retired” from the band in 1970. In his parents’ home, he recovered from the disillusionment of the commercial music market and began to reinvent himself as a poet.
Reed published eight pieces in The Harvard Advocate, two of which are Velvet Underground lyrics. The song “Candy Says,” the opening track on the band’s self-titled 1969 album and a melancholy tribute to Factory girl Candy Darling, reappears in the Advocate in poem form. The case of Reed’s poem “The Coach and Glory of Love” is more interesting. With its prominent refrain, the poem seems to be a musical lyric as well—though, puzzlingly, not to any Velvet Underground song as of 1971. The words, in fact, turn up on an album only in 1975, when they’re slightly reworked as lyrics for the title track of Reed’s solo effort Coney Island Baby. Here we have a rare insight into Reed’s creative process, the opportunity to see how the poet-songwriter conceives of poetry versus song. We can ask ourselves: If “Coney Island Baby” was at least four years in the making, how long did his other songs ferment in his mind before reaching our ears?
Even Reed’s poems that did not transform into songs are, as a group, good poems—not just good poems by a rock star, but poems that have aged well, that still feel genuine and fresh. They are clearly work of a poet just getting into his skin, an explanation for Reed’s overlaps with songwriting, his slight over-reliance on erotica, and his hesitance toward abstraction. Some of his later poems are more finessed (see “Thoughts Turn to Murder Late at Night”) but his voice remains consistent.
Years later, some of Reed’s poems would find their way into print in the music magazine Fusion and in a 1973 booklet published by Nigel Trevena. But the Fall 1971 issue of the Advocate was likely the largest printing of Reed poems in any literary publication. Blithely discussing this in an interview, Reed says, “That’s why I get a kick out of publishing poetry in rock magazines. I mean, I’ve been in The Harvard Advocate. I’ve been in some of the heaviest. But I get a kick out of being in the rock magazines because that’s the people I want to read the stuff, not the people who read The Harvard Advocate.”
Of course, in 1972, Reed rebounded from his brief retirement to release his first solo album, Transformer (produced, no less, by David Bowie). But has Reed’s return to songwriting completed the full-circle movement of his career? Recent developments hint that the true closure of Reed’s career might still lie in poetry. Since 2001, he has produced a musical theater piece inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, written a 9/11 memorial poem in The New York Times Magazine, and published a blank verse tribute to Delmore Schwarz in Poetry Magazine. Perhaps Reed is destined after all for that liminal space of the poet-musician; perhaps decades down the road, his fans will covet, more than any actual album by the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed’s aptly and portentously titled bootleg concert tape, American Poet.
By Krithika Varagur ’15