Inside Lou Reed's Revelatory New Public Archive

Laurie Anderson, archivist Don Fleming talk complete, career-spanning trove of late icon's papers and recordings

Laurie Anderson discusses some of the many treasures found in Lou Reed's new NYC archive, which contains hundreds of hours of recordings. Credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Getty

The voice comes out of a laptop-computer speaker like a ghost with attitude: the familiar bone-dry monotone of Lou Reed, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar as he sings about body counts and an unjust war. It is a rare marvel in the avant-rock legend's half-century canon: a Bob Dylan–style protest ballad, rescued from a cassette of solo demos taped in 1971 when Reed – halfway between leaving his band, the Velvet Underground, and launching a solo career – was living in exile at his parent's home in Long Island. Reed, who died in 2013, never officially recorded the tune. But he saved the main hook, which resurfaced in 1974 as the chorus and title of Reed's searing memoir of his teenage hell in electroshock therapy: "Kill Your Sons" on the 1974 album, Sally Can't Dance.

"He trusted tape," Reed's wife, the artist Laurie Anderson, says as she listens to that recording in her lower-Manhattan studio. The original humble-looking cassette is on a table next to her with that laptop and a box of other, vintage tapes with handwritten labels and tantalizing contents: live shows from Cleveland in 1986 and a Long Island radio station in late '72, right after the release of Reed's turning-point hit, Transformer; another set of solo demos from 1974, including impromptu readings of some of Reed's greatest songs for the Velvets.

"Lou wrote in his head," Anderson goes on, her voice soft with awe, as "Some Kinda Love" and "Candy Says" from that '74 tape play in the background. "That was the weirdest thing. He could just wake up, and the song was done. But he had been putting it together over a period, with little phrases." She cites a lyric from Reed's 1996 album, Set the Twilight Reeling: "Light glances off the blue glass we set/Right before the window." "I would go, 'Oh, he said that two weeks ago.' You could hear it being routed to a song somehow."

Those cassettes and the stories they tell – about Reed's roots and influences, songwriting process, performing history and serial triumphs on record, with the Velvets and across more than 30 studio and live solo albums – are now part of the Brooklyn-born rock & roll provocateur's extraordinary gift to his hometown. Today, on what would have been Reed's 75th birthday, Anderson and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center announced the latter's acquisition of Reed's complete personal archive. It includes 300 linear feet of correspondence, business papers and photographs; more than 600 hours of concert, studio, demo and interview tapes; 1,300 video recordings; and extensive personal memorabilia, including his LP collection.

Among the many highlights revealed during an exclusive preview for Rolling Stone a week before the announcement: an original cassette from Reed's last night onstage with the Velvets in August 1970 at Max's Kansas City in New York; memos from RCA Records detailing David Bowie's role – and payment – as Reed's producer on Transformer; a personal phone book with listings for Allen Ginsberg, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and favorite restaurants on the road; and detailed itineraries and receipts from Reed's notoriously confrontational mid-and-late Seventies tours. One five-inch reel of tape from May 1965 in an unopened package, is thought to be the Velvets' earliest demo, made at Pickwick Records where Reed was then employed as a staff songwriter.

The archive will be accessible to the general public as well as scholars and researchers. A selection of material is on display through March 20th at Lincoln Center and at NYPL's main building on Fifth Avenue. The Library is also hosting a free, live performance on March 13th of Reed's 2003 concept album, The Raven, curated by his producer Hal Willner at Lincoln Center, and a presentation of Reed's guitar-feedback installation, Drones, at the Fifth Avenue branch on March 15th.

"That's one of the things Laurie wanted from the beginning – as much access as possible," says Don Fleming, an archivist for the Alan Lomax and Hunter S.Thompson estates who worked with Anderson for the last three years to catalog the Reed collection. "One of the strongest things about it is that this is a major-label artist with the type of paperwork that goes along with that – his whole life on that level, shown day by day." Fleming, a producer and guitarist who played in the alternative-rock bands Velvet Monkeys and Gumball, points out that there are "a lot of papers" where Reed is "asked yes or no on some deal and he'll just scrawl 'No.' He had to make that decision. That was part of his day-to-day routine."

For Anderson, speaking at her studio two weeks before the announcement, the most revealing thing in Reed's archive is "his curiosity. He is relentlessly finding out about new things. You see it again and again, in each new band he formed, whatever it was. It was all 'Let's move on.'"

Reed "was such an adventurer," she goes on as Fleming, manning that laptop, plays more of those '71 and '74 demos. "He wasn't afraid. He wasn't trying to please anybody. There just isn't anybody like that now. We're all kind of going, 'Well, was that alright for you?' He didn't care. He had that need to just keep doing what he believed in. You feel that come across in the archive."

On a recent morning at NYPL's Book Operations facility in Long Island City, Jonathan Hiam – curator at the Library's American Music Collection and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound – conducts a personal guided tour of several storage boxes from the Reed collection. This is a very small part of the acquisition, which is still in the process of being cataloged.

"It is kind of dense," Hiam admits as he opens one box full of large business envelopes packed solid with cancelled checks, hotel bills and notes of payment for Reed's touring musicians. One scrap of yellow legal-tablet paper is marked "Reimburse Doug Yule, I have receipts, $32.61." Yule, who replaced original bassist John Cale in the Velvets, played with Reed on the road in the Seventies. Another box contains a startlingly detailed accounting of Reed's royalties for the Velvets' late-Sixties albums. At one point, for several months in 1971, Reed made $907.04 from the group's label, MGM Records, from sales of 1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico and 1968's White Light/White Heat – a life-saving amount of money at a time when Reed was out of the Velvets, without a record deal and writing songs that would appear on his early solo albums.

"It's the underpinnings of the art," Hiam goes on, "and one of the reasons we were so interested in this archive. It's Lou Reed, of course. But he was also at the front of all of the twists and turns in pop music. And you see his engagement, his role, in the business. He's not just along for the ride."

Surprises seem to come out of nowhere. A Sony Walkman lightly coated with rust turns out to be a special edition, presented to Reed by the company, with a custom silver case made by Tiffany. A reissue copy of the Byrds' 1966 raga-jazz single "Eight Miles High" has a handwritten note inside the picture sleeve: "Thought you might enjoy a little more Coltrane." It is signed "Jimmy Page" – an early Reed fan who, as a Yardbird in 1968, was covered the Velvets' "I'm Waiting for the Man" on stage. And the pleasant shocks keep on coming, even for Hiam. He recalls looking through one binder of business papers with Fleming when a Polaroid of Andy Warhol, the Velvets' first manager, fell out.

"We were faced with a storage place full of boxes and no one knew what was in them," says Fleming, who was asked by Anderson to work on Reed's archive shortly after his death in October, 2013. "About 50 boxes in, we started seeing a lot more consistency: 'Here's binders of press from every album and tour.' It blew my mind that so much stuff was kept from the touring years. It showed so much of his performing life: the audio, the paperwork, the posters. That was one reason why we liked having it go to the Performing Arts library."

Fleming and Anderson spoke to other institutions including the University of Texas and Reed's alma mater, Syracuse University. "But we felt like if we could keep this in New York, that would be the best," Fleming says. Anderson, he notes, "wanted as much access to it as possible."

"The first thing I wanted was it to be free and online immediately," Anderson says with a bright, eager smile, then laughs. "I realized that is going to take a little work. But I never wanted this to be socked away in some hard-to-reach place. I wanted people to use it. And he was so generous with that, with his work."

Reed made no stipulations before he died for the use or sale of his archive. "He wasn't a legacy guy," Anderson claims. "He was 'I want to get the new guitar, the new pedal. Throw that thing away.'" (NYPL's acquisition does not include Reed's guitars or studio gear; Fleming and Anderson are considering other options for those.)

"I wasn't prepared for how overwhelming it was," Anderson admits. "At first, I thought it's more like clearing out the office. Then I realized how many layers there are to this."

"We've crossed a point in history," Hiam points out, noting similar, recent acquisitions – Bob Dylan's papers to the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma; the establishment of the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music at Monmouth University in his home state of New Jersey. "We are getting to a point where we've got major, creative people with valuable assets beyond, say, research value.

"What is unique about this is that, unlike a museum, you can handle all of these documents," Hiam says of NYPL's plans for the Reed archive. "We have to protect them, so there's always a balance. But you're going to be able to dig through this stuff."

Near the end of the preview in Long Island City, Hiam brings in a file box with yet more papers. He pulls out one set of attached papers with a remarkable series of signatures: a September 1969 contract affirming the Velvet Underground's deal with their manager at the time, Steve Sesnick. It is signed by all four members: Reed, Yule, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. In the same box, right under that contract, is a carbon of a legal agreement dated just one year later – November 1st, 1970, two months after Reed left the group.

Addressed to the singer at his parents' house, it is a letter from Sesnick sealing Reed's departure in blunt terms: "You hereby acknowledge that you withdrew from the group [...] voluntarily. You further agree that you shall not in any manner utilize the name Velvet Underground with respect to any entertainment activities in which you may be engaged from the date of this document." Another year later, in December 1971, Reed was in London recording his debut solo LP, Lou Reed. He had also begun his friendship with Bowie.

"That's the treasure of an archive," Anderson contends. "You stand back and look at someone's whole life, and you realize, 'He did that there, and then did this over there.' You get to see the big pictures. It's such a thrill to see that, in as many shapes as he did.

"It is a real treasure for people," she says of Reed's archive and its new home, "and I'm so glad that they're going to get to use it."