Lou Reed, Poet: A New Book Sheds Light on the Late Icon's Literary Side

A fascinating volume of his writing, 'Do Angels Need Haircuts?,' looks at the Rock 'n' Roll Animal's fleeting career change

A new book of Lou Reed's poetry examines a fascinating period in the late icon's life, when he was caught between rock and literature. Credit: Andrew Cifranic, Courtesy of the Plain Dealer Photo Archive

Lou Reed may be punk's godfather, but he also figures in a great American poetic lineage including the Beats and the New York School – and a new book of his writing, Do Angels Need Haircuts?, offers compelling evidence. This isn’t rock-crit hyperbole. As a Syracuse University undergrad, he studied – and by most accounts drank copiously – with Delmore Schwartz, an accomplished poet and short story writer who Reed claimed as his creative mentor and came to consider "the greatest man I ever met." Schwartz was a kindred Jew with Brooklyn roots and a restless mind, raised middle-class with larger ambitions, and was a de facto prodigy, achieving fame in his twenties with his debut collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, which critics fell over themselves praising.

Schwartz never quite matched it, and by the time Reed met him he was in rough shape, struggling with metal illness, subsisting on booze and speed, sleeping off benders in his office on campus. But he was an inspiring teacher, holding court on the greatness of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot in classrooms and bars. Meanwhile, besides playing guitar, Reed took to writing like a fish to water. He studied journalism briefly, then helped launch The Lonely Woman Review, an underground samizdat-style literary magazine named for Ornette Coleman's lyrical masterpiece. Reed and his cohorts mimeographed the publication at his mainstay local diner, and in it he published his poems, prose vignettes and even an editorial takedown of a young conservative BMOC (in today's parlance, it would be categorized as an unequivocally sick burn).

Reed's literary and musical drives merged majestically years later in the Velvet Underground, a band born of a scene full of poets. Their first drummer, Angus MacLise, wrote poems and ran a small chapbook press with Reed's sometime roommate, fellow poet and filmmaker Piero Heliczer. Gerard Malanga, the Velvets' whip-cracking dancer in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, was a poet of some accomplishment too, working with Warhol on various publishing projects; one was an outsized edition of the literary journal Intransit titled The Andy Warhol–Gerard Malanga Monster Issue, featuring poems by Reed, MacLise, Nico and John Cale, among others. And to be sure, New York City poets young and old saw the Velvets play their legendary stand at the Dom in the East Village in April 1966, and at their swan-song Max's Kansas City residency in the summer of 1970. At the latter shows, Patti Smith and Jim Carroll were among the up-and-comers. Anne Waldman, high priestess of the latter-day Beats and New York Schoolers, caught the Velvets at the Dom when she was living just down the block, at 33 St. Mark's Place.

"The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was a magnificent god realm of sensuous desire, spectacle of eros and cruelty with mesmerizing power, psychic mystical drone pulsing inside one's own body," she reflects in the foreword to Do Angels Need Haircuts?, the first-ever volume to focus primarily on Lou Reed's writing for the page (available now from Anthology Editions, a crate-digging curatorial imprint aligned with the like-minded Anthology Recordings). It was Waldman who facilitated Reed's first significant reading, on March 10th, 1971, at the Poetry Project, which she ran out of St. Mark's Church just around the corner from the old Dom, on Second Avenue and 10th Street. The pieces Reed read that evening, along with bits of his introductions transcribed from an archival recording, form the core of Do Angels Need Haircuts?

The work shows an artist at a crossroads. Having quit the Velvets, Reed moved home to Long Island to live with his parents and grapple with what one might call a spiritual crisis (he'd also struggled with anxiety-related issues in the past, for which he'd been treated with electroconvulsive therapy). He began dating Bettye Kronstad, a young college student with no ties to the downtown scene; they played tennis and, at least once, rode horses, an activity Reed didn't take to. They had bagels for brunch and Chinese for dinner on Sundays with his parents. He told her he was thinking of quitting music to pursue writing. He'd sent out his work and had poems accepted at various publications, including a handful at The Harvard Advocate.

Kronstad was in the audience the night of his reading. So was Reed's friend and music-biz booster, Danny Fields. Even Beat emeritus Allen Ginsburg turned up; it was a bona fide literary event, though few on the scene knew what to expect after Reed's disappearance in the wake of the final Velvets show the previous summer. What they got was a fast-talking, evidently nervous artist putting his words onstage with no guitar, amplifier, or upended kick-drum beat to hide behind. People were rooting for him, one imagines; some might've been expecting an interesting train wreck.

Reed read for around an hour. The material included lyrics, and he front-loaded the evening with hits: "Sister Ray," "Heroin," "The Black Angel's Death Song," "Lady Godiva's Operation," and "The Murder Mystery" (only the latter is included here, in an artful concrete-poetic layout).

Things got more interesting here with words written for the page. In addition to these, the volume also includes rare photos, and a seven-inch single with two of the book's poems, made from the archival tape. One is titled "We The People," which sounds at points as if it could have been penned 10 minutes ago:

We are the people without right. We are the people who have known only lies and desperation. We are the people without a country, a voice, or a mirror. We are the crystal gaze returned through the density and immensity of a berserk nation.

Reed's delivery on the recording is measured, defiant, propulsive, maybe a little anxious. The other piece, "Lipstick," is eight paired couplets addressed, perhaps, to an absent lover. Rhythmic and playful, it might have been a song, and is an example perhaps of what Waldman meant when she referred to these poems as "on the edge of lyric and perhaps best served with accompaniment."

That's true enough at points. Reed fans will find plenty here that echoes his verses, like the whiff of violence and sly humor in "He Thought of Love in the Lazy Darkness" ("I was thinking of our nights together
/All two of them…"). But there are revelations, too, with the sort of emotional nuance his Seventies solo work didn't often cultivate. The most striking is the title piece, a bit of flash fiction which Reed introduced as being written "out of pure out-and-out admiration" for John Rechy's 1963 novel City of Night, a landmark of queer lit chronicling a hustler's journey across America, a book Reed described as one of his all-time favorites. More wistful than debauched, "Do Angels Need Haircuts?" is about a man cruising for another on a rainy night and feeling over-the-hill:

Standing by the bar sipping beer, hands on his big-buckled belt while the faggots in bell-bottoms preened, in the old days, he thought, I would have drinks by the thousands sent to me, they were all too shy to even speak!

The night ends uneventfully, and the man stumbles into his apartment, waking up his girlfriend. They make love.

Maybe I should be married, he thought, suddenly very, very, very scared.

The most explicitly autobiographical poem here is "Spirited Leaves of Autumn," in which Reed reflects on Delmore Schwartz's now-famous pledge to him (with reference to James Joyce's Ulysses):

I'll haunt you if you quit, he warned me, playing Bloom to my Dedalus one drunken, reeling night in college. Five vermouths at once because the waitress took so long.

Haunt Reed Schwartz did, turning up in his songs and other work throughout his life. The poem also invoked a pair of Reed's college friends: Liz Annas, then a more-or-less single mom and art student, who was close with Schwartz; and Lincoln Swados – "Sweet Michael" here – Reed's roommate and Lonely Woman Quarterly collaborator. Swados had withdrawn from Syracuse following a breakdown, and did in fact jump in front of a subway train, losing two limbs but surviving, at least for a while. (Reed would invoke him again years later in his song "Home of the Brave.")

Maybe the most precious writing here for Reed-ophiles is his typed letter to Schwartz, dating from a year after Reed had left college, running down his adventures since. He notes two months laid up with hepatitis (likely from a shared hypodermic needle, though Reed doesn't mention that); landing a songwriter gig at a record company (Pickwick, sixties kings of bargain-bin fodder); and forming a group with a "[guy] from Wales … a starving viola player" (the Primitives, with John Cale and Tony Conrad). He describes working on a folk record with lyrics his label thought were "offensive (not dirty, just offensive)," and thinking hard about pursuing writing, noting that his Harvard application "has been sitting for awhile now."

He continues:

I've had some strange experiences since returning to ny, sick but strange and fascinating, and even, sometimes ultimately revealing, healing and helpful. The record industry is vicious as are most businesses, but this one a little more so. ny has so many sad, sick people and I have a knack for meeting them. they try to drag you down with them [… ] I can't resist peering, probing, sometimes participating, othertimes going right to the edge before sidestepping. Finding viciousness in yourself and that fantastic killer urge and worse yet having the opportunity presented before you is certainly interesting. Interesting is not the word.

Probably 22 years old at the time, Reed signed off by hoping Schwartz was well, and that Schwartz was – or would be, or could be – "my spiritual godfather." It's a strange construction, as if to suggest Reed hoped he could live up to Delmore's example, but doubted he would. (Schwartz, as a rule no fan of rock & roll, wouldn't see his protégé's arc of achievement: After going off the rails, he died of heart failure in the summer of 1966, in the hallway of a fleabag SRO hotel on 46th Street near Times Square; he'd been so estranged from family and friends, his body went unclaimed at the morgue for days. )

Reed's message-in-a-bottle to his mentor, like the rest of Do Angels Need Haircuts?, is a touching portrait of the artist as a young-ish man, following his muse, doing his work, tending his soul. The volume also contains an essay by Reed archivist and New York City indie-rock icon Don Fleming, and a lovely one by Reed's widow Laurie Anderson. Anderson explains her relationship to these poems, written and read long before the two met:

I got to spend twenty-one years with Lou. I married him. It wasn't until a lot later that I fell in love with the young bad boy Lou. He was dead by then and I read his poems. Now he is my muse. What a complicated situation!

The writing here represents only a fraction of Reed's output over the years. There are dozens more poems: some previously published, some not. Some of these were shared at the 1971 reading, but not included in the book (one muses "How nice to kiss a boy"; another is a love poem to Kronstad). Reed produced a good deal of notable prose, too. Some of this writing may surface in years to come, and it should. Like Reed's good friend David Bowie, his work seems only to have grown more resonant since his death – and as with Bowie's Brooklyn Museum show, it gets deeper with each new glimpse of its roots.

Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Will Hermes is writing a biography of Lou Reed.