As everyone in the world knows — even, apparently, the Vatican’s culture minister — Lou Reed died this past Sunday at the age of 71. The news was shocking and felt impossible — Reed just seemed permanent, eternal, an unstoppable force. One thing that’s become very clear over the past few days is that my own formative, life-changing experience of discovering and devouring the Velvet Underground as a teenager was widely shared: countless people, it seems, had a very similar experience.
A piece of mine about Reed — “‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’: Lou Reed and the New York School of Poetry” — was published yesterday on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, as part of their “Open Door” feature. As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog before, I’m very interested in the longstanding, serious connections between Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and poetry, something that hasn’t been discussed very much in the outpouring of obits, recollections, and assessments after his death. He’s often referred to as a “punk poet” or “poet laureate of New York,” but this is usually used in the metaphorical sense (just as Dylan is called a “poet”). His interest in poetry is much more extensive, and I argue that the Velvet Underground evolves out of American poetry and art in the 1960s in a way that is really unlike any other phenomenon in rock music.
In the piece, I discuss the central role played by Gerard Malanga, who was in some ways the key bridge between the New York School of poets (he took a class with Kenneth Koch at the New School and became an acolyte of the first generation NY poets), the Warhol circle (he was one of Andy’s closest associates and assistants, and performed in Warhol movies), and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (with his infamous “whip dance,” Malanga was an essential part of the Velvet’s multimedia spectacle known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable).
One of the more intriguing manifestations of what I call the “Velvet Underground-Warhol-New York School poetry nexus” is a 1968 issue of the literary journal Intransit that Malanga guest edited. Titled The Andy Warhol-Gerard Malanga Monster Issue, it’s a fascinating historical document, as it brings together work by a huge cast of poets with written texts by Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico. The issue is dominated by poets associated with the New York School, including John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, Bernadette Mayer, Edwin Denby, Lewis Warsh, and Ron Padgett, along with other New American poets like Allen Ginsberg, Larry Eigner, Philip Whalen, and John Wieners, as well as some surprises, like John Hollander.
The fact that poems by Reed, Cale, and Warhol “superstar” Ondine were published alongside works by Berrigan, O’Hara, and Jonas Mekas testifies to the quite dramatic cross-pollination that went on between poetry, art, film, and rock music in the late 1960s.
This special issue now seems to be a rare collector’s item. I located a copy of it for sale for over $1400. (If anyone happens to have a copy or have access to one, I’d love to hear about it or see it). Here are the front and back cover of the issue, with names of contributors included:
There have been almost too many tributes to Reed to keep up with in the past couple of days, but here are just a few of the ones that I’ve found particularly informative, moving, and memorable: