Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed: A retrospective on a couple of artists
Last year, there was an exhibition at the Barbican called ‘Modern Couples’. We didn’t really know what to expect with such a vague and yet alluring title but when we began to walk through we were very happy to find it was a beautiful ode to couples in the art world.
How they invigorated each other both romantically and creatively, how their work was inspired by each other or a collaborative process between the two artists. It was an ode to creative and romantic partnerships, through which beauty was brought into the world, and love was shared.
Two separate artists, two separate people, different bodies of work but reliant on each other for different things. There was something quite mesmerisingly pure about it, in a world full of swiping right and ghosting left. It had us dreaming of our perfect rock and roll couple.
The relationship between Laurie Anderson and her late husband Lou Reed was (rightly) a private one, kept out of the eyes of their adoring fans. They met in Munich in 1992 and in an interview with Rolling Stone, Anderson describes how she was surprised that he didn’t have a British accent because she had thought The Velvet Underground was an English band.
Reed invited her to read something while the band played, she remembers: “It was loud and intense and lots of fun. After the show, Lou said, “You did that exactly the way I do it!” Why he needed me to do what he could easily do was unclear, but this was definitely meant as a compliment.”
Both creatives, Reed the frontman of the Velvet Underground and a prolific solo artist; Anderson a performance artist, inventor, film director, and musician whose touch seems to turn things into avant-garde gold. We would call her prolific and award her the title of sound artists, placing her upon the shelf with those who also manipulate sound as their medium, like Brian Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, and Aphex Twin among others—but she is more.
In an interview with Louisiana Channel, Anderson describes herself as a multi-media artist, suggesting that if you do this, you are not bound by the regimentation of the art world. She ultimately says that she is an artist because she wants to be free and this is something that probably rings true within all of us; the desire to be free.
Anderson remembers how Reed asked her out and the response which likely snared his interest: “I think he liked it when I said, “Yes! Absolutely! I’m on tour, but when I get back—let’s see, about four months from now— let’s definitely get together.”
What would a couple like Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson do on a first date? Well, they attended the Audio Engineering Society Convention in New York, obviously. She wistfully describes how the convention turned into coffee, which turned into a movie, and dinner, and a walk and how from that moment they weren’t ever really apart in their lives. They were artists, lovers, friends, companions, and equals with space to be together and space to create separately.
In 2015, when Reed was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame again as a solo artist (he was first inducted in 1996 as a member of The Velvet Underground) she spoke on his behalf.
In Anderson’s speech, she discussed their life together and said that Reed “was my best friend and he was also the person I admire most in this world.” Reflecting she says he understood that pain and beauty are often intertwined and that this energised him. She spoke of how he died in her arms, and even in his death still taught her something.
The couple remained together for 21 years and married from 2008 until his death in 2013 and, although they are both artists in their own rights and their work didn’t often intertwine, when it did it was incendiary. Anderson’s 1994 album Bright Red has a track entitled ‘In Our Sleep’ which features the vocals of Reed as well as Anderson. It is at this crossroads, where two artist’s work meets, that we often learn new things about each contributor. But in this case, we are seeing the joining of two artists for a split second in harmony, before they return to their own autonomy.
To write about people is challenging, especially writing about two individuals whose lives are interlace so closely, but should be taken as individuals as well as a pair. How do you write with the integrity and honesty that translates complex and captivating individuals into words on a page or a screen?
Whether you are a weathered fan of Anderson and Reed, or you are simply being introduced to them, we daren’t attempt to reduce them to bullet points. Reed and Anderson’s work inspired one another, their lives inspired their work, and their partnership and friendship created an environment where their creativity could intertwine when it desired, while still maintaining its own autonomy.
This left us pondering whether either of their work would have been the same without the other? If we were set the task of curating an exhibition of musical or creative couples, their work would be hung on the walls and heard in the air, emboldened by the knowledge that without one, the other may never be as beautiful.