Visual Drone: The Story Behind Lou Reed's TV Stacks

By Seth Schonberg, Curatorial Assistant, Lou Reed Exhibition, Music & Recorded Sound Division
September 12, 2022
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
An installation shot of the Lou Reed exhibition featuring TVs stacked on top of each other
Installation shot of Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars. Photo by Max Touhey

There are many videos on display in the Library for the Performing Arts exhibit Lou Reed: Caught Between The Twisted Stars. Varying from TV-spot poetry readings to Andy Warhol Factory film experimentations, the exhibit includes a broad yet incomprehensibly deep well of footage—all capturing Lou Reed, his voice, personality, interests, sounds, and surroundings that range from 1966 to 2012. Viewing all the moving images in the exhibit as a whole, which would take a full afternoon to do, the most exceptional footage you would find is also the most baffling: a flashing, gyrating experimental film shown simultaneously on eight CRT TVs stacked high in the main room of the exhibition space.

The film and “TV stack,” as we have been calling it at the Library, sit atop a stage assembled in the middle of the exhibit and are a small recreation of Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Heart 1976-1977 tour. Just as the stage reflects Lou Reed’s career in performance, the TVs and film demonstrate a common yet oft-forgotten combination of Reed’s innate theatricality, his life-long interest in new technologies, a taste for experimentation, and his non-stop drive to discover and capture that inspirational and hallucinatory drone.

Commercially, Lou Reed’s 1976 started slow yet held a lot of potential. Reed’s December 1975 RCA release Coney Island Baby constituted a strong recovery following a shaky year. The release earlier that year of his controversial and perennially-misunderstood album Metal Machine Music (1975) had appeared to stop Reed’s career in its tracks. But now, Reed’s recent move to Arista Records showed promise and Arista founder and friend Clive Davis saw hit potential in his upcoming album Rock and Roll Heart (1976). Still, Davis couldn’t convince Reed to “sweeten” for radio play even the most promising tracks. As Reed had famously done just a year earlier, in refusing to compromise with RCA on Metal Machine Music, he chose to follow his muse over money. Anyone can be wild, anyone can abuse substances and reporters, and many live to talk about it. Some lucky few even find respect, success, and fame as recording artists. But few would risk their career by forcing their label to release Metal Machine Music, a one-hour and four-minute recording of guitar feedback, as a pop record. For what Reed loved, he strived, and there were many reasons why Reed strived for this stack of TVs.

A black and white photo showing Lou Reed on stage in front of flickering TVs
Perhaps the only existing photo of the Rock and Roll Heart tour stage featuring the TVs. Photo: Billboard Magazine, December 11, 1976

The Tour

The stage of the Riverside Theater on Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee must have been a remarkable sight on the night of Thursday, October 21, 1976. Lou Reed was kicking off his Rock and Roll Heart tour with his new "Cleaned Up" gestalt in a three-piece suit that one reviewer said failed to live up to the old "Rock 'n' Roll Animal" image, singing songs about "Love" and "good time rock 'n roll." Appreciated or panned, what might have been the most unique thing on stage that night was not Reed, per se, but his backdrop—the bank of twenty TVs, stacked four or five screens high, blasting light as powerfully as the sound coming out of the speakers. The flashing TVs illuminated Reed’s and the band’s profiles in an otherwise dark and underlit auditorium. As journalist Dennis Getto wrote in the Milwaukee Sentinel of that night, the TVs were "blinking like Milwaukee sets tuned into Green Bay." 

His first tour in over a year, Reed started with a twenty-city American tour, followed by two European tours and concluding with a circuit around Australia and New Zealand, keeping him busy through November 1977. Throughout the American and European tours he brought his rapidly-dwindling TV sets with him, having to explain to customs officials that he wasn't selling them—"they don’t even work!" said Reed in a 2012 conversation with Mick Rock by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. While it's difficult to find reviews for his shows, the ones available, at least for his American tour, more often than not contain a mention of how many TV sets were on stage. The count most commonly reported is forty-eight, but by the end of the '76 tour the number had slid closer to sixteen, as was the case on November 30th in Berkeley, CA. Many broke in transportation, requiring hunting around town for a replacement, but from time to time, and which could only have added to the experience, they would explode on stage.

Installation video from the exhibition, Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars at the Library for the Performing Arts:

The Sets

“Lou had this wild idea with these TV sets and he enlisted me as, like, his lieutenant.”
—Mick Rock, conversation with Lou Reed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2012

Designed in collaboration with Mick Rock, the famed music photographer who captured some of Reed's most famous images (including the cover photo for his 1972 solo album Transformer), the TV sets were either sourced from a hospital in the process of modernizing its entertainment, collected off the street by Rock and Reed themselves with the help of Reed's then guitar tech Jeff Ross, bought from second-hand stores, TV repair shops, or from anywhere else. The stories changed from interview to interview, and depending on who was asked.

Much of the trusted information there is surrounding the TV stacks, the '76-77 tours, and related, comes from a 2012 conversation that Timothy Greenfield-Sanders held with Lou Reed and Mick Rock, which was filmed by exhibit curator and Reed's assistant at the time, Jason Stern. Parts of this conversation pertaining to their photographic collaborations are on display in the exhibit courtesy of Laurie Anderson and Canal St. Communications.

Not only did this stage design prove to be a logistical nightmare, shipping sixty TVs around America and Europe, but in order for the stage crew to set up such a complicated system that would hold up for the whole tour they acquired the professional help of New York's Adwar Video Corp. Adwar designed a custom system that allowed for up to sixty screens to simultaneously display the same image and the road crew was trained in its setup and maintenance.

At the end of his third Rock and Roll Hearts tour, the European Summer tour, in August 1977, what was left of the TVs Lou Reed was happy to leave behind. "I'm never going to do that again, it cost a fortune!" said Reed in 2012. With no regret, Reed mentions his forty-eight-TV light show during his October 21, 1977, Christchurch, New Zealand press conference, onto the fourth Rock and Roll Hearts tour.

A video still of Lou Reed wearing leather jacket and hat, and a dark shades.
A video still of Lou Reed during a press conference in New Zealand, 1977

The Tech

During that Christchurch press conference, Reed, bedecked in leather and shades sitting in front of a very 70s brown paisley curtain, also discusses his video camera hobby. The recording of the press conference in the Lou Reed Papers was recorded using Reed’s own Sony DXC-1610 in the hands of a band member and, since surrounding him are reporters with notepads, mics, tape recorders, and (absolutely) video cameras, the topic inevitably turns towards his camera. His interest in video cameras, we know, goes back at least to 1974 when we start to see his fascination with the medium in a number of black and white half-inch open reel tapes that the Music Division has in our collection. In one video, which was probably recorded in 1975, he excitedly films his then manager Jonny Podell and explains to him how the camera works, all the while Podell is busy fielding calls about how Reed's Coney Island Baby song "Kicks" is just too out-there.

In the press conference, however, Reed mentions that his interest in video cameras went beyond making home movies. "I experimented a lot with black and white to the extent where people thought I was using special effects," Reed said, "which I wasn't." The experimentation he is referring to is more than just building familiarity—it is the warbling images that populated the sixteen to sixty TVs that followed him on tour throughout the preceding year.

The Film

The TVs were not just giant stage lights to highlight the band. The impetus behind the blinks and flashes and shakes of the displayed image was Lou Reed himself.

In the Lou Reed Papers we have seventeen black and white one-half-inch open-reel tapes that contain footage of Reed’s experimentation. Some include mundane footage—his dachshunds romping around the apartment, his figuring out camera settings, or street shots: a time-honored New Yorker tradition whenever one bought a new camera. What all the tapes have in common, though, is a stretch that is purposefully devoted to hugely distorted images. This footage is the result of multiple generations of experimentation that began with Reed watching TV. "I found a black and white late night movie on TV," Reed said in the 2012 conversation, "I would flip the vertical until things started to happen. You couldn't predict this stuff." The resulting image was a horizontally-scanning strobing effect under which the original image was only barely recognizable. He would then film the TV screen in this configuration, play that tape back on the same TV, and repeat.

The resulting image, when displayed on TVs simultaneously across the breadth of a rock stage, looked, as Reed himself put it in 2012, "like insane ice cubes behind me."

The Experiment

As evidence of Reed’s personal creative determination and his ever-keen creative self-possession, he brought to bear three of his creative muses into the TV stacks. Where most simply appreciated the uniqueness of the spectacle, Reed joined his interest in camera technology and the moving image, which had bought him one of the earliest cassette camcorders and a curiosity to push consumer video cameras and TV to their limits, and his theatrical stage persona, by which he took a musical performance and almost overpowered it with imagery. His third muse, of relevance here at least, was his love of the drone.

Bear with me.

In 1964 Lou Reed co-founded the aptly named group The Primitives with avant-garde multi-instrumentalist John Cale, an alumnus of La Monte Young’s group Theatre of Eternal Music. Cale recognized in Reed a fellow experimenter and their collaboration led to The Primitives cutting the first commercial release thought to contain a guitar tuned to a Trivial Tuning. That is, where all strings are tuned to the same note. The song was “The Ostrich,” released by Pickwick Records, and the tuning Reed later called Ostrich Guitar. The upshot to this guitar technique was a droning repetitive sound that underlies the entirety of the track. Shortly after, sometime around 1965 or 1966, Lou Reed and John Cale captured the first evidence we have of the guitar feedback drone Reed would later use to such ignominious effect in his 1975 album Metal Machine Music. On display in the Library's exhibit is the Metal Machine Music Demo tape “Electric Rock Symphony #1”—that exact evidence. Reed kept returning to the drone.

Reed always referred to droning as calming, almost hallucinatory. It’s hard to imagine there is no connection between this auditory rhythm and the near-mindless strobing of experimental film that he created and shared the stage with. Disparate as they may appear, both Metal Machine Music and Reed’s TV backdrop were accused of being nothing but dadaist statements, a declaration of rebellion and self-identification with no further value.

While both Metal Machine Music and the TV stacks were misunderstood and underappreciated in the moment, visitors to Lou Reed: Caught Between The Twisted Stars are given a chance to understand and appreciate for themselves this window into Lou Reed’s mind.

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars is open through March 4, 2023 at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Thanks to the Milwaukee Public Library for their research help.