LOU REED – ” Words and Music May 1965 ” – Deluxe Edition

Posted: December 28, 2022 in MUSIC

Capturing Lou Reed in his formative years, this previously unreleased collection of songs penned by a young Lou Reed, recorded to tape with the help of future bandmate John Cale, and mailed to himself as a “poor man’s copyright”, remained sealed in its original envelope and unopened for nearly 50 years. Its contents embody some of the most vital, groundbreaking contributions to American popular music committed to tape in the 20th century. Through examination of these songs rooted firmly in the folk tradition, we clearly see Lou’s lasting influence on the development of modern American music – from punk to art-rock and everything in between. 

“Words & Music”, May 1965 reveals a different facet of Lou Reed’s artistic heritage which might be not obvious behind the media image of the Velvet Underground and his later solo project. It tells a story from a different perspective. The format of the May 1965 compilation predates DIY records by punk bands in the 70s. It makes one wonder whether Lou Reed was hoping that this sealed tape would be discovered in the future. If it is meant to be a time capsule, the goal is achieved.

Countless people over the years have aped the Reed formula, from studiously appropriating his clothing style to trying to pan sonic gold from the “one chord enough/two chords pushing it/three chords jazz” approach. Lots have gone on to make interesting things from these base materials (lots also haven’t), but it’s difficult to argue that anyone since has projected cool with such quiet force. While how much of this came naturally to Reed and how much of it was studied is up for debate – he was as much a master of image as he was of songwriting – the core appeal of his work, particularly in those groundbreaking early years leading The Velvet Underground, was that steely poetry, that street-level intellectualism, that promise of illuminating danger which emanated from behind his dark shades. Reed was incredibly good at saying more with less – years before ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’, my man was disciplining every string on his guitar to the same note in order to engineer his music for maximum impact.

So it’s interesting, then, that around the same time that he laid down ‘The Ostrich’ he was also holed up making the recordings collected on ‘Words & Music“, May 1965’. The Reed we find on these crackly lo-fi demos is rather different from that which we encounter in public. Where The Velvets found Reed with a wall up to the world, his focus containing multitudes, these tapings present a disarmingly and wonderfully boyish individual finding his artistic voice amidst the bohemian gutters of mid-century New York City.

Take, for instance, the go of ‘I’m Waiting For the Man’ which kicks off ‘Words & Music, May 1965’. The track may now be canonised as one of the all-time great odes to scoring drugs, but here there is little of the imperviousness that Reed would bring to the track’s most famous version that was released two years down the line. His delivery is sweetly fallible – he’s nervous, babbling to his dealer and reassuring himself by talking directly to the audience. The hip chug of the album version is nowhere to be found either, his guitar loping endearingly while a fantastically wheezy harmonica interjects at points.

This energy carries on through the other once-and-future Velvets classics. Try not to be charmed by the sheepish giggling that introduces ‘Heroin’, or the wandering, Dylanite quality that’s coaxed out in this take of ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. While I still think the final editions of these tracks have the edge, these versions are arguably all the more fascinating for their embryonic nature – the control exuded by Reed when The Velvets were freaking out on ‘Heroin’ may have elevated the performance to greatness, but the candidness of this demo, particularly when the lyrics remain viscerally affecting no matter the context, is a big part of its vitality.

Intriguingly, it is actually the tracks on ‘Words & Music, May 1965’ which are less prominent in The Velvet Underground’s story that evidence more strongly the style Reed was developing in anticipation of that group. On ‘Too Late’, a track which was never recorded again for any Reed project, we start to hear a bit of that Velvets tone in Reed’s delivery – declamatory and sinuous, bawdy yet collected. Ditto the droning and scratching of ‘Stockpile’. Then there’s the burgeoning interest in transgression – we’ve already noted the ‘Heroin’ lyric, but ‘Buttercup Song’ and the tequila sunrise of ‘Men of Good Fortune’ are full of Reed’s screwball observations. In particular, the latter, with its genderfucking narrative voice, finds Reed in full Wildean flow.

Had it come out during his lifetime, I’m not sure how much interest Reed would have publicly expressed in a project like ‘Words & Music, May 1965’ – he was generally keen to present himself as an artist looking to the future or the fringes, concerned with the past only when triple-distilling the alchemical elixir of rock ‘n’ roll. And yet this is precisely why ‘Words & Music, May 1965’ makes for such a wonderful listen. Reed would never have let us see this version of himself at the time, but having access to it now presents his achievements in a new light, reframing but not diminishing his legacy as the King of Cool.

[A metallic silver colour vinyl pressing, an indie store exclusive yellow color vinyl pressing, and a deluxe double-LP pressing with bonus 7” are available.]

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