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Lou Reed’s Early “Words and Music” Shows an Artist’s First Incarnation

In the spring of 1965, Lou Reed was just 23 years old and less than a year after graduating from college. He had just had his first musical success, fronting a hastily formed band called the Primitives on a custom-written garage rock single titled “The Ostrich”, but he was also still in the grip of the writer Delmore Schwartz, his Syracuse College professor-mentor who insisted that literary art should reflect the blood and guts of real-life emotional struggle.

This dichotomy – brutal rock-and-roll catharsis and austere lyrical realism – would define Reed’s astounding career, which spanned decades of continuous aesthetic reinvention from his first act with the Velvet Underground until his death from cancer. liver in 2013. But a new collection, “Words & Music: May 1965,” the first in a planned archival series from Light in the Attic Records, captures this ever-evolving and consistently transgressive artist in the most unlikely form. of all: the folk blacksmith.

The release includes acoustic demos of some of Reed’s best-known songs, including “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man”, a few lesser-known treasures such as “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, and a handful that didn’t. have ever been published in any form. Although they feature his partner Velvet Underground and intermittent musical film John Cale on harmonies and backing instrumentation, these homemade recordings predate the duo’s first full-band sessions and have none of the fearless and forward-thinking ambitions of the Velvets. This is an intimate document of two new friends discovering a sound that will shape countless musicians and styles in their wake. For fans and for the multiple generations who revere Reed as a creative, even philosophical star, “Words & Music” feels like an unreleased first draft of “Romeo and Juliet.”

“When I listen to those demos from 1965, I feel like it’s such a poetic entry, the roots of what followed,” says Matt Sullivan, Founder and Co-Owner of Light in the Attic. . “You can hear the beat generation, you can hear it merging with John. But you can also hear elements of punk rock. When you hear ‘Heroin’ or ‘Waiting for the Man’ broken down, it reminds you of writing Lou’s songs, the mixture of street poetry and rock-and-roll.

“Words & Music” was produced in partnership with Reed Archivists and his widow, esteemed musician and theater artist Laurie Anderson. She and Reed met in the 1990s and became something of a living landmark in New York for the last two decades of his life – inseparable twin geniuses representing entirely different areas of Manhattan’s creative world. Speaking via Skype, Anderson says the May 1965 tape “sounds exactly like the Lou I knew. He is the ghost of a very ambitious young man who was working on songs. He laughs, he rummages. It’s the same person. You can hear someone taking risks.

Reed was an exemplary luck taker in his life and art, which is why “Words & Music” cannot be considered mere juvenile. Yes, it features early iterations of his seminal work, but it also captures it at a time and in a setting that even the deepest devotee has never experienced. And with Reed, moments and settings are everything. Before he was a black-clad denizen of Warhol’s demi-monde, a punk forefather, a dog-collared sexual boundary-breaker, a critical columnist of New York deviance, a decidedly “average” stadium rocker, a Metallica collaborator, an Edgar Allan Poe performer, and finally, an old statesman with a yen for tai chi and meditation, Reed was just a young man with a guitar and an armful of disparate influences. He was an English student, a Dylan fan and above all a writer.

When Reed biographer Anthony DeCurtis first heard the “Words & Music” recordings, it was Reed’s writings that struck him the most. “He had been playing in bands since he was 14,” DeCurtis says, and the tape shows him “imitating so many types of songs. But on this, the words are infinitely more advanced than the music.

From DeCurtis’ 2017 book “Lou Reed: A Life,” we know that the start of 1965 was an uncertain but decisive time in the man’s life. He lived with his parents on Long Island, but spent much of his time in Queens, writing countless tracks for the Pickwick Records teen song factory, and in Manhattan, hanging out with Cale, an experimental-classical prodigy. Welshman who joined the Primitives to effectively shanty as a rock-and-roller.

The Velvet Underground’s common and reductive origin story says that Reed brought pop songcraft and seedy lyrical vision, while Cale introduced a buzzy vibe and shattered pop’s musical boundaries. But that doesn’t explain why an ultra-modern archi like Cale would love a doo-wop fan like Reed so much in the first place, so much so that folk-averse Cale could soon be found jamming with his songwriter friend at Harlem. A mutual affinity for drugs certainly played a part, but “Words & Music” makes their bond clearer: Reed’s writing was so unique that Cale saw the overlap in their sensibilities.

Take “Heroin”, for example, a source of what would later be called punk or alternative, the “Like a Rolling Stone” of commercially carefree rock music. On 1967’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” Reed’s debut as a recording artist, the song is an incantation, a sensory journey through languid rapture and the nightmarish rush of an opioid high. But the heartbreaking lyrics, we now know, were all but finished long before the duo met their benefactor and protector Andy Warhol, and more than a year before they recorded the period version with Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison on percussion. and guitar, respectively. The “Words & Music” rendition has a similar, though much less dramatic, musical structure; Reed and Cale speed up and slow down. But otherwise they treat it like a campfire. The musical vision that would change the world was yet to come.

On the other hand, a 1965 version of “Pale Blue Eyes” is musically similar to the crystalline ballad that eventually appeared on the Velvet Underground’s 1969 self-titled album (their first without Cale), but the lyrics here are entirely different. except for its Chorus. The song originated in Syracuse, where Reed wrote it for his most important girlfriend, Shelley Albin. In 1965, it was an almost childish song about jealousy. By this point, Albin had already left him following his borderline abusive treatment; when she married after college, he remained in love, often begging her to leave her husband. We can now see that he carried the skeleton of this heartbreaking song around in his head for years, rewriting its verses until it became vexatious and sad, a culmination of the softer and more complex tendencies of Reed.

“Words & Music” is truly a demo in the sense that the young songwriter seems to have recorded it primarily for copyright purposes. The tape survived because he posted himself and kept the package unopened for the rest of his life, nearly half a century. If that sounds oddly tedious, Reed archivists Jason Stern and Don Fleming say he kept an enormous amount of documentation throughout his career, from stage costumes to toll receipts. (His sister Merrill apparently thinks it was the influence of their accountant father.)

Almost all of this material was donated by Anderson to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where an immersive multimedia exhibit, “Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars,” runs through March 2023. Between this gratuitous celebration, the recently inaugurated series of Light in the Attic, a recent Velvet Underground documentary by filmmaker Todd Haynes, and even DeCurtis’ doorstop, Reed has become the subject of serious study and preservation. in a way that his mercurial artistry and conflicted reputation made difficult during his lifetime.

Anderson, however, insisted that her husband’s posthumous legacy be as immediate and accessible as the emotions of Reed’s songs. “I want this exhibit and the NYPL exhibit to be open to everyone,” she says. “Not a white glove thing. Any kid who starts a band, anyone, can now hear it looking around.

For Anderson, the most important track on “Words & Music” is “Men of Good Fortune,” which shares a title and nothing else with a track from Reed’s 1973 junkie-romance concept album “Berlin.” sometimes cited as the most depressing album. never done. Instead of this record’s grandiose production and grim lyrics, 1965’s “Men” sounds like a Child Ballad, the British story-song genre that inspired early American folk music and its 1960s revivalists. is a sad waltz sung by a young “damsel” who misses her chance to marry because of her mother’s warnings about wayward men.

What’s less about the character of the man who wrote “Walk on the Wild Side,” let alone “Sex With Your Parents”? But as Anderson notes, Reed would go on to write beautifully from a female perspective in songs like “Stephanie Says” and “Candy Says.” Like everything on “Words & Music,” “Men of Good Fortune” predicts his future as much as it resembles the past.

“He became a little girl to write this song, in his little red outfit,” Anderson says. “He was Shakespearean: he could get into people’s minds. He didn’t feel sorry for himself in his songs, he went out. He saw all these people, he pretended to be them, entered their minds. He’s a very unique songwriter. The importance of this record is that you see it always has been.