Is Words & Music, May 1965 worth the hype surrounding it?
Every record album tells a story; sometimes it’s fictional, sometimes it’s real, and sometimes it’s documentary.
Even the most contrived tale contains a germ of truth, and every truth is exaggerated to some extent. In the case of the recently released Lou Reed collection, Words & Music, May 1965, you get a little reality, a lot of documentary, and even some good old-fashioned “Ranger Reek” styled bloato-hype.
Here’s the marketing hook for Reed’s Words & Music, May 1965 – while sorting through the late rock legend’s office, album co-producer Don Fleming (as per the liner notes) discovered an odd, out-of-place package that, at first glance, seemed to be some sort of CD box set. Looking closer, it was actually a 5” reel-to-reel tape box, sealed up in wrapping paper and sent via notarized mail to Reed in care of his parents’ Freeport, New York home. Postmarked May 11th, 1965, the mysterious package remained unopened until the New York Public Library acquired Reed’s archives, at which time it would become part of some six-hundred hours of reel-to-reel, cassette, and digital audio tapes (DAT) to be preserved for the future.
There was no paperwork accompanying the tape, which Reed had evidently sent to himself as a sort of “poor man’s copyright.” Mailing songs on tape to yourself in a sealed, notarized envelope was frequently done by starving artists back in the day to document the creation dates of their songs without the hassle (and expense) of registering the material with the Library of Congress. The 5-inch tape offered a pair of mono tracks, with several songs performed by, and documented by Reed on microphone (introducing songs as “words and music by Lou Reed,” etc.). More importantly, perhaps, is that the tape featured the first recordings of Reed and future Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale. The recordings were cleaned and restored to minimize audible hum and eliminate any tape artifacts, equalized and leveled for a better listening experience, and produced by Fleming and Reed’s wife Laurie Anderson for the CD release of Words & Music, May 1965 by Light In The Attic Records.
During the early-to-mid-‘60s, prior to his groundbreaking albums with Velvet Underground, Reed was working as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, a notorious ‘budget’ label that licensed dodgy masters of lower-rung artists for fast-bucks releases. They also produced their own cheap-o “sound-alike” albums designed to cash in on musical trends. Reed sang and performed on albums like The Surfsiders Sing the Beach Boys Songbook for the label, and was part of an in-house band with Cale called the Primitives, which recorded a parody of dance songs titled “The Ostrich”. But Reed was already writing songs like “Heroin” with an eye to the future, impressing his classically-trained bandmate and setting the stage for their future collaborations. Reed’s Pickwick Records era was recently documented by the excellent Ugly Things music magazine.
The low-rent demo quality sound of the recordings on Words & Music, May 1965 does nothing to distract from the flashes of brilliance show by young Lou’s early songwriting efforts. Accompanied by an acoustic guitar and harmonica, Reed’s “I’m Waiting For the Man” sounds different than the final Velvet Underground version, of course, but it’s full of life and maturity, with its street-smart lyrical poetry waiting for a full studio recording. Reed sounds like a brasher, bolder version of Bob Dylan, tackling edgy (for the times) subject matter. “Men of Good Fortune” isn’t the song of the same title from Berlin but rather a spry, folkish ballad while the infamous “Heroin”, a song written by Reed while he was still attending Syracuse University in New York, is another future VU track. Inspired by Syracuse professor Delmore Schwartz (and displaying more than a little Dylan influence), Reed delivers a stunning, controversial, and trailblazing song that opened up rock ‘n’ roll to all sorts of lyrical directions and obsessions.
Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are among the most well-documented artists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but Words & Music, May 1965 still offers a few surprises for VU scholars. A couple of previously-unknown songs – “Too Late” and “Buttercup Song” – were found on the long-lost reel of tape. The former is a folkie call-and-response song with Cale singing counterpoint to Reed, their vocals veering dangerously afar of folk orthodoxy and edging closely to Reed’s beloved doo-wop harmonies. The latter is a sort of mythological “unicorn,” with VU allegedly recording a version of “Buttercup Song” that has never surfaced. With Reed and Cale singing the chorus together, and with six full verses of lyrical ruminations, it would have been interesting to hear what a full band would have done with the song.
Reed breaks away from the Dylanesque folk rock of the first few songs for “Buzz Buzz Buzz”, a rockabilly-styled rave-up with fat Chuck Berry guitar licks, squalls of harmonica, and clever lyrics with Cale chiming in on the chorus. “Pale Blue Eyes” provides another enigma for VU obsessives to chew on as the song, written prior to 1965, wouldn’t be recorded by the band until Cale had left, appearing in rewritten form on their self-titled 1969 album. It’s a hauntingly gorgeous song, indicative of Reed’s skill at balladry, and Cale adds just the right amount of vocal harmony here. “Stockpile” is a bog-standard twelve-bar blues with a heavy 1950s Chicago vibe, but Reed’s electrifying performance echoes future Velvet Underground recordings, as well as some of his choicer solo work.
Interestingly, “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” is the most VU-sounding performance on Words & Music, May 1965, with imaginative lyrics sung by Cale (who also provides percussive tapping alongside Reed’s gloomy acoustic strum) and an overall exotic musical direction that would find full bloom with the band. Unfortunately, VU seemingly never recorded their version of “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”, which instead appeared on chanteuse Nico’s influential 1967 album Chelsea Girl, which featured three-quarters of VU’s bandmembers and would inspire distaff talents like Patti Smith and Reed’s future Mrs., Laurie Anderson. The tape-reel included a second version of “I’m Waiting For the Man” which varies from its predecessor in several aspects and is performed in a different key.
In addition to the aforementioned songs from the long-lost tape reel, Words & Music, May 1965 is rounded out by the inclusion of a handful of disconnected home recordings by Reed, mostly folk standards like “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” by Rev. Gary Davis, and the traditional “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore”. An energetic cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is cut off on the tape just as it picks up steam, but Lou’s original “W & X, Y, Z Blues” is a right clever blues pastiche that closes with an invigorating twelve-bar instrumental passage to finish. I’m not sure why the home recordings were included here, as the material found on the long-lost tape reel is more than enough to send Reed/VU fanatics into paroxysms of joy, but it’s worth it if only for “W & X, Y, Z Blues”. Words & Music, May 1965 includes song-by-song commentary by Fleming, an introduction by noted critic Greil Marcus, and lyric transcriptions for each song.
As Fleming writes in the album’s liner notes, “The tape of demos from May 1965 is the earliest glance that we have into Reed’s songwriting process that culminated with the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico two years later on March 12, 1967. Reed and Cale had only met in early 1965, and by May 11, 1965, they sing together on this musical document that shows an important early step towards the formation of The Velvet Underground. This tape, notarized and mailed on the same date as the Pickwick studio session, was made with the intention of protecting the publishing of Reed’s songs. These are, for now, the earliest known recordings of all of these songs.”
Reed and Cale escaped from the Pickwick content mill and formed the Velvet Underground later in 1965 with guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Angus MacLise, who was soon replaced by Moe Tucker, the foursome subsequently releasing legendary records like 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico and the following year’s White Light/White Heat. Reed launched his solo career in 1972 with a self-titled album, moving quickly onto creative triumphs like Transformer and Berlin, which would provide a modest commercial breakthrough. Reed enjoyed a lengthy and (mostly) acclaimed career, including induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, two years after his death.
The first collection of material released as part of LITA’s “Lou Reed Archive Series,” curated by Laurie Anderson, Words & Music, May 1965 is important both musically and historically, documenting the tentative first steps of Reed’s immense rock ‘n’ roll legacy.
AUDIO: Lou Reed “Heroin — May 1965 Demo”