Lou Reed - Words & Music, May 1965 Music Album Reviews

Featuring the earliest known renditions of several Velvet Underground classics, this archival set of acoustic demos highlights a formative period in Lou Reed and John Cale’s artistic partnership.

It’s an archivist's dream: One day, dusting a back corner office, you discover more of the past, lying dormant on a shelf. After Lou Reed died in 2013, Laurie Anderson charged Don Fleming and Jason Stern with excavating the thousands of recordings, photos, letters, keepsakes, bar tabs, and credit card receipts that comprised Reed’s creative life. And there, tucked away behind some art books, lay a weathered package made out to Lewis Reed in faded blue ballpoint pen. The handwriting was Reed’s own, and the address was his parents’ house at 35 Oakfield Ave. The postmark was May 11, 1965—the date of the mythical, heretofore-unheard first recording sessions between Lou Reed and his then-new friend, John Cale.

Because real life often bedevils the neatness of archives, the spindly little demo recordings that slipped out of the package were not, in fact, made on that epochal day. Nevertheless, the songs on the long-lost reel-to-reel tape capture the early days of John Cale and Lou Reed’s artistic partnership. Included here are the earliest-known renditions of future classics like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Heroin.” Reed mailed them to himself with a notarized signature as a sort of “poor man’s copyright,” a cheap and effective way to prove the songs on the tape were, indeed, his.

In other words, Words and Music captures Reed just as he was beginning to take himself seriously as a songwriter. “Words and music by Lou Reed,” he intones at the start of each performance, his deadpan concealing the barest hint of bashful pride. As demos often are, these recordings are bare and unadorned: just Cale and Reed harmonizing over some hastily strummed acoustic and a wheezy harmonica. They sound more like a folk duo than the unholy terror of a rock band they would soon become.

On each track, you hear Cale and Reed go on fishing expeditions, seeking the dark and untamable spirits that would soon occupy their songs. They knew they were out there, but they find them only fitfully. These versions are slight and sly and simple; sometimes, they fail to even tap you on the shoulder. Nothing on Words and Music redefines or amplifies Reed’s legend. Instead, what we get is a photograph, stark and charming. For an artist known for cool and cruel observations, for cutting remarks and misdirections, these recordings show him completely free from guile. Lewis Reed, unguarded.

There is no better illustration of this than in the two versions included of “I’m Waiting for the Man.” The first version opens the set. You hear Cale and Reed harmonizing in a way they never did again—no bent notes, no howling, no sneering, Reed’s voice breaking into an honest-to-god yodel. They sound like the Weavers or the Kingsmen, and the slouch that Reed would work so hard to perfect is nowhere in sight. The second version is even further off, with a harmless clippity-clop knocked out on the guitar’s hollow body, and the harmonies even more subdued. This narrator doesn’t really sound sick and dirty, more dead than alive, and there is no menace, no threat, to the line “Hey white boy/Whatcha doing uptown?” You can see through the song’s swagger right to its fragile, birdlike bones.

The Velvet Underground’s songs were already skeletal, and when X-rayed this way, they give up new secrets. Without the grace note Reed threw on the word “on” in “linger on,” for instance, “Pale Blue Eyes” somehow transforms into a straight country ballad. The dreamy essence of the final recording lies entirely in that vocal take. He also tries out an early version of “Heroin” with a plunky walking bassline on the low strings that sucks the liquid motion from the song, the sense of love and danger mixing as quickly and seamlessly as the blood into the dropper’s neck. Just as this set’s spartan title implies, he had the words and he had the music. He didn’t yet have the pose.

Maybe it’s for that reason the most interesting moments on the demo tape have nothing at all to do with the Velvet Underground, or with the well-known character of “Lou Reed.” “Men of Good Fortune,” for instance, bears no relation to the song from 1973’s Berlin, despite the name. It’s Reed’s take on a child ballad, a story of a woman grappling with the fear that she will die unmarried and alone. Sharing a melody with Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon,” it’s both odd and deeply out of character, and Reed sounds more committed to its performance than to anything else here. Where the other tracks sound like what they are—demos, rough drafts, ideas put down for the sake of record—this one feels like the final version, a vision of a song Reed pulled whole from somewhere in his subconsciousness. It was a place he wouldn’t have cause to go again in his songwriting life.

The same goes for the doo-wop of “Too Late,” which is a love letter to Dion and the Belmonts. Is it a remarkable recording, either in words or music? It is not. It does not have much in the way of meat on its bones, and Cale and Reed nearly give up on it halfway through. But it has Lou Reed assaying a squeaky soul shout, it has a tempo that meanders charmingly, and it has the sound of Cale and Reed, both young and unassuming, busting up laughing at each other, still in love with what they might do.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Lou Reed - Words & Music, May 1965 Music Album Reviews Lou Reed - Words & Music, May 1965 Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Saturday, September 24, 2022 Rating: 5

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