Finding a New Way to Hear Lou Reed

Photo: Adam itchie/Redferns

It can be hard to find something new to say about Lou Reed more than 60 years after his debut. For Jason Stern and Don Fleming, it took the discovery of a long-lost artifact from the late rock musician and Velvet Underground singer. Stern and Fleming oversee Reed’s archive, and in those roles, they have just released Words & Music, May 1965, a collection of recently uncovered performances Reed recorded on tape. The songs were captured for what is known as a “poor man’s copyright”: Reed said “Words and music, Lou Reed” before each song in an attempt to own credit for the ideas. The renditions, recorded with Reed’s future bandmate John Cale, are surprisingly bare, having more in common with the folk music of the West Village at the time than the innovative rock Reed would become known for.

With abundant surprises, Words & Music is far more exciting than a typical demo release. It contains the earliest known version of “Heroin,” old takes on “Pale Blue Eyes” and “Men of Good Fortune” with vastly different lyrics, and near-mythic never-heard tracks like “Buttercup Song.” Stern and Fleming found it years ago and brought it to release with the help of Reed’s widow, the avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson (“She’s kind of our editor,” Fleming says). It’s the first in a series of archival Reed releases from the Seattle independent label Light in the Attic, coming on top of recent archival releases with Sony, Reed’s eventual label. “We just continue to find things that are somewhat mind-blowing in the collection,” Fleming says. “Even now, things pop up.”

Many of those finds are currently on display at the New York Public Library, where Stern and Fleming have curated Caught Between the Twisted Stars, an exhibition of Reed’s archive. The show features everything from old paperwork and memorabilia to copies of Reed’s poetry, the Words & Music tape, and other recordings. “The last thing we wanted to do was approach it as a Hard Rock Cafe thing,” Stern says. Crucially, the recordings are available for listening in the library — part of Anderson’s goal to make Reed’s archive, which the NYPL acquired in 2017, readily accessible. Stern and Fleming spoke to Vulture about making sense of the Words & Music tape, Reed’s creative process, and working with the rock icon in his final days.

When you heard this music for the first time, other than just taking it in, what were you listening for?

Don Fleming: We thought it was going to be a tape we already had a copy of because of the date on it. The day that Lou mailed it to himself was the same day he had gone into Pickwick Studios and done a recording session with what we’d thought was the earliest ever version of “Heroin.” Much to our surprise, when we first heard it, it wasn’t that at all. It was demos of Lou, in a room with John Cale, just doing these songs to copyright them.

Jason Stern: That moment of hearing it for the first time — we don’t even know at that point that John Cale is on it. We don’t know who the personnel are. So we’re just listening for context clues. The first time you hear John’s voice, I remember us going like, “That’s a Welsh accent!” We went in pretty much blind.

DF: This was the time in early ’65 when the two of them were on street corners busking, likely doing these songs in this way. We knew it had happened, but no one had heard it before. And we knew that Lou had a strong Dylan influence from when he was at Syracuse in college and his band played Dylan songs, but here it was finally, and we could really hear it for the first time. There were so many songs on there that were never heard before, were never bootlegged, and were never done later by Lou.

Some of the songs that were never released are super-fun and playful. I love “Buttercup Song,” and there’s the moment of laughter in “Too Late.” What do you make of this side of Reed coming out?

JS: I’m always pleased to hear Lou laugh. I got to experience it in real life, which was nice because I know he didn’t do that much in the public eye, but that’s the real Lou. He was a guy that liked to joke around. So yeah, I love hearing on this tape the part where he starts cracking up. That’s all great; that’s all realistic, too.

DF: And it does show the camaraderie between him and John. The call-and-response stuff where Lou seems to be just making stuff up. There are a few lines in a couple of those songs that he literally seemed to be making up on the spot, and some of them didn’t quite make sense because of it. So it does seem like they’d already played these together a good amount, probably on the street, because the way they recorded, it’s pretty tight. John knows all those harmony parts. It’s not off the cuff. And “Buttercup Song” was a great find because we knew of its existence. Sterling had talked about it in interviews.

JS: Yeah, I was very excited to uncover that one because I was just aware of it as this mythical song that Sterling had described. He said both titles of it, “Buttercup Song” and “Never Get Emotionally Involved With a Man, Woman, Beast, or a Child.” As soon as it started, it launches right into that line. I just knew it right away, like, Oh shit, we found it! The lost song is here.

DF: And it’s a song that follows that old folk tradition of just verse after verse, which “Men of Good Fortune” also does. It’s like a British ballad. That’s what’s so remarkable.

Whether it’s “Pale Blue Eyes” or “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” being recorded by Nico, some of these songs came out later. The two of you wrote that the recording of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” is the closest to what we know as the Velvet Underground today in this collection. What do you make of Lou giving it to Nico to be recorded instead?

DF: All we meant by that was, when you’re listening to this tape of what sounds like folk music, suddenly, at the end, there’s a song that sounds like the Velvet Underground. This is the bridge where John’s influence is in there.

JS: It’s by virtue of being the least-strummy song on the record.

DF: They did a version of it as a demo also at John’s apartment on Ludlow Street. That was on the Peel Slowly and See boxed set.

JS: It’s one of those tapes from John’s basement.

DF: For whatever reason, they didn’t record it themselves and then they gave it to Nico. It’s maybe one they thought about having her do in the Velvet Underground but just didn’t do it.

JS: Yeah, we can only speculate. But it also is a pattern of Lou’s to have some songs written well in advance of when they actually appear on an album. The other release that we worked on with Sony a couple of months ago, the 1971 RCA demos, has songs that wind up on Transformer, Berlin, or Coney Island Baby. So Lou was writing stuff sometimes years in advance of actually putting it out on an album. He would, I don’t know, let the song marinate or revisit it.

DF: And even when he put it out, he wasn’t always satisfied, ’cause for years you’d see a Velvet Underground song pop up on his solo albums.

That’s always fascinating to me about an artist, the thought process around sitting on something for a while and what gets left in the vault. And since these things often come out after people’s deaths, it just never gets articulated.

DF: We really wanted to show Lou as a songwriter and show the songwriting process, and that’s what’s always exciting to me — when you see something that shows that growth. “Pale Blue Eyes,” for example, was just amazing to me because he literally changed all the words before it got recorded. And he did this with John Cale, but by the time the band recorded it, John was gone. And the only other trace of it is on a bootleg of the band with Doug Yule, after John had left, and they were trying out songs for their new album just about a month before they went into the studio. The lyrics were completely different from the one we have but still not the final ones. Lou really did like to make the words fit, like he said, like jewels in a setting. He just had to keep going to get it right sometimes.

John Cale keeps coming up throughout this, and he’s still with us. Did you have a chance to discuss this tape with him?

DF: Yes, we talk with John’s team pretty often. I played him this tape; I played him “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams.” Soon after we had it transferred, he came to New York for a Velvet Underground thing that was happening, and on the way there, in the car, I played it for him just off my phone. I had a million questions for him, and instead, he just sang along. That was the most we got out of him. He just either doesn’t remember or doesn’t really want to talk about it.

Other than this tape, what was the most exciting find to make its way to the exhibition for each of you?

JS: This is another tape, but we found this one that’s titled Electric Rock Symphony. The first half is all guitar feedback that sounds like a demo of Metal Machine Music. But it actually gets even crazier than that: It’s a tape that we think is from 1966, so it’s the building blocks of Metal Machine Music coming together that far before. Obviously, John Cale was doing all sorts of stuff in that vein with La Monte Young, so it wasn’t surprising that it existed; it was surprising that Lou was doing the feedback thing in ’66.

DF: The collection is really his business paperwork. At the end of a lot of the tours, when the tour manager would turn in all the receipts, they’d just go into an envelope in a folder. He’d put it in a box and then in storage, where they sat until we pulled them out and started cataloguing everything. We found the tour for Rock ’n’ Roll Animal. On the cover, Lou’s wearing a spiked dog collar; we found the receipt for the collar. It had been turned in, like, We’ve got to reimburse him ’cause he bought this stuff and it’s wardrobe. And it turned out to be the day before those photos were taken.

JS: It’s from the Pleasure Chest in the West Village, which is still there.

You talk about Lou keeping all these papers. Jason, you were working with him toward the end of his life. What was his interest in his archive and in wanting to cultivate that?

JS: Honestly, almost nonexistent. This is just for me to guess at after the fact. I think surely he understood the value of his archives, but he was so forward-thinking and forward-facing. He hardly looked back. He barely ever wanted to listen to his old music; he was just into what’s new and what’s next. I was only around him for like two years. I’m sure he’d considered such things before I knew him. But I didn’t even know what was in the storage unit. It was like ten by 15 feet in Chelsea, stacked almost floor to ceiling with boxes that I couldn’t see inside of without opening up. So I just knew there was this unit full of stuff; I didn’t know what was in there. Lou never mentioned it. It was just lying in wait for someone else to deal with, and that someone else is me and Don and Laurie.

Other archival releases have come out, and there was a Velvet Underground documentary recently and a covers compilation. It feels like this never-ending fascination with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. That’s obviously from seeing him and the band as icons of early underground music, but what else do you make of this ongoing hunger for more about Lou?

JS: He was really prolific. His career spanned five decades, and he never rested on his laurels. He was always evolving. I think that body of work and that level of honesty will sow the seeds of interest for a long time to come because it’s hard to reach such heights. So it doesn’t surprise me that there’s this unending interest and that new generations of people are discovering Lou for the first time or the Velvet Underground. Kate Bush is having this huge renaissance ’cause “Running Up That Hill” was in Stranger Things. Some people are turning their nose down at it. I’m just like, She’s timeless! Of course, there’s going to be a whole new generation discovering her for the first time. That’s what happens with great artists: Their work lives forever. We’re seeing it happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sterling Morrison, the late Velvet Underground guitarist.
Finding a New Way to Hear Lou Reed