Sep 21, 2022
By Mark Moody
Similar to Blind Willie McTell’s Last Session, the fact that Lou Reed’s Words & Music, May 1965 exists is as stunning as anything the recording contains. McTell’s recordings were the last of his life, coaxed out by an Atlanta record store owner long after the bluesman’s prime and the tape was nearly discarded. Conversely, Reed’s recordings here are among the artist’s earliest, left to sit on a shelf for some 50 years. If there were rumors swirling around about the existence of these recordings since their 2017 discovery, they must have mainly been kept under wraps. There’s a snippet of the version of “I’m Waiting for the Man” that appears here on the recent (and excellent) The Velvet Underground documentary. But primarily, most listeners will be hearing these folk-based songs for the first time.
The bulk of what appears here was recorded when Reed was 23 years old and almost a full two years before the release of The Velvet Underground and Nico. Accompanying himself with acoustic guitar and harmonica, Reed demos three songs that would later appear on Velvet Underground albums. His companion through three of those albums, John Cale, is also on hand for these recordings. Primarily, Cale supplies some “harmony” vocals though they seem fairly improvised in and some cases more than a bit awkward. On the opening “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Cale’s heavily accented chime in of “I’m just waiting for a dear, dear friend of mine,” doesn’t seem like it would get them far on a Harlem drug run. But nonetheless, that track along with early takes on “Heroin” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” are amazing to hear in a stripped down context that is light years away from the Velvet’s sound just a few years on. And add to that, “Men of Good Fortune,” which has no relation to the later track on Berlin. This is an ancient British folk melody married up with gender bending lyrics that border on the poetic.
The balance of Words & Music, May 1965 are primarily more in the realm of throw away tracks, though there are some more interesting ones along the way. “Too Late” finds Reed with an early in his career snarl or two, while “Stockpile” has a chugging blues rhythm that wouldn’t find its way fully onto a Velvet’s album until White Light/White Heat’s title track. And an earlier tightly finger-picked rendition of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” finds Reed somehow implanting an air of detachment. “We’ll find honey on the other side,” hardly seems a promise. Aside from Cale’s sole lead vocal on the objectively awful and eight-minute long “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” nothing here is unlistenable and most is insightful. If the track points to future experimentation, it only takes a few moments to understand that. Even an alternate take of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” with “clip-clop” percussion is at least amusing, as apparently “the man” is approaching on horseback this time.
Words & Music, May 1965 slots in somewhere between “for completists only” and “for more serious listeners” of Reed’s works. Having a chance to listen to early renditions of Velvet’s classics and getting a taste for Reed’s knack for writing a compelling lyric are well worth experiencing. It may very well take you well into “Heroin” (the third track here), just to have time to pick your jaw up off the floor when hit with the realization that these recordings were somehow discovered and retained. And if you do make the leap, no doubt the archivists at Light in the Attic have done their usual bang up job on the packaging. A two LP and accompanying 7-inch being the heart of the available Deluxe Edition. (www.loureed.com)
Author rating: 8/10
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