Lou Reed – [Album]

Lou Reed – [Album]

Tuesday, 08 November 2022

Lou Reed
Words and Music, May, 1965
(Light In The Attic)

One question repeatedly comes up in writers’ groups, especially with beginning writers: “How do I copyright my work?” I resist the temptation to say, “Do you really think someone is going to steal your poetry?” and tell them, “Mail it to yourself.” As long as you don’t open the package, the postmark establishes that you wrote the enclosed material on or before that date. Lou Reed did that with a tape of his original songs back in 1965. The package was first opened about a year ago.

The tape does include early, acoustic versions of several Velvet Underground songs (“Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin” and “Pale Blue Eyes”) and John Cale does accompany Reed on it, but this is not an early glimpse into the band’s development. The purpose of this tape was to establish Reed’s credentials as a songwriter. He was about to leave a job writing novelty tunes and knock-offs of current hits for Pickwick Records, and clearly wanted an opportunity to sell his more serious compositions.

Chances are, the songs on Words and Music, May, 1965 are what Reed considered his strongest work at the time – and they do definitely cover a variety of styles. Despite all the recordings being basic acoustic guitar and occasional harmonica, you can sense the eventual recording styles they were intended for. For example, “Buzz Buzz Buzz” – a fun ditty about not getting through to your girl on the phone – could easily have been a pop hit. “Men of Good Fortune” sounds like an old Appalachian folk tune and “Stockpile” is a straight working-man’s blues. “Walk Alone” is styled as folk here, but could have been pop or blues; “Too Late” has potential as a Brit-Invasion style blues. “Buttercup Song,” a warning against emotional involvement, seems appropriate for a novelty act, although there are rumors VU actually considered recording it.

Then there are the three VU songs. “Pale Blue Eyes” is fairly close to the arrangement VU eventually used; spare, a bit spacey, very melancholy. Both “Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” are presented in folk style, as gritty tales of urban reality. The emphasis is on the words, the story, although “Heroin” does rave up near the end, hinting at the eventual version on their first album.

Finally (it was the last song on the tape, although not on this CD) we come to “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” which suddenly does sound like classic Velvet Underground. It is a long, slow, drone, with vocals intoned rather than sung (and, coincidence or not, Cale take over the vocals on this one). For the first time, the CD becomes a hint of what is to come.

There are other songs on the CD, taken from previous recording sessions. Some classic folk, some Dylan, some Reed working out blues progressions on his guitar. They give us some hint of where he came from but, if anything, cloud the picture of where he was headed. The Dylan covers, combined with the acoustic, folk stylings of many of the recordings, could give the impression Reed was another Dylan wannabe.

If one wants to guess Reed’s ambitions at this point, it is important to remember what this recording is and what it is not. It is not a demo or audition tape to be sent to record companies looking for a contract as a musician. It is specifically designed to prove that Reed wrote these songs, that he was protecting himself from plagiarism. As I said at the beginning, his ambition here is, apparently, more as a songwriter than a performer.

This is not to say Velvet Underground fans won’t find much here to pique their interest. And fans of Lou Reed’s solo work may find even more, as they see the variety of styles he was trying out. [Murray Thomas]


Words and Music, May, 1965 is out now. Buy it here, directly from the artist’s official online store:

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