Whenever I hear that a musician is releasing lost demos, and live performances, from their personal archive I start to question why. Do these recordings actually warrant a release or are they a crass cash grab? Over the years there have been plenty of cash-ins. These I won’t mention, but there have also been excellent releases. Bob Dylan’s early ‘Bootleg Series’ are all mostly essential. As are the Neil Young ‘Archive’ releases and I can’t praise Johnny Cash’s ‘Personal File’ highly enough. When I heard that the Lou Reed estate was planning to release a collection of demos, I hoped for the best but feared the worst. Luckily my worries were unwarranted as the resulting album, ‘Words & Music, May 1965’, is filled with early versions of future Velvet Underground classics. They aren’t the finished articles that are beloved around the world today, but in their primitive state we see how accomplished a songwriter Reed was even at this stage in his career.
The recordings were recorded to tape with the help of John Cale, who also appears some of the songs. Reed than posted the tape to himself as a form of ‘poor man’s copyright’. This is a system of using registered post to date the songs to try and establish that the material has been in one’s possession since a particular time. The envelope was unopened for 50 years.
The album kicks off with ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’. It is far more folkie, almost country, in places. This gives the song, that is normally raucous, a delightfully twangy feel. The song feels more complex than the Velvet’s version due to the stripped back nature of the recording. The guitars are more intricate and delicate than I was originally expecting. This might be because it’s a slower acoustic version and not drenched in feedback, reverb, and everything else the band threw at the song. Reed’s delivery is ponderous and full of melancholy, whereas the Velvet’s is sardonic and fierce.
‘Heroin’ is more of the same. Lou Reed makes his tales of drug addiction feel more cautionary on ‘Words & Music, May 1965’. The Velvet’s version feels like a more romanticised version of drug use. It had a cool factor that is missing on the demo. Saying that this stripped back version features Reed’s hushed vocals that really hammer home the crux of the song. ‘Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams’ is one of the standout moments on the album. This feels like one of those ‘What If’ moments. The song ended being recorded by Nico on her 1967 debut album ‘Chelsea Girl’, which is effectively an unofficial Velvet Underground as the personnel is the same, but ‘what if’ the Velvet’s recorded a version this? This version is 8:14 minutes of slow handclaps and drone like guitar and feels more sombre and mournful, if that is possible, than Nico’s version. Its utterly transfixing and I felt like I was holding my breath for most of it.
Overall, the album does a fantastic job of showing us where Lou Reed was in 1965. At 23 years old he had penned some of the songs that would make him a household name and cult-figure. The performances of these songs are hushed and breathy give them a more personal feeling than the studio versions. While listening to ‘Words & Music May 1965’ I can’t work out if I prefer these versions or the studio ones? I’m probably leaning towards the studio versions, but there is something in these demos that keeps me pressing play and getting lost in a series of ‘what if’ questions. And this is the power of ‘Words & Music, May 1965’. Songs that I’ve heard hundreds of times before sound fresh and exciting.
It is rumoured that this is the first in a series of archive releases. What Reed has in the vault is unknown but I for one am chomping at the bit for the ‘Metal Machine Music’ and ‘Street Hassle’ demos. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long.
Words: Nick Roseblade