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Unpacking Lou Reed’s posthumous package to himself

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In 2015, Don Fleming and Jason Stern were in the West Village at Sister Ray Enterprises, the office of the late Lou Reed, when they made a startling discovery. Fleming, a musician and archivist, and Stern, who had worked for Reed, had been hired by Reed’s widow, avant-garde musician and artist Laurie Anderson, to catalog Reed’s archive, which she later donated. at the New York Public Library. the performing arts. On a shelf behind Reed’s desk, amid books and music related to the Velvet Underground, Fleming spotted what looked like a box of CDs. “I picked it up and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s not a CD,'” he said. It was a notarized self-addressed package, to and from Lewis Reed at his parents’ Long Island address; it appeared to contain a tape and was postmarked from May 1965, when Reed was twenty-three, working as a songwriter at Pickwick Records, living with his parents, and walking around street corners with his new friend John wedge. “The Velvet Underground & Nico” will be released two years later.

Should they open it? They spent years deciding. “We treated it like a relic,” Anderson said. They finally did, and the results, an album titled “Words & Music: May 1965,” were released this month. The other day, Stern, Fleming and Anderson met at the library to reenact their first listening; they gathered around a laptop in a conference room near an archival exhibit, which features everything from Reed Max’s Kansas City bar tab to a “Transformer” Christmas sweater. Fleming, sixty-four, has dark glasses and freewheeling white hair; Stern, thirty-six, is long-haired and affable; Anderson, seventy-five, has slightly spiky gray hair and wore floral sneakers she picked up in France. “I’ve been on a trip, she says: the Camargue; the Acropolis, to perform (“improvise things with a cellist, stories about Greek history”); Copenhagen (“to rehearse with a backward choir from Romania”).

In 2017, when they opened the package, “Don did the actual slicing,” Stern said. An audio preservation expert guided them through the reading process; the expectation was great. “We’re excited, we’re nervous,” Stern said. “What if it’s a duplicate?” What if it’s a failure? At the library, they recorded the first song. Young Lou Reed said, “’Men of Good Fortune’, words and lyrics, Lou Reed. Reed’s 1973 solo album, “Berlin”, has a song of the same name. “That was the first huge surprise,” Stern said. “We didn’t know there was another one.” The song “Berlin” has a fair and aggressive vibe (“Men of good fortune often bring empires down / While men of bad beginnings often can’t do anything at all”); early “Men” take a softer approach, with strummed acoustic guitar. “My dear mother told me / An old maid I’d be,” Reed sang. Anderson put her hand over her heart. “’Fewer men of good fortune have come to woo me.’

“It sounds like a Greenwich Village folk song or an old British ballad,” Fleming said.

“In the voice of a girl twirling around in her new dress,” Anderson said. Reed played soulful notes and sang about pretty red dresses with pretty red bows, city boys and drunks and dying alone. “It sounds like a 1930s Yorkshire,” Anderson said, as Reed launched into a harmonica solo.

“In retrospect, there couldn’t have been a more confusing first lead,” Stern said.

“He had seen Dylan in late 1964, in Syracuse, and his band there had covered Dylan songs,” Fleming said. Reed’s version of writing about Dylan’s “real things”, Fleming said, was writing “the heroine”. On the tape, “Heroin” was next. The version the world knows is an seven-minute symphony of thirst, urgency, angst and satisfaction, driven by electric viola and chaos; this one is quiet people. The tape moves quickly. “The Buttercup Song,” an elusive VU track, went overboard. “I was like, ‘This is the song that everyone thinks is lost!’ “We’re on a roll!” Reed and Cale, in crazy harmony – “It’s getting very music hall,” Anderson said – advise the listener to “never get emotionally involved / with a man, woman, beast or child”, and Reed sings about the botany of the “little androgynous buttercup”.

“I love the idea of ​​them singing that on a street corner, people walking by,” Fleming said. In an acoustic, bluesy “I’m Waiting for the Man”, Cale, Welsh and elegant as always, does the “Oh, forgive me, sir” part of the dialogue.

“They seem really familiar with the material – they joke around, improvise a bit, comfortable with the songs,” Fleming said.

The deluxe version of “Words & Music” includes a copy of a 1965 letter Reed wrote to his mentor, poet Delmore Schwartz, describing his life in New York: writing songs, avoiding drafts, meeting Cale , “a hungry violist.” “He’s a treasure,” Anderson said. “He trusted Delmore so much, he told him everything.”

The tape “makes me laugh every time I hear it,” Anderson said. “It makes me so happy. Just that a kid could do that. It’s like Baudelaire or something – a kid who’s also literary and also adventurous and also crazy. And who didn’t end up being a spinster. ♦

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