An Image of Lou Reed in His Young Folkie Days
In late-1964-early-1965, Lou Reed wrote to the poet Delmore Schwartz, his creative-writing professor at Syracuse University, and described his life in New York City since graduating the previous spring. Reed noted his unsubmitted Harvard application and ambivalence about grad school; he obliquely referenced the “sick but strange and fascinating” experiences he’d been having, mentioning “rich johns on park ave” willing to pay up to $700 to watch displays involving “the more esoteric sexual art forms.” He described his job at Pickwick Records, a discount label/song mill, churning out content for “those cheap $1.98 albums that you see in supermarkets,” how he and his team wrote and recorded 33 songs in two days, and how he’d been playing music with a “starving viola player” from Wales. Reed also told Schwartz about “a folk album” he’d made, with lyrics his music-biz contacts found “offensive,” but that he’d flatly refused to change.
That “folk album” largely remained a mystery, until the recordings on Words & Music, May 1965 were discovered after Reed’s death in 2013. Most come from a five-inch-tape reel Reed had sealed in a box, mailed to himself, and never opened, enacting what was known as “poor man’s copyright” over the original songs, performed by Reed with help from the “starving viola player,” John Cale, his future co-conceptualist in the Velvet Underground. Some of them — “Pale Blue Eyes,” “Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” — became signatures of Reed’s career as one of rock’s most ambitious songwriter-performers. Others — “Men of Good Fortune,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” — would be radically reshaped or repurposed. All of them show an artist beginning a lifelong process of inventing himself, among the first of many identities, one unfamiliar even to hardcore fans. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome: Lou Reed, folk singer.
Considering the times, this guise isn’t surprising. The American folk revival had been in full swing for years. When Reed was a sophomore at Syracuse, in 1962, he saw 21-year-old folk singer Joan Baez, who’d land the cover of Time magazine that year, as her pal Bob Dylan released his debut LP. If you were a musician with poetic ambition, which Reed definitely was, folk music was where the action was. He played in rock bands on campus, but also learned to Travis pick an acoustic guitar and play harmonica on a neck rack, instruments he rocks on these recordings. And he’d goof on the genre during his stint at Pickwick (see the hilarious “It’s Hard for a Girl in a World Full of Men,” almost certainly a Reed co-write).
Words & Music improves the sound on Reed’s original tape (available to hear, with many others, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, home to the Reed Archives), and evidently takes some liberty with song order. It opens with “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Reed’s narrative of an outsider buying drugs in Harlem. But it’s a radically different version from the pummeling beatdown on the Velvet Underground’s debut. Here, it’s a slow acoustic blues strut, sung in close harmony, Cale taking highs, the men alternating lines to describe a kid navigating his way to a fix. When Reed exclaims “Hey, white boy!” — the voice of someone about to grill the narrator about his business uptown — Cale sheepishly answers, “Pardon me, sir.” It’s tremendously funny, but hardly comedy.
“Men of Good Fortune,” which began Reed’s original tape, is something else entirely, and has almost nothing to do with the version on his 1973 Berlin record. A folk ballad akin to Baez’s trademark, “Silver Dagger,” in its drama of courtship and looming violence, this early “Men of Good Fortune” is Reed announcing his fascination with feminine perspective, which he’d explore throughout his career, from “Candy Says” and “Lisa Says” to the Metallica-fueled bloodbath Lulu. Here, Reed channels an orphan girl fearing a life alone and unmarried, with no trace of parody. “Unfaithful and ugly are the ways of all men,” Reed sings with authority in a shaky tenor, swooping into a high-lonesome falsetto, lamenting the lack of a decent suitor and the indignity of having to find one amid “town-boys and drunkards that made me feel scared.” Cross-gender role-play wasn’t unheard of among women covering traditional songs (Baez often sang “Man of Constant Sorrow”). But these were original lyrics, delivered by a man, a first-person character study and genre exercise as transgressive in its way as “Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.”
The latter, the earliest surviving version of what’s perhaps Reed’s defining song, is delivered here solo, a talking blues fingerpicked on acoustic guitar with what seems purposeful imprecision. Reed begins slowly and accelerates to double time, mimicking a drug rush, words tumbling out in neurochemical mimesis, then settling down, language succumbing to opiate blankness. It was hardly the first time anyone sang of illicit drug use. Jazzbos and bluesmen had been doing it for decades; Greenwich Village folk vets Eric Von Schmidt and Richard Fariña had recently covered Rev. Gary Davis’ “Cocaine Blues” (with Bob Dylan, billed as “Blind Boy Grunt,” on harmonica) on an LP Reed likely heard. And notably, British folk singer/guitarist Bert Jansch sang about heroin on his 1965 debut, a folk-revival landmark that inspired numerous players, Paul Simon and Neil Young among them. But the Von Schmidt/Fariña cover was good-time hootenanny fare, and Jansch’s “Needle of Death” was a second-person lament to a dead friend. “Heroin” was the plainspoken, first-person testimony of a junk user, by turns agitated and benumbed, unapologetically articulating his mindset and the precise arcs of his euphoria. Even in this embryonic form, it’s chilling and astonishing.
Not everything on Words & Music is so serious. “Walk Alone” is wiseguy existentialism loaded with masturbation puns (“You know you gotta beat it alone,” Reed declares). The campy “Buttercup Song or, Never Get Emotionally Involved, With a Man or Woman or Beast or Child” involves a hipster who falls in love with “an androgynous small buttercup” only to become that dubious thing, “a fully grown man writing poems at night.” And then there’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” one of Reed’s most potent songs, an elliptical epic of love derailed that, at this stage, was an unstable seriocomic country-folk ballad about jealousy, in which the singer lies awake in bed predawn, venting heartache that curdles into anger, wishing his former sweetheart “dead” and rhyming it with “hoped you’d get hit in the head.” It would prove a work in progress.
Words & Music, May 1965 also includes recordings dated to 1963-64, likely made by Reed in his Long Island bedroom during collegiate visits home. There’s a tenderly tentative take on the kumbaya classic “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” complete with “hallelujahs” — a guitar-student staple that might be the most off-brand performance ever from the man who later gave us “Sex With Your Parents (Motherfucker).” There are also fragments of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” pointing to an influence Reed didn’t like copping to, as the ambitious writer evidently saw him as competition (not included from the archival tape is a half-hearted cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind”).
This wasn’t quite the end of Reed’s folkie period. In July, his old friend Sterling Morrison joined him and Cale to demo new songs similarly not included on Words & Music. “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” the ballad of a doomed party girl, was driven by fingerstyle guitar, with high harmonies by Cale. “Venus in Furs” was Reed’s poetic gloss on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella about a masochistic man and his dominant mistress, sung by Cale initially, conjuring an unusually perverse Elizabethan courtship ballad, decades before Rihanna landed a hit exploring similar themes. But the times were a-changin’ that spring and summer in 1965. The previous fall, the Animals played their Number One pop hit “House of the Rising Sun” on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a traditional folk song turned electric, and the first British Invasion single not by the Beatles to top the charts. Reed, Cale, and Morrison, reasonably enough, decided to form a band to play Reed’s “folk” songs louder. That would be the Velvet Underground, and the rest is history.
Rolling Stone contributing editor Will Hermes is writing a biography of Lou Reed.
Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that we got rid of the stars on our reviews. If you’re an engaged music fan in 2022, your opinion isn’t going to be defined by some random number. We’ll tell you right away (with some new labels) when a new album is a must-hear or, in rarer cases, an instant classic. After that, our critics will help you make up your own damn mind.
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