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Listening Report: Lou Reed’s Words and Music Take Center Stage On New Light In The Attic Super Deluxe Edition Multi-Disc 45 RPM Vinyl Set

Mark Smotroff explores an archival landmark by one of rock music’s most influential pioneers…


Your interest level in purchasing the new super deluxe edition, two-LP-plus-45-plus-CD set celebrating Lou Reed’s earliest and newly discovered demo recordings will ultimately depend on how much of a fan of the artist you are. As your humble reviewer, I hope that I’ll give you some perspective which may help your decision making process in considering this very special new set called Lou Reed: Words And Music May 1965

First, it is important to understand the context of these recordings which were discovered by archivists working their way through Lou Reed’s estate. Found among the hundreds of tapes, CDs, demos and test pressings, they unearthed a sealed envelope which appeared to have been mailed by Lou to himself at his parents home address where he was still living at the time from May 1965. Employing a process commonly known as a “poor man’s copyright,” it is a way to informally secure your rights to the music within — which has been postmarked as well as notarized before it was even sealed — without actually submitting forms of copyright to the government. To the latter concept, I know from first hand experience these submissions can be daunting and can add up costs wise quickly these days if you have a lot of songs or are on a tight budget (which most musicians are!).  

I have a few early cassettes of my own music like this tucked away in my archive (an aside:  heh heh, maybe someday after I’m gone someone will discover them and make a fancy boxed set out for the universe to appreciate… well… if I ever get as famous as Lou Reed they might, but I won’t be holding my breath).  But, I digress…

Anyhow… 

What the archivists found inside the envelope was a batch of amazing and fascinating early home recordings of some of Lou Reed’s most important and influential songs made on a consumer grade reel-to-reel tape recorder. Lou Reed: Words And Music May 1965 presents Lou at his most nascent, before the Velvet Underground was even a concept — much less a formal band sponsored by Andy Warhol with a psychedelic light show. 

Here Lou is mostly playing his songs in a simple, coffee-house, folk-styled form that was popular in the late 50s and early 60s (just before The Byrds more or less invented “folk rock”).  Along the way you’ll hear Lou actually singing campfire favorites like “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” and even a curious twist on Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”  

Young Lewis Reed at this stage was more or less just like any other kid on the block in 1964….

Well, Lou was probably never like just any kid on the block…  

And as you’ll read in Lou Reed: Words And Music May 1965 an included reproduction of a typewritten letter to his former teacher at Syracuse University and friend, Delmore Schwartz,  shows that Lou was already at that time beginning to soak up the edgy dark corners of New York’s art scene which would be central to his artistic essence.

Lou was at this time was into his career as a staff writer at budget label Pickwick Records where he first met his future musical partner, John Cale (who is on some of these recordings). 

In this context, it is thus amazing to hear these primal demos of “I’m Waiting For The Man,” “Heroin,” and a very early version of “Pale Blue Eyes” (which is especially notable as it wasn’t recorded formally until The Velvet Underground’s third album, after John Cale had left the band). Cale sings a fascinating almost mantra like piece called “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” which hints at some of the drone like works they would craft (especially with Nico) in The Velvet Underground.

In the deluxe edition of Lou Reed: Words And Music May 1965 you get the entire demo tape spread out across two 45 RPM, 180 gram black vinyl discs. It also includes a seven-inch 45 RPM disc with rehearsals and other early home recordings including including with his high school group The Jades. For digital convenience, a CD version of the album is included containing all the music.   

In general the sound quality is remarkably good on the original recordings contained in Lou Reed: Words And Music May 1965 so the 45 RPM two LP treatment is in some ways justified.  The LP pressings are really good as well – the vinyl is black, dark, quiet and well centered. So all those checklist items tick off neatly for me…

The set also comes with a lovely full album sized booklet with an insightful essay by influential writer/critic Greil Marcus plus track-by-track analysis by Don Fleming and Jason Stern (who oversee the Lou Reed Archive).   

The packaging for Lou Reed: Words And Music May 1965 itself is quite stunning featuring a layered, die-cut outer sleeve with compelling images of young Lou Reed (including the famous early shot of a preppy-looking Lou playing in a band at a frat party at Syracuse University).

Clearly, Light in the Attic Records pulled out the stops given the historic nature of these recordings. You’ll see photos of the original reel of tape containing the demos as well as other early Lou Reed memorabilia.

Still, at the end of the day whether you purchase this album comes down to how much you love Lou Reed’s music. This super deluxe package celebrates what is ultimately a raw demo tape. If you are a deep fan, and you appreciate the special joy of vinyl special edition packages, you’ll want this as it is a very thoughtful and beautifully assembled tribute to the artist and the music within. There is also a standard single disc 33 & 1/3 RPM version of the album available as well as compact disc plus many nifty bundles and related merch (t-shirts! slip mats!) available at the Light In The Attic website (click here).  

Any way you decide to go, you should at least hear Lou Reed: Words And Music May 1965. This is an important archival release.    

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