Here’s one to file in the “just when you think you’ve heard everything” section. Track 13 on Words and Music, May 1965, a collection of lo-fi demos recorded by Lou Reed in the mid-1960s, is an earnest version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”. Yep, the Dark Prince of alternative rock once practiced his fingerpicking chops on a tune approximately a thousand light years away from, say, “I’m Waiting for the Man”, which also features on the album. How postmodern is that?
Diehard fans of ol’ laughin’ Lou threw their Ray-Bans in the air with glee in 1995 when a small handful of pre-Velvet Underground demos were appended to the Peel Slowly and See boxed set. Words and Music, May 1965 is the same, but more so. The backstory is glorious. In an attempt to copyright his songs, Lou sent a tape to himself, intending to keep it dated and unopened, which he could use to challenge anyone who might try to plagiarize his work. Well, that worked pretty well, as it remained intact and forgotten until his death in 2013. When producer and archivist Don Fleming finally plucked up the courage to open the notarized envelope and load the tape onto a reel-to-reel, he was greeted with a collection of material that swings from the inconsequential to the essential.
Velvets fans will again be getting nonchalantly excited by the tracklisting of this beautifully archived release. Scratchy, diligently strummed versions of “I’m Waiting for the Man”, “Heroin”, and “Pale Blue Eyes”, with John Cale assisting, nestle uneasily between a Bob Dylan cover and a brace of traditional tunes. The real fun starts with the unreleased, original material. If you ever wanted to hear Lou Reed and John Cale pitch a song for the Kingston Trio, then “Buttercup Song” is for you. Cute, semi-spoken verses and a strident chorus tell a cautionary tale of the foolishness of falling in love, told from experience. It may be the only song in popular music to include the words “staminate”, “pistillate”, and “anthropologize” in its libretto. The lyric is dark, bleak, funny, and slightly redolent of Tom Lehrer. There aren’t too many tunes in Reed’s canon that you can say that about.
“Buzz Buzz Buzz” is a bluesy rocker and sounds like it could have been one of the tunes he wrote to order when working for Pickwick. It’s a bit of fluff, but it’s great fun. “Too Late” is woozy doo-wop. Cale and Reed look to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers for their inspiration and almost pull off a charming pastiche until a misguided boogie section throws both the performers off, and the song wobbles to a halt. One gets the feeling that both Reed and Cale may have recorded this after a few beers. Or similar.
Onething that strikese the listener about Words and Music is the sense of playfulness. Not a characteristic often associated with Mr. Reed. Songs like “Too Late” and “Stockpile” are almost jaunty, although the latter has a little hint of “White Light, White Heat” just under the surface. If, however, you want a glimpse of what was on the horizon for Reed, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” is it. John Cale intones the lyric and slaps an acoustic guitar, while Reed picks out a simple melody on his folk guitar. It’s as bleak, menacing, and minimal as any version of “Heroin”.
The market is awash with albums like Words and Music. They’re often beautifully packaged and sumptuous, offering multiple options for the curious consumer. A cynical observer may say that this is done to deflect the customer from the quality of the material – “It may be terrible, but it’s on orange vinyl!” Purchasers of this splendid collection get the best of all three worlds – it’s beautifully curated, it’s got some great music, and it’s a window into a world that Reed and Cale stepped away from a few months later. Reed swapped his acoustic guitar for a wayward electric model, quietly consigned “Micheal, Row the Boat Ashore” to the bottom of his setlist, and spent the next few years in a godless howl of anguish. The next time you see your mailman, give him a smile. Without the unwavering service of the USPS, the master tape of Words and Music may have been lost forever, becoming just another myth and legend in a career that has a surplus of both.