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 an archivist, and Stern, who had worked for Reed, had been hired by Reed’s widow, the avant-garde musician and artist Laurie Anderson, to catalogue Reed’s archive, which she later donated to the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts. On a shelf behind Reed’s desk, amid Velvet Underground-related books and music, Fleming spotted what resembled a CD box. “I picked it up and said, ‘Oh, my God, this isn’t a CD,’ ” he said. It was a notarized, self-addressed package, to and from Lewis Reed at his parents’ address on Long Island; it appeared to contain a tape, and was postmarked May, 1965, when Reed was twenty-three, working as a songwriter at Pickwick Records, living with his parents, and busking on street corners with his new friend John Cale. “The Velvet Underground & Nico” would come out two years later.
Should they open it? They spent years deciding. “We were treating it like a relic,” Anderson said. They finally did, and the results, an album called “Words & Music: May 1965,” came out this month. The other day, Stern, Fleming, and Anderson met up at the library to reënact their first listen; they gathered around a laptop in a conference room near an exhibition of the archive, which features everything from Reed’s Max’s Kansas City bar tab to a “Transformer” Christmas sweater. Fleming, sixty-four, has black glasses and freewheeling white hair; Stern, thirty-six, is long-haired and affable; Anderson, seventy-five, has softly spiky gray hair and wore flowered sneakers that she’d picked up in France. “I’ve been on a travelling jag,” she said: the Camargue; the Acropolis, to perform (“improv 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 playback process; anticipation was high. “We’re excited, we’re nervous,” Stern said. “What if it’s a duplicate? What if it’s a dud?” At the library, they cued up 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 another one existed.” The “Berlin” song has a righteous, aggressive vibe (“Men of good fortune often cause empires to fall / While men of poor beginnings often can’t do anything at all”); the early “Men” takes a gentler approach, with strummed acoustic guitar. “My dear mother told me / an old maid I’d be,” Reed sang. Anderson put her hand to her heart. “ ’Less men of good fortune came courtin’ for me.”
“It sounds like a Greenwich Village folk song, or an old British ballad,” Fleming said.
“In the voice of a young girl who’s twirling around in her new dress,” Anderson said. Reed played melancholy notes and sang of pretty red dresses with pretty red bows, of town boys and drunkards and dying alone. “It sounds like fifteen-thirties Yorkshire,” Anderson said, as Reed busted into a harmonica solo.
“In retrospect, there couldn’t have been a more confusing first track,” Stern said.
“He’d seen Dylan in late ’64, at Syracuse, and his band there covered Dylan songs,” Fleming said. Reed’s version of writing about Dylan-esque “real things,” Fleming said, was writing “Heroin.” On the tape, “Heroin” was next. The version the world knows is a seven-minute experimental symphony of craving, urgency, anguish, and satisfaction, driven by electric viola and chaos; this one is quiet folk. The tape proceeds apace. “The Buttercup Song,” an elusive V.U. track, went over big. “I was, like, ‘This is that song that everyone thinks is lost!’ ” Stern recalled. “We’re on a roll!” Reed and Cale, in rollicking goof-harmony—“It’s getting very music hall,” Anderson said—advise the listener to “never get emotionally involved / with a man, a woman, a beast, or a child,” and Reed sings of the botany of the “androgynous small buttercup.”
“I love the idea of them singing this on a street corner, people walking by,” Fleming said. In an acoustic, bluesy “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Cale, Welsh and elegant-sounding as ever, does the “Oh, pardon me, sir” part of the dialogue.
“They really seem familiar with the material—they’re joking, improvising a bit, comfortable with the songs,” Fleming said.
The deluxe version of “Words & Music” includes a copy of a 1965 letter that Reed wrote to his mentor, the poet Delmore Schwartz, describing his life in New York: songwriting, avoiding the draft, meeting Cale, “a starving viola player.” “It’s a treasure,” Anderson said. “He trusted Delmore so much, told him everything.”
The tape “makes me laugh every single 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 that literary and that adventurous and that kooky.” And who didn’t end up an old maid. ♦