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'Words & Music' offers 15 demos Lou Reed recorded as a fledgling artist

SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Lou Reed, who died in 2013, would have been 80 this year. In part to commemorate that, some crucial, previously unreleased music by Reed has just been issued. Titled "Words & Music, May 1965," it features 15 demos Reed recorded as a fledgling singer-songwriter who, just two years later, would lead the Velvet Underground into rock 'n' roll history. The album includes what are the earliest known versions of what would become some of The Velvet Underground's best-known songs like "I'm Waiting For The Man," "Heroin" and "Pale Blue Eyes." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PALE BLUE EYES (MAY 1965 DEMO)")

LOU REED: "Pale Blue Eyes." Words and music, Lou Reed. (Playing guitar, singing) Sometimes, feel so happy. Sometimes, I feel so sad. Sometimes, I feel so happy. But, baby, you just make me mad. Baby, you just make me mad. Linger on, you pale blue eyes. Linger on, your pale blue eyes.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Lou Reed plucking at an acoustic guitar and singing in an earnest croak. His future Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale sings harmony on the chorus. In 1965, Reed was 23 years old and freshly graduated from Syracuse University where he'd come under the sway of his poet professor Delmore Schwartz. Reed had played in rock bands since he was a teenager, and now he had a job in New York churning out cheesy tunes for the pop song factory Pickwick Records. He was, in other words, both an idealistic artist and a cynical pro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M WAITING FOR THE MAN (MAY 1965 DEMO)")

REED: (Singing) I'm waiting for the man, $26 dollars in my hand. Up to Lexington, 1-2-5. Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive. I'm waiting for the man.

TUCKER: On that demo in 1965, Reed sounds like a folk singer suffering an existential crisis. It's a far cry musically from what the song would sound like less than two years later on the fully formed debut album of The Velvet Underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M WAITING FOR THE MAN")

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND: (Singing) I'm waiting for my man, $26 in my hand. Up to Lexington, 1-2-5. Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive. I'm waiting for my man.

TUCKER: In 1965, Reed was clearly concentrating on lyrics more than melodies. He was working through his key influences - the garrulous rush of beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the high-and-low lyricism of Delmore Schwartz and doo wop on the woozy "Buttercup Song," he mingles William Blake with Bob Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTERCUP SONG (MAY 1965 DEMO)")

REED: (Singing) Never get emotionally involved with a man or woman or beast or a child, with cobblestone streets or subway turnstiles cars, and by World War III, the people of that. Well, I got this friend, and I'll tell you, man, he's real hip, (inaudible) - baby, that is his bit. But never once - woo - does he ever blow his cool because he always follows his wondrous golden rule. Oh, and never get emotionally involved...

TUCKER: When he made these demos, Reed was living with his parents on Long Island. He introduces each of the songs by saying, words and music, Lou Reed, and mailed a copy of the resulting tapes to himself. The government postmark served as what was then known as the poor man's copyright. He knew, or at least hoped, he was protecting gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN (MAY 1965 DEMO)")

REED: (Singing) I know just where I'm going. I'm going to try for the kingdom if I can 'cause you know it makes me feel that I'm a man when I put the spike into my vein. Then you know things aren't quite the same when I'm rushing from my run and I feel like Jesus' son. And I guess I just don't know. And I guess that I just don't know. I have made a big decision. I'm going to nullify my life. 'Cause when the blood begins to flow, when it squirts up the dropper's neck and the smack goes and hits my blood. When I'm closing in on death and my head begins to grow, you can't help me, not you girls or you guys with all your talk. You can all go take a walk. And I guess that I just don't know. And I guess that I just don't know.

TUCKER: That is fundamental Lou Reed, the song "Heroin" in its earliest known recorded version. Its devastatingly casual description of an underworld of pain is startling. This collection is the first of what is being called the Lou Reed archive series, overseen by, among others, Reed's widow, the multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. She said to The Washington Post that, for her, the importance of this album is that, quote, "any kid starting a band, anyone can now hear him searching around." I like the way that puts an inspirational spin on some of rock's most beautifully pessimistic music.

BRIGER: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "Words & Music, May 1965," a new collection of unreleased music by Lou Reed. On tomorrow's show, the growing water crisis in the American West. Forty million people rely on water from the Colorado River, but overuse and global warming have combined to create a water emergency. Tough choices must be made soon, or farms and cities will face critical shortages. We'll speak with Abrahm Lustgarten, who covers the issue for ProPublica. Join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ALONE (MAY 1965 DEMO)")

REED: (Singing) When you walk, when you walk, you know you got to walk alone.

BRIGER: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Sam Briger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.