Sandy Pearlman and I used to drive into Manhattan from Stony Brook for every Exploding Plastic Inevitable Velvet Underground show in 1966 and ’67. When Sandy wasn’t around, I’d take the Long Island Railroad. I think we were first interested in Andy Warhol’s movies but right from the first gig, we became ardent Velvets fans. The Dom (Electric Circus) on St Mark’s Place in the East Village became a kind of second home. I would meet artists hanging out there and hire them to come back and play at Stony Brook, teenage Jackson Browne and 20 year old Tim Buckley being 2 of my favorites. Bizarrely, I was never able to get a show together with the Velvets; I don’t remember why. Jackson lived on the campus for a while and I helped get him a gig as the lead singer with the Soft White Underbelly (the precursor to Blue Oyster Cult). I gave Tim $50 to open for The Doors. He was doing songs like Wings, She Is, Strange Street Affair Under Blue and Grief In My Soul. I loved his music. Too bad it was never as influential as the Velvet Underground.
I never asked Lou if he ever met Tim. I know he met Jackson since they each had affairs with Nico and were both close with Danny Fields. It wasn’t until many years after that I actually got to meet and befriend Lou. Seymour Stein signed him to Sire, where I was general manager. Lou had been having a tough time commercially-- from The Bells (1979) and Growing Up In Public (1980), his last two Arista records, and then the RCA releases, The Blue Mask (1982), Legendary Hearts (1983), New Sensations (1984, which had some commercial success with I Love You Suzanne) and Mistrial (1986, which also had some commercial success with The Original Wrapper.) But he didn't have any strong relationships at RCA any longer and split from the label.
Seymour signed him in 1989 and the first album, New York was a real success, with Dirty Blvd hitting #1 on the Billboard alterntaive rock chart and the album going gold in the U.S. and several other countries. He was a favorite at Warner Bros, basically the top priority in several departments and with several people who prioritized him above any other artist.
Out of the blue, Bill Clinton’s social secretary called me and asked me to bring Lou Rawls to a state banquet at the White House (2015). A lot of back and forth finally determined that the artist in question was my Lou, not Clinton’s. You can read about the whole experience— including the night's menu— here. And if you want to hear a bit of Lou at the state dinner, he comes on around the 23 minute spot (“Sweet Jane”) on this White House tape:
Lou recorded Songs for Drella (1990), Magic and Loss (1992), Set the Twilight Reeling (1996), Ecstasy (2000), The Raven (2003) and Animal Serenade (2003) for us. They were all brilliant albums, though none commercially very successful. The bean counters in New York were delighted to see me retire so they could drop Lou. When he died in 2013, I wrote an obit.
Yesterday, John Lingan, reporting for the Washington Post, wrote about the latest release of Lou’s music, Words & Music: May 1965. The blunt rock-and-roll catharsis and stark lyrical realism that defined Lou’s career, he wrote, “spanned decades of continual aesthetic reinvention from his first act with the Velvet Underground all the way to his death from liver disease in 2013. But a new collection, “Words & Music: May 1965,” the first of a planned archival series from Light in the Attic Records, captures this perpetually evolving, consistently transgressive artist in the unlikeliest guise of all: folkie tunesmith. The release comprises acoustic demos of some of Reed’s best-known songs, including ‘Heroin’ and ‘I’m Waiting for the Man,’ a couple of lesser-known treasures such as ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,’ and a handful that have never been released in any form. Though they feature his Velvet Underground partner and on-and-off musical foil John Cale on harmonies and accompanying instrumentation, these homemade recordings predate the duo’s earliest full-band sessions and have none of the Velvets’ fearless spaciousness and avant-garde ambitions. This is an intimate document of two newfound friends discovering a sound that would shape countless musicians and styles in their wake. For fans, and for the multiple generations who revere Reed as a creative, even philosophical lodestar, Words & Music is something like a previously undiscovered early draft of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”
Words & Music was produced in partnership with Reed’s archivists and his widow, the esteemed musician and theater artist Laurie Anderson. She and Reed met in the 1990s and became a kind of living New York landmark for the final two decades of his life— inseparable twin geniuses representing entirely different realms of the Manhattan creative world. Speaking by Skype, Anderson says the May 1965 tape “sounds exactly like the Lou I knew. It’s the ghost of a very ambitious young man who was working songs out. He’s laughing, he’s poking around. It’s the same person. You can hear someone taking chances.”
Reed was an exemplary chance-taker in his life and art, which is why Words & Music can’t be dismissed as mere juvenilia. Yes, it features the earliest iterations of his defining work, but it also captures him at a moment and in a setting that even the deepest devotee has never experienced. And with Reed, moments and settings are everything. Before he was a black-clad denizen of the Warhol demimonde, a punk progenitor, a dog-collared violator of sexual boundaries, a critic-baiting chronicler of New York deviancy, a defiantly “average guy” stadium rocker, a collaborator with Metallica, an interpreter of Edgar Allan Poe, and finally, an elder statesman with a yen for tai chi and meditation, Reed was simply a young man with a guitar and an armload of disparate influences. He was an English major, a Dylan fan and, above all, a writer.
Lou was 23 when he and John Cale recorded this just-released earliest version of “Heroin.”