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Lou Reed Papers: Recordings Known & Unknown

The Hidden Corners of the Lou Reed Papers

The Post-Warhal Era

The Velvet Underground, Recordings Known & Unknown

Two months after The Velvet Underground & Nico album was released in March 1967, the touring multimedia happening Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which had been a vehicle for the Velvet Underground, came to an end. It, their collaboration with Nico, and their management by Andy Warhol all were concluded within a month. The Velvet Underground would grow out from under the wing of Warhol and the Factory, and would finally proved themselves.

From March 1967 until August 1970 the Velvet Underground would become famous by haunting two venues, their favorite home-away-from-home the Boston Tea Party in Boston, MA, and the downtown pre-CBGB era club Max's Kansas City, Manhattan, NY; and by releasing 4 albums that together created a fulcrum upon which all of Rock Music was pivoted, one so mythicized that Brian Eno famously said...

 I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!

VU section of LP Wall in Lou Reed Exhibit

Velvet Underground Gems

There are many unique, original, and/or rare tapes of Lou Reed, John Cale, and the Velvet Underground made between 1965-1970 in the Lou Reed Papers. All have been digitized but many may only be available by appointment. Take a look at the Finding Aid for a comprehensive list of all materials in Recordings section of the Lou Reed Papers.

As of writing, available in the NYPL Digital Collections are 23 recordings from this time period that can easily be accessed onsite and without an appointment. 12 of these are credited to Velvet Undergrounds.

Here are a couple of the highlights!

Lou Reed and John Cale 1965 Demo Tape

A year before the Velvet Underground even stepped foot into a studio, Lou Reed had already written many songs that would appear on the their next three albums. One of the most remarkable tapes in the Lou Reed Papers contains a recording of Lou Reed documenting, in his native audio format, the words and music that would become synonymous with himself and the Velvet Underground.

In the words of Don Fleming and Jason Stern, co-curators of "Lou Reed: Caught Between The Twisted Stars", the NYPL exhibit that was the first place this tape and audio was shared with the world, 

One of the remarkable items in the Lou Reed collection is a small 5” reel-to-reel tape box that was found still sealed in a notarized package that Reed had mailed to himself on May 11, 1965. The package was addressed to and had the return address of his parents’ home in Long Island, using his proper name, Lewis. The postmark on the package was from the Baldwin, NY post office, just a mile from his parents’ house. Reed had grown up here and was living at home again after graduating from Syracuse University in June 1964. The package showed a post office “Registration” number of #3827. The 5” tape box inside was a Scotch 111 tape, an inexpensive and popular tape stock for home recording with portable reel-to-reel recorders.

The notary public’s official stamp and signature was made by Harry Lichtiger, the local pharmacist at Nassau Chemists in Baldwin, near the post office. Mailing songs to yourself in a sealed, notarized envelope was considered a “poor man’s copyright.” It was an easier and cheaper way to prove that you had written songs by a particular date without filling out all the forms and paying fees to the United States Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.

Reed never opened the package. It was found neatly filed and still sealed, on a bookshelf just behind his desk at Sister Ray Enterprises. Eventually it was unsealed and transferred, revealing Reed’s earliest versions of “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” as well as six other, mostly unheard, original songs. John Cale had at the time just recently met Reed and the two sing folky harmonies over Reed’s acoustic guitar and harmonica performance. Around this time the two of them were occasionally busking in the NY streets. It would take several months for the Velvet Underground to form and their sound to eventually coalesce.

- Don Fleming & Jason Stern, curators

Lou Reed: Caught Between the Twisted Stars

1965, Revived

Consider this... (A note about bootlegs)

It has been a general assumption that, especially in the age of the internet, every recording of Lou Reed and/or the Velvet Underground ever made has been distributed, legally or illegally (i.e. as bootlegs), and heard thousands or millions of times. Starting in 1965 Lou Reed struck chords with his listeners, inspiring a fan base loyal and long lasting, who are interested in exploring every aspect of the artist's work.

The Lou Reed & John Cale 1965 Demo Tape, on the other hand, was sealed away in an envelope and not opened or even heard between May 1965 and when it was unsealed by Don Fleming and Jason Stern in 2017. This gave it an extraordinary potential, with the possibility of it becoming a key item of Lou Reed's history. However it was not an unknown entity - those in the know, like Fleming and Stern, already knew of the tape sitting on Lou Reed's home office shelf. They doubted it could be of any great rarity since, as mentioned above, most other known recording had already been reproduced, bootlegged, and shared.

Further obfuscating the matter was that later the same day the demo tape was postdated, May 11th 1965, there is a known recording session at Pickwick Records which included Lou Reed, John Cale, and either Jerry Vance of Jimmie Sims. This website contains more details on that recording. This resulted in the initial assumption that the unopened demo may be simply a formal documentation of this known one.

Once this tape was unsealed, and fed through the tape player, Fleming and Stern recognized it's rarity and looked for ways to share it with the world. Record label Light in the Attic has since released Words & Music, May 1965, containing 11 of the 19 tracks remastered and released for the first time.

Lou Reed & John Cale writing session featuring Nico, Dec. 1966

The Lou Reed Papers contains many 1/4-inch open reel tapes that attest to the every-day recording life of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. This particular tape, where Lou Reed and John Cale work together on a never-released song called "Ondine", is a great example of their collaborative process.

At 01:10:30 in the recording you hear Reed and Cale going over a piano part, with brief input from Nico.

Initially dated to the latter half of Reed and Cale's collaboration, recently the recording has been identified as having occurred during the The Velvet Underground & Nico period, specifically December 1966 the month following the album's studio sessions.


Velvet Underground Rehearsal and Interview Tape, 1967

Another wonderful peek into the song writing process of the Velvet Underground, this tape contains recordings that touch upon every aspect of the groups' second album.

(Lou Reed Papers)

A SIDE: Guitar Piece/Steinway Hall [Rehearsal]

  • 00:00 - tape starts with Lou Reed talking to the Tape Recorder and then at Moe Tucker as they get into a cab.
  • 01:22 - Tremolo Viola, presumably John Cale.
  • 09:43 - "Sweet Mama" jam, a never-released song.
  • 14:14 - Noise jam

B SIDE: Acoustic Guitar/Chicago [interview]

  • 00:00 - Acoustic guitar pieces
  • 11:23 - John Cale over the telephone
  • 11:40 - "Time has come to whispers of itself..." poem read by John Cale over the telephone
  • 13:55 - Interview with Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison
  • 25:04 - Piano & Vocals
  • 27:32 - "Stephanie Says" rehearsal

From the shaping of electric instrumental improvisation found in White Light/White Heat's "Sister Ray", to the interview where the band lays out their core philosophies, this tape offers great incite into the workings of the group, not to mention some classic Lou Reed monologizing that became emblematic of his then-nascent solo persona.


Velvet Underground - Loaded, Studio Session Outtakes, 1970

AUDIO: Rif Tape 3 [Velvet Underground -Loaded -- Studio Session Outtakes]

Side A Side B
1. Who Loves The Sun 1. New Age (continued)
2. Cool It Down (No Vocals) 2. Lonesome Cowboy Bill
3. Cool It Down (Incomplete) 3. Head Held High
4. I'm Sticking With You 4. Head Held High
5. Rock & Roll 5. Lonesome Cowboy Bill
6. Sweet Jane (Incomplete) 6. Oh! Sweet Nuthin'
7. Lonesome Cowboy Bill  
8. New Age (Incomplete)


Recorded some time in mid-1970 you can hear the Velvet Underground working out Loaded with producer Geoff Haslam (with the English accent). This might just be some of clearest and cleanest Velvet Underground audio ever recorded.

In the song "I'm Sticking With You", which will later become beloved but is here just an outtake, we can hear Moe Tucker's voice. Due to her maternity requiring her to step away from the drums for these sessions it is one of the only times we hear Tucker anywhere related to the recording of Loaded. Another voice you hear is Doug Yules falsetto at the start of this take of "Rock & Roll".

A fascinating look into the future, this alternative take of "Sweet Jane" starts with a Funk feel that is immediately reminiscent of Lou Reed's mid-'70s solo sound, particularly as heard on Coney Island Baby (1974).

Velvet on Wax

The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Lou Reed's personal copy of Velvet Underground & Nico. Note the non-airbrushed back cover photograph, and the missing banana sticker.

(Lou Reed Papers)

Produced by Andy Warhol, with the help of Tom Wilson who produced the first track "Sunday Morning", this was the Velvet Underground's, and Nico's, first album. Beyond a being a simple record producer and press boon, Warhol drummed up funding for the album, allowing them to record 4 days in mid-April of 1966. By May Warhol had shopped the album to MGM Records owned Verve Records who funded 2 more days of recording. Tom Wilson then stepped in and for one last session, in November 1966, to record "Sunday Morning". After nearly a year of recording, The Velvet Underground & Nico was finally released in March 1967. While Lou Reed was the only musician of the group who had released anything before - once with The Jades in his teenage years, and once with The Primitives just two years prior - this was a first for all the musicians involved to record with a serious band, with money and real expectations behind it.

Reportedly only 30,000 copies sold but Rock, Punk, Post-Punk, Alternative, New Wave, No Wave, Anti-Folk bands - musicians of all stripes really - would credit as a seminal the influence that first album.

In Lou Reed's March 3rd 1989 interview with Kurt Loder, he describes Andy Warhol's role its success:

I honestly don't think these things could have occurred without Andy. He had an incredible ability to make things happen, to be a catalyst. He produced our first record in the sense that he was there, breathing, in the studio. But he did just that. He made it possible for us to make a record without anybody changing it. Because Andy Warhol was there. ... That's how a lot of those songs came out like "Heroin", "Sister Ray", and "Venus in Furs". 

Cover Art

Andy Warhol designed the cover, demanded the banana on the sticker be an actual sticker (which pushed back the release date), and lent his name prominently to the front cover of the album just as he had done for the Velvet Underground's live appearances. Famously the cover art ran into legal trouble when, after the first run of record sleeves were printed, actor and member of the Warhol's Factory Eric Emerson recognized his face on the back cover.

The original back cover includes a photograph of the Velvet Underground and Nico performing at an Exploding Plastic Inevitable event where, projected over them and visible in the photo, was Warhol-shot footage of Emerson upside-down. He threatened to sue Verve Records for unauthorized use of his likeness and, instead of compensating him Verve halted album production. The copies that had already been produced had black stickers applied to them, obscuring the top portion of the offending photograph, and all consequent pressings were Emerson airbrushed out of the photograph.



White Light/White Heat (1968)





Lou Reed's personal copy

(Lou Reed Collection of Published Media)

Anchored by the 17 minute long "Sister Ray," White Light/White Heat took the experimentation of the Velvet Underground way further than Velvet Underground & Nico. Produced entirely by Tom Wilson in a hands-off approach resembling that of Andy Warhol's, it was recorded in 3 days during September 1967. Released on January 30th, 1968, it followed less than year after it's predecessor and only spawned one single, White Light/White Heat / Here She Comes Now released November 1967.

Cover Art

While this release no longer had the silent authority and blessing of Andy Warhol, his shadow extended over it. On some pressings of White Light/White Heat it is hard to see but the album cover art is actually a black-on-black image of a skull tattoo on actor Joe Spencer. The image of the tattoo was pulled from a negative from the Warhol film Bike Boy (1967). The concept for the cover is credited to Warhol and the manipulation of the negative is credited to Billy Name, another key member of The Factory.

In an interview featured in the 1997 PBS American Masters episode "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart", Reed explained,

[White Light/White Heat] was probably the speediest album there was. Really cranked up. The engineer left - one of the engineers said "I don't have to listen to this. I'll put it on record and I'm leaving. When you're done come and get me"

The White Light/White Heat studio time was characterized by the needle being in the red - the music was played so loud, with such ferocity and abandon, that the distortion heard on the album could not be chalked up to simple pedal and amplifier affects. The distortion you hear is the consequence is the band hitting and exceeding the limits of recording technology.

As to the "why" of White Light/White Heat, in a 1996 televised interview on the Spanish language show Lo + Plus Reed joked:

I'm always asked for explanations - every year - for why I wrote White Light/White Heat and every year I lie.

John Cale, in an interview for the 2003 British documentary Curious... The Velvet Underground In Europe, explained further about where the band was when they worked on White Light/White Heat:

The album was very much thrown together. Most of it happened on the road. That was at about the time that the incoherence of our thinking about where the band should go started laying claim to a lot of our time. When you go on the road and you suddenly realize the people who were opening for you 6 months ago are now on the charts and they are headlining and you are still struggling around the country... not having Exploding Plastic Inevitable, not having Andy Warhol, but now being a road band who's having difficulty booking themselves in the kind of venues they've been used it. ... All of that stuff ended up eating away at us, and was part of the slow erosion of our music camaraderie.

The Lou Reed Papers has an unedited recording of the Lou Reed interview for BBC Radio 3's Mixing It which aired May 18, 2003. In it they listen to the song "White Light/White Heat" and Lou Reed jokes,

What an extraordinary piano that is! Who's doing that? That's me an Cale sitting at the piano together when we got along. That's a four handed piano believe it or not.

After which Reed was asked whether he knew the song "White Light/White Heat" would be so influential:

Not for an instant. I love the Velvet Underground, I love those songs that I wrote for the Velvet Underground, I love how we did them. The Velvet Underground was a result of four distinct personalities working together. When Cale wasn't there and Yule was there that's another version of the Velvet Underground.



The Velvet Underground (1969)





Lou Reed's personal copy

(Lou Reed Collection of Published Media)

The eponymous 3rd album, The Velvet Underground, commonly known as "the 3rd album", was recorded November-December 1968, released in March 1968, and represented a major shift for the band. After John Cale's ouster, Velvet Underground manager Steve Sesnick brought on Doug Yule to fill his shoes.

Between Reed's inclination to a more mainstream Rock & Roll sound, and Yule's necessarily less experimental nature than Cale, the Velvet Underground took a major step towards a more accessible sound. This is the first album to contain only songs written by Reed and is perhaps most notable for track 4 "Pale Blue Eyes", one of his most beloved and lauded songs. It does still contains one song, "The Murder Mystery", that at nearly 9 minutes long, the frenetic guitar and organ, and with imbalanced vocal duet after duet, harkens back the experimentations of the previous release.

Cover Art, Billy Name, and a final collaboration with the Factory

Serving almost as a reminder of the groups origins the album cover for The Velvet Underground is a photograph of the band sitting in Andy Warhol's Factory on the famous couch that hosted many underground luminaries of the time. The photo was taken by Factory photographer and Archivist Billy Name, who was a close Warhol collaborator in this period. Name, who had also worked with Warhol on the Velvet Underground's previous album cover, appears a couple of notable places in the Lou Reed Papers. One of the most unique things in Reed's collection is attributed to Name and it was gifted to Reed many years after the Velvet Underground broke up and Name and Warhol split ways.

In 1994 Billy Name gave to Lou Reed a complete astrological Birth Chart of Reed. The chart at first appears complex and arcane but with a trained eye, parallels to Reeds life can be found. To better understand this, the library spoke with such an expert and you can read about her findings in the NYPL blog article Lou Reed’s Astrology Chart: What Does It Say?.

This would prove to be the last major collaboration between the Factory and the Velvet Underground.

Loaded (1970)

Recorded between April - August 1970, Loaded, the Velvet Underground's 4th album, was the last studio album released with Lou Reed. By the time of its release in November 1970, Reed had quit the group, and within the year, the rest of the original lineup would follow. Because of this and an apparent dissatisfaction with the remaining band member Doug Yule, to fans Loaded is commonly said to be the Velvet Underground's final album, though in fact there was one last Velvet Underground studio album, the 1973 Polydor release Squeeze.

Loaded contains some of the most iconic Velvet Underground or Lou Reed songs ever released, including tracks 2 and 3: "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll". Both of these songs maintained a consistent place in Lou Reed's live set list for the rest of his career, and an even larger place in the American zeitgeist, where they, secondarily only to Lou Reed's later solo hit "Walk on the Wild Side", became audio shorthand for the songwriter. At the time, however, Loaded general underperformed - it did not chart in the US, nor did it have strong sales.

Lastly, we have a unique example of a gem of the Lou Reed Papers playing an immediate role in Velvet Underground history.

Live at Max's Kansas City (1972)

Cassette recording of last Lou Reed VU performance





A reliable and popular haunt of the Velvet Underground, Max's Kansas City was a restaurant and nightclub at 213 Park Avenue South in Manhattan, that operated from 1965-1981. It was here where the group's most famous live album would incidentally be recorded, and where, on Sunday August 23rd, 1970, Lou Reed would quit the band. 

During July and August 1970, months before their next album Loaded (1970) would be released, the Velvet Underground had a 9-week engagement at Max's Kansas City, playing two sets per night. At least one of these performances were recorded by Brigit Polk (a.k.a. artist and Warhol Superstar Brigid Berlin), using a portable cassette recorder. If you can listen carefully to these recordings you hear the audience, Polk and others speaking over the band, suggesting that she was not intending these recordings to be released. Evidently Polk was in the habit of recording audio everywhere she went. Fortunately on August 23rd, Polk was in attendance, and recording. 

As the story goes, after this set, Lou Reed packed up his guitar, walked straight off stage, and stepping directly into is fathers waiting car. His father drove him home to Free Port, Long Island, where he renounced not only the band he co-founded 6 years prior, but also his music career as a whole.

Cassette dated August 23 1970 - last Lou Reed performance with the Velvet Underground


The original audio cassette tape recorded by Brigit Polk.

(Lou Reed Papers)



Later in 1970, Danny Fields, then an A&R man for Atlantic heard Polk's recordings and convinced Atlantic to acquire them. This allowed Atlantic to, nearly 2 years later give them an official release

By mid 1972 Atlantic Records still had a two album contract with the Velvet Underground that had been signed back in early 1970. Now with the driving force behind the group, Lou Reed, no longer around, and the 1st of their two releases, Loaded, having only had weak sales, they got cold feet.

Instead of waiting for the Velvet Underground, now headed by Doug Yule, to record a 2nd studio album, Atlantic decided to release the archived audio of the August 23rd concert as a live album. Released in May 1972 The Velvet Underground Live at Max's Kansas City would prove to be the only live album released while the band, in any configuration, was together.

More about Bootlegs

Lou Reed & Velvet Underground bootlegs on displayBootlegs at the Library

As a side effect of archiving materials from and about modern and contemporary recording artists, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts often finds itself housing collections of commercially released recordings that the artists collected, but are not exactly archival objects yet for reasons still need to be kept separate circulating materials. One reason might be that use of a recording, the classic example being LP records, could damage it. Another reason that is not often considered, might be that the original creation of the material was not legal and therefore giving access to it might be problematic.

In this case, accompanying the Lou Reed Papers is the Lou Reed Collection of Published Media; and for the Salvatore Mercuri Velvet Underground Collection is the Salvatore Mercuri Lou Reed Collection. This separation allows the library to document and maintain the dozens of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground bootlegged (reproduced and/or distributed in disregard of existing copyright) records that show up in our collections but would normally not have any place in a public library system.

(Lou Reed Papers)

Bootleg Lou Reed & Velvet Underground records on display at Library for the Performing Arts.

(Lou Reed Collection of Published Media, Salvatore Mercuri Lou Reed Collection)