A demo by Lou Reed of his famous song I’m Waiting For The Man has been discovered.
The track, about buying drugs from a dealer on a New York street corner, was released with The Velvet Underground in 1967.
Reed’s demo was recorded two years earlier, with an unknown male voice harmonising, and before the singer had found his distinctive, gravelly tone.
Archivists had “goosebumps” listening to the demo, which was unearthed, untouched for decades, on a reel-to-reel tape in what was once Reed’s study.
The US singer, songwriter and guitarist, whose hits included Walk On The Wild Side and Perfect Day, died aged 71 in 2013.
He first found fame with The Velvet Underground before launching a solo career and becoming one of the most influential names in rock and roll.
His widow and an archivist were sorting the musician’s belongings to donate his archive to the New York Public Library For The Performing Arts when they found the sealed object.
Judith Kampfner, who has produced a BBC Radio 4 show about Reed’s life and music, featuring a one-minute, eight-second “fragment” of the demo, airing for the first time on what would have been Reed’s birthday, said: “One of the last things they found on a shelf, behind his desk, behind a row of CDs was a tape.”
She told the Press Association: “It was completely sealed. They realised that this was something that Lou had sent to himself in 1965.”
Reed is thought to have sent the tape to his parents’ house in Long Island to secure what was then known as “a poor man’s copyright” – designed to register intellectual property.
“Maybe he had forgotten about it because it was never opened. It was in a box, sealed with tape,” Kampfner said.
The demo, the earliest known recording of the song, is “completely different” from the finished version loved by fans.
“It’s harmonised with another male voice … At the time Lou was working at Pickwick Music, having to write songs very, very fast for this record company, churning out music. It’s thought it’s one of his co-workers there.
“Obviously I’m Waiting For The Man is about going to meet your heroin dealer. Reed was trying to be gritty, writing a song about heroin, but (his tone) comes across as quite innocent.
“He was a very shrewd and fascinated observer of street life, the underbelly of New York, and that’s captured really well in that song…
“When the song comes out, Lou has found that gravelly, strong voice. This is very youthful and sounds more innocent.
“He knew what he wanted to say in the lyrics but he didn’t know how to say it musically. He hasn’t found his tone yet.”
The early demo could be released from the tape, which technicians initially struggled to get working.
Archivist Don Fleming tells the programme: “What you hear … is Lou’s still trying to figure it out…
“It’s not the rock-and-roll Lou that most people might want to hear or be expecting to hear. It’s hearing an artist developing.”
Archive On 4 programme Walking The Wild Mind will be presented by Suzanne Vega at 8pm on March 2 and will also be on the BBC Sounds app.