Lou Reed’s Final Look Back: Inside Massive New Box Set
In June 2013, just months before he died, Lou Reed sat down at Masterdisk studios in Manhattan with his friends and co-producers Hal Willner and Rob Santos to work on a project he'd longed to do: remastering his entire RCA and Arista solo catalog. Reed was an audio obsessive, and despite failing health, he came in day after day, savoring and scrutinizing his life's work – marveling at David Bowie's vocal arrangement on Transformer's "Satellite of Love"; pumping his fist to "Lady Day," from his dark song cycle, Berlin; submerging himself in the binaural sound recording of the space-jazz title track of The Bells. "He took so much joy rediscovering these records," Willner says. "Being able to sit there in the room with him while he was doing it – whew. I felt like the luckiest person in the world."
The remasters were intended for a lavish 17-disc box set to be released that fall – until Reed's condition worsened, and the project was put on hold. Following his death, archivists Don Fleming and Jason Stern worked with Reed's wife, Laurie Anderson, to complete the set's accompanying book, an 80-page LP-size hardcover volume full of memorabilia and rare photos (including a priceless one of a grinning Reed leading a vocal group at his high school variety show). The result, out now, is Lou Reed – The RCA & Arista Album Collection. Covering 1972 to 1986, it's an object lesson in how a record company should treat an artist's back catalog. "I'm glad we waited, because it came out better," says Santos.
The set appears to be a prelude to a rarities and outtakes project akin to Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series. There are years' worth of demos and orphaned songs in Reed's vault, though it's unclear exactly how much material exists. One starting point could be the wealth of unreleased live material: Santos says there has been talk of an expanded set of recordings from the 1973 show behind the live landmark Rock 'n' Roll Animal, and notes that the label "recorded a lot of shows for [the live 1978 set] Take No Prisoners." There are also two live albums omitted from the new box set, because Reed didn't consider them part of his catalog proper: the 1984 import Live in Italy, a ferocious outing with the late guitarist Robert Quine; and the 1975 label cash-grab Lou Reed Live.
The RCA & Arista Album Collection, however, appears to be Reed's final statement. Willner recalls the last day of remastering, after which he and Reed headed to Sirius Studios to record their New York Shuffle radio show. "We would never play Lou's music on the show," Willner says. But that day, they had the finished recordings for the box set with them, and their guest on the show, Orange Is the New Black actress Natasha Lyonne, suggested they play some of Reed's music. (Lyonne was a huge fan of Reed, and Reed was a huge fan of OITNB.) "Lou started saying things like, 'I can't believe we're getting to do this while I'm alive,'" Willner says. Lyonne recalled it as "the heaviest moment in my life."
"It was an incredibly emotional afternoon," Willner adds wistfully. "I never saw anyone who wanted to live so much."