Don Fleming, rock musician (Gumball, Dinosaur Jr, Velvet Monkeys) and producer (Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Hole, Alice Cooper, Dictators, Joan Jett, Richard Hell) is also one of rock & roll’s preeminent archivists. In recent months, he helped organize Lou Reed’s massive archive. Michael Shelley spoke with him about the project and about his career in the trenches.
Don Fleming is one of rock & roll’s preeminent archivists. He’s a journeyman musician who seems most at home in the small overlap where Art Rock crosses paths with the more commercial portion of the music world. His approach can be heard on the many sessions he’s played on and the many bands he’s been a part of, including Gumball, a short stint in Dinosaur Jr, and his ever evolving Velvet Monkeys.
Don’s combined unique musical sensibilities and technical prowess were in high demand during the Grunge years when his resume as producer exploded, it includes work with Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Hole, The Posies, Alice Cooper, The Dictators, Joan Jett, The Smithereens and Richard Hell.
When Lou Reed died, his widow Laurie Anderson was faced with the task of figuring out what to do with his things. I imagine the personal objects were kept or given to close friends, and that it was the hundreds of boxes of career spanning paperwork, receipts and contracts and correspondence, that posed the problem. For most people that stuff would be junk, fodder for the recycling bin, but this was Lou Reed’s recycling! To solve the most basic questions of what was in all the boxes, and if it had value as historical documentation, Laurie enlisted some of Lou’s long time staff, and Don Fleming. After their painstaking cataloging and analysis a deal was reached with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center Plaza where the archive will be housed, open to fans and academics who are curious to have a look into the life of Lou Reed.
I spoke to Don Fleming about the process of archiving, what they found in all those boxes and what it all tells us about the man.
PKM: So how did you get into archiving?
Don Fleming: When I lived in D.C. in the early 1980s I had a job in a studio called The Cutting Corporation that did archival work. Jobs for the National Archives and Library of Congress. So I was trained there to do archival work, transferring acetate discs, cassettes and reel-to-reels. At one point I transferred all the tapes of the Kennedy assassination from ABC Radio’s twenty-four-hour broadcast. So it was a lot of historical material. World War II transmissions from Tokyo of some woman saying “Your wives are all cheating on you.” It was fascinating stuff. I always enjoyed that kind of work, but didn’t do it for many years. I’d heard about The Alan Lomax Archive and went to visit through a mutual friend and ended up working there, and still work there now. So that got me back into this kind of work and it came at a time when I was thinking, “We’ve had our good ride as a band on a major.” I was still producing but I could see the writing on the wall and felt like I’d like to do this archiving gig, so I still do those other things, but just not as reliant on them. In time that turned into other consulting work. I did some archiving of Hunter S. Thompson’s things and recently I’ve been working for the George Harrison estate and now with the Lou Reed estate.
PKM: So what’s your title for the Lou Reed project?
Don Fleming: Archivist. I’m just an archivist gun for hire.
PKM: Did you ever meet Lou Reed?
Don Fleming: Yes, I met Lou few times. I first met him when I was working with Moe Tucker. I played on a couple of Moe’s solo records in the early ‘90s and Lou came to those sessions to play guitar on a couple songs, so that’s really the first time I met him. One of those sessions I got him to sign my 8-tracks of Metal Machine Music and Berlin, which he found kind of amusing. I think a large part of my first impression of him was just really how much he loved Moe and what a cool friendship they had, and how he would do anything to help her. One of the studios we worked in was pretty terrible and the monitors were not very good and so on the second day Lou came he brought a set of headphones, that were like a $3,000 pair of headphones, for Moe to listen to the tracks in and he told her “Don’t listen to the speakers, only use these.” And only she could wear them, no one else was allowed to wear them. He just wanted to help her.
PKM: He died in 2013. How did you get involved in archiving the estate?
Don Fleming: A mutual friend of Laurie Anderson suggested me as someone who could help figure out what to do with Lou’s collection. So I met with Laurie and we just went from there trying to figure out what was in the collection and what to do with it.
PKM: How much material was there in terms of size?
Don Fleming: There was still Lou’s office, Sister Ray, and there was a lot of stuff there, so we had to go through that and box it up, catalog it and figure out what it was, but there was also two big storage areas that had several hundred boxes. At some point in the ‘70s when Lou had moved offices, they had just put all the boxes in storage and forgotten about them. That became the job. There were two rooms full of boxes and we didn’t know what was in a single one of them. So for the next year I would go in a day or two a week and work with these two guys who had worked with Lou, Jason Stern and Jim Cass, and the three of us would systematically go through every box and catalog what was there, and lay everything out on a desk and photograph it.
From the start Laurie wanted to find a home for the collection. That was really the idea: let’s figure out what we have, and figure out where it can go live.
I think a large part of my first impression of him was just really how much he loved Moe [Tucker] and what a cool friendship they had, and how he would do anything to help her.
PKM: Was it exciting going through these boxes?
Don Fleming: Oh, every day! Yeah! What we discovered was for the most part it was the business paperwork for his company Sister Ray, which was started in the ‘70s to be his touring company, and he kept absolutely everything! At one point I asked his sister Merrill “Why do you think Lou kept all these receipts?” and she said “My dad (who was a C.P.A.) always said to keep every receipt. I do the same thing. I know Lou heard it over and over and over, so he probably said, ‘Put them in a box and we’ll have them.’ ”
PKM: So what does it all tell us about him?
Don Fleming: What we found is such a great literal record of his activities as a performer and as a studio musician. You’ve got toll booth receipts from the middle of Ohio at 3 a.m. because they’re driving from one place to the next, so you’re able to document things in a way that you never would otherwise. There are envelopes stuffed with receipts. There are checks to the band members that are countersigned. To me that stuff is really fascinating.
PKM: Ninety-nine percent of the time, that stuff would have ended up in the trash, but it’s history.
Don Fleming: It goes beyond just being Lou’s work. It’s a look into how a 20th-century rock & roll artist functioned. There is lots of correspondence with record labels about the different releases and you get to see how it’s done, all the different things that go into putting out a record are all documented. One of the things I love is from 1989, he put out an album called New York and the label sent 15 binders full of photos from around the country that regional p.r. guys all did to show the album placement in retail stores. So you’ve got documentation of dozens and dozens of mom and pop record stores, that don’t exist anymore, with pictures of inside the store that these guys would take and glue into pages and send them to New York to the main office and then they gave all those to Lou’s manager to prove they’d gotten it placed in all these stores. Pictures of the album up on a wall and behind the counter and in the front window. It’s interesting as a Lou thing, but almost more interesting for somebody who wants to do research on record stores of that era. There are one-of-a-kind pictures of tons of weird little non-chain record stores.
PKM: So what percentage of stuff wasn’t saved for accounting or business purposes?
Don Fleming: There was a lot of correspondence, but not a ton of personal correspondence. There were probably thousands of photos of Lou that people sent to him, a lot of contact sheets. There are binders of press from tours.
PKM: Is that stuff a good window into his personality?
Don Fleming: I think it is on certain levels. In the back and forth of the correspondence, you would get to see his perspective on other people and how he felt about issues, and what kind of cultural and political things that he supported. There is a section of correspondence where he was complaining, or his manager is complaining, about the use of “Walk On The Wild Side” in a Colman’s Mustard ad. They got someone who sounded like Lou to sing the song, it was almost a parody.
It goes beyond just being Lou’s work. It’s a look into how a 20th-century rock & roll artist functioned.
PKM: Did he approve that?
Don Fleming: He did not approve it, but the label had, so they were sort of going after the label. So you get to see an insight into his day to day, and to me you think of these people who are rock stars or whatever, and their debauched lives, but what you see looking at this, is that Lou was dealing with the business of it every day.
PKM: Any surprises in the boxes?
Don Fleming: The surprises came in the form of some of the audio we found.
PKM: I’ve read that there are hundreds of hours of audio. That’s kind of a tease. Is it amazing unreleased stuff? Is it demos? What is it?
Don Fleming: There’s about six hundred hours of tapes that we have identified and transferred. He recorded a lot of his live shows. A lot of them are soundboard recordings and a lot of them are marked “binaural”. He was into the binaural head. He did a few albums that way and apparently used it to record live shows as well. He just put the head by the sound board. But more exciting, there are a lot of demos. A lot of him recording songs at home. Tapes of him recording songs when he left The Velvet Underground and was living back at his parents’ house.
PKM: What kind of setup did he have to make demos?
Don Fleming: A really cheap cassette deck. I’ve seen pictures and it’s just one of those small units with a flip-top. It’s not a pro unit, and they don’t sound pro, they sound rough, but it’s him playing songs for first time.
PKM: What’s the earliest recording you found?
Don Fleming: Lou in late 1963. It’s him doing folk songs. He was a huge Bob Dylan fan. He says on one of the tapes, where he’s at a poetry event, he talks about when Dylan came about how he wrote about real things, about real gritty life, and not just love songs, and Lou thought “I could try to do that too,” and that’s why he wrote “Heroin”. He came from a literary background. Delmore Schwartz was his big mentor in college, this big writer, and he wanted to be very literary in his songs and so Dylan was an inspiration. He covers “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on this tape, does it three times. It’s not dated but I’d estimate it was recorded shortly after the Dylan single came out in August of 1963.
PKM: Any other early recordings?
Don Fleming: The most fascinating thing of all is a package that was in his office on a shelf. It was a tape he had mailed to himself in 1965 to self-copyright some songs and it had never been opened. It was unopened on the shelf when we found it, and we didn’t open it until after the library acquired the collection because we weren’t sure really if we should, but eventually after talking it over with everyone we decided to carefully open it and make a transfer. It turned out to be eleven demos, where he is doing it for the purpose of copyright because before each one he says “Lyrics and music by Lou Reed.” I think four of the songs became Velvet Underground songs and then the rest of them didn’t and were unknown.
He saved his receipts, but didn’t save the lyrics he’d written.
PKM: So all of this is going to come out to the public soon?
Don Fleming: Yes, but it’s complicated. With most rock & roll contracts, whatever you recorded during the time you were signed to a label the label will claim as theirs. Whether or not they recorded it, they claim it as their master. So for some of the stuff we have to figure out who has the rights, but in the case of the 1965 demos, it was before he was signed to anybody, so those the estate would control.
PKM: Has anything been released already?
Don Fleming: The first thing we did was the book “Do Angels Need Haircuts?” (which comes with a 7” record), based on a cassette that Lou made of a poetry reading from 1971 in the year between when he left the Velvet Underground and when he did his first solo album.
PKM: In your opinion, how much of the audio should be released?
Don Fleming: Tons of stuff! For instance, from The Bottom Line show that came out as the live album “Take No Prisoners,” I think there are around forty hours of recordings.
PKM: So will every piece of paper be digitized and will people be able to look at it all online? Will every minute of audio be digitized?
Don Fleming: We digitized all of the original audio that we recognized and the idea is that people will be able to listen to it all at the library. From the beginning, Laurie wanted it to be something where the world can look at it and listen to it and get to it free.
PKM: Does the archive give us insight into Lou Reed that we didn’t already have?
Don Fleming: People who want to write about him will find things in there that are different than what you find in the typical books that have come out already. There have been some good books about Lou, but they haven’t had the advantage of looking at all this material, and I do think that a lot more will be revealed by people who can go in-depth there and look at it in that way.
PKM: It’s interesting that people can go and look at this primary material and draw their own conclusions. Is his LP collection in there?
Don Fleming: There are a lot of LPs that came from the Sister Ray office that are in there. Including a huge collection of Velvet Underground bootleg albums. He had somebody put together a huge binder of every known bootleg of Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. A lot of what was in there was just records people would give to him, just professional courtesy copies, and so some of them are opened and some weren’t, so you could draw a conclusion from that. Some or the records are still sealed, never listened to.
PKM: Was he out buying records for pleasure?
Don Fleming: He was a big doo wop fan and there were some doo wop box sets in there, and there were a lot of doo wop 45’s that looked very old and were in very old 45 boxes that looked like they had traveled for a while.
PKM: Any other personal stuff?
Don Fleming: There’s a whole bunch of VHS tapes that Doc Pomus gave him of boxing matches that Doc had taped off TV. They were both into boxing.
PKM: Lou was known for his confrontational side, his short temper and moodiness. Is there evidence of that side of his personality?
Don Fleming: There’s a bit of that just in the business correspondence, but you mostly see it in the videos of the interviews that he did with certain journalists, because it became a thing. I think journalists walked in to those interviews hoping to go at it. But in getting to know people in his inner circle, to them he was a mensch, a guy who would go out of his way to help people, who was caring and nice, and that was the Lou that they experienced on a day-to-day basis.
PKM: He was a famous guy who crossed paths with a lot of famous people. Is there a lot of cool famous-guy stuff in these boxes?
Don Fleming: There are letters from Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, David Letterman… but nothing that would indicate close personal relationships. There’s some Christmas cards from Moe Tucker, and everything that Moe ever wrote to Lou she started off with “Hello Honey Bun,” she called him Honey Bun always. So that’s something we learn from the collection.
PKM: Why is Lou Reed important?
Don Fleming: I think Lou is very important on a couple of levels. As a figure in the history of rock & roll, he plays a big part in what The Velvet Underground accomplished and their influence, which I think it was pretty major.
I think he was also important culturally. For many people he was their first encounter with gay culture and I think that it can’t be understated what that means to the evolution of the way people think about transsexuals or gay people. Lou didn’t hide that. He made it a part of his music and made it a part of his lyrics. He was just open enough about his life that it made an impact on people who had never experienced that kind of thing before. The fact that “Walk On The Wild Side” was such a big hit is still baffling in a lot of ways.
Also personally, I think he’s in the league of Dylan and Leonard Cohen just in terms of the way he wrote lyrics. It was a struggle for him to figure out if he was a writer or a poet… he didn’t really want to be a rock & roller, he wanted to be a writer and I think that for me, finding more and more in the collection that establishes that is an interesting thing. One thing we’ve found is a whole book of unpublished poetry he submitted to a publisher in the ‘70s that was rejected. So for me I want to explore that deeper. I’d like for us to try to put together a book of his complete poems. I feel like Lou is just important because he was a dynamic character who influenced a lot of people, but was one of these guys who created his own way, he didn’t really follow people so much.