I’m Waiting For the Man

September 24, 2009


I’m Waiting For the Man.

In early December 1966, Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt took Andy Warhol to lunch. Pitt was in New York on a junket and was interested in Warhol’s “house” group, the Velvet Underground, having designs on being their UK promoter. Warhol stared, made gnomic statements, let Pitt pay for lunch and agreed to let Pitt promote the VU at his own expense (nothing ever came of it). So Warhol gave Pitt an acetate of The Velvet Underground and Nico. When Pitt returned to London a few weeks later, he in turn gave the disc to Bowie, who immediately fell in love.

In particular with side 1, track 2: “I’m Waiting for the Man.” So far in his career, it’s been hard to find any passionate influences in Bowie’s music, in the way of a performer being in awe of a predecessor and so needing to find means to honor and overcome them (viz.: Dylan with Woody Guthrie, Keith Richards with Chuck Berry, Clapton with Robert Johnson, etc.). But now, all at once, Bowie had found Lou Reed.

Bowie’s first reaction upon discovering the VU was to proselytize: he later claimed that the day after he first heard Velvet Underground and Nico he began to cover its songs and so was the first person to perform “Waiting For the Man” live in the UK, months before the VU record even came out in America. (“Now that’s the essence of Mod,” Bowie boasted.)

He also decided to record a cover of “Waiting For the Man” while finishing up his debut LP. The result is an exercise in cross-Atlantic sonic dilution: Reed and Sterling Morrison’s dirty wall of guitars are replaced in part by a wheezing harmonica and a saxophone mainly repeating two riffs. Worse is the demotion of the piano to mere chirpy accompaniment: in the VU track, John Cale’s spike-driving percussive playing is the sinew and the heart of the piece, the agitated pulserate underneath the singer’s cold reportage. And the studio drummer’s no Mo Tucker. It’s a pretty atrocious combination and the track was wisely scrapped.

Bowie’s vocal is fascinating mainly in that it’s a shameless attempt (and a fairly decent one, it should be said) to imitate Reed’s deadpan New York singing—though there’s some Dylan mixed in there as well.

Bowie latched on to “Waiting for the Man” because, he said later, it felt real, it felt like a dispatch from the street—one that made Bowie’s own attempts at realism, like “London Boys,” seem like the work of a child. But of course Reed himself was pure middle class, a college graduate who had recorded doo-wop as a teenager and who only a year before was writing cheap pop exploitation songs for a knock-off label. Something like “Waiting for the Man” had as much to do with reading Hubert Selby novels as it did with actual street life, a fact that Bowie would have appreciated had he known it at the time.

Future editions

Bowie would play “Waiting for the Man” for decades. For the BBC alone he cut it four times, including a hard rock 1970 take with Hype (his first glam band) and two 1972 takes with the Spiders From Mars, in which Mick Ronson’s guitar dominates, so glam shine and swagger supplant the sordid jitter of the original track: it becomes a celebration of The Man, with the junkie left a bystander in his own story. But sometimes when Bowie played the song during his 1972 tour (one version from Santa Monica, in August ’72, was released as a single decades later), he slowed it down and sang it wearily, suggesting the country blues that the song originally was.

His obsessive covering of “Waiting For the Man” (the oddest version is likely the 1976 louche funk edition), year after year, suggests, uncharitably, that Bowie secretly wanted people to think of it as his song, and certainly some who first heard the song during the 1972 Ziggy tour assumed as much.

It’s more fair to say that “Waiting for the Man” was a song Bowie felt he ought to have written, that he needed to write in order to progress, and so he spent years trying to shake loose its secrets. It became the imported cornerstone of his canon.

The initial studio take was recorded in late December 1966—possibly Jan.-Feb. 1967; on bootlegs like The Forgotten Songs of David Robert Jones.

I Pity The Fool

August 3, 2009


I Pity the Fool (Bobby “Blue” Bland, 1961).
I Pity the Fool (the Manish Boys, single, 1965).
I Pity the Fool (alternate take, released 1991).

Only a few times in Bowie’s life has he seemed directly inspired by black popular music: the “Young Americans” era, arguably the Nile Rodgers-produced “Let’s Dance” period, and the mid-’60s. “I Pity the Fool” is Bowie covering Bobby “Blue” Bland, and it’s about as close to straight-up soul as DB would ever attempt.

Bland’s “I Pity the Fool,” which topped the US R&B charts in 1961, is lyrically a feint. The verse, which Bland sings with a slow, dismissive coolness, suggests that the singer has moved on, that he just has pity for whoever his two-timing woman ropes in next. Then the bridge (there’s not really a chorus: the song’s main hook, the descending “I pity the fool” phrase, starts the verse) reveals that the singer isn’t out of the mess yet—he’s still entwined with her, there’s no way out, and it’s killing him. Bland, backed by a righteous horn section, just howls the lines, infusing them with self-hatred and disgust: “LOOK at the PEOPLE!!…They just STANDIN’ there, watching you make a FOOL of ME!

It’s asking a great deal for an 18-year-old kid to match this, and Bowie can’t. Wisely, though, he reduces the emotional spectrum to a teenager’s primary colors—arrogance and indignation at being shamed in public. He’s at his best in the bridge, when he can snarl and howl as petulantly as he can.

It helps that Bowie’s got a better band this time ’round (the Manish Boys, who he joined just after cutting “Liza Jane”) and a savvier producer, the American expat Shel Talmy, who recorded the Who doing “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” and “I Can’t Explain” around the same time as this cut. One of Talmy’s favorite session pros, Jimmy Page, is on lead guitar, though Page isn’t doing much more than tracing the lines of Bland’s regular guitarist, Wayne Bennett. Woolf Byrne and Paul Rodriguez are the horns, a pale reflection of the killer six-person brass unit that sharpens Bland’s single.

Released 5 March 1965 as The Manish Boys, Parlophone 5250 (alt. take issued without notice on Early On).

Louie, Louie Go Home

August 1, 2009


Louie Louie Go Home (Paul Revere and the Raiders, 1963).
Louie Louie Go Home (Bowie and the King Bees, 1964).

Any aspiring British rock band tried to nab the latest American record and cut its version first, and somehow a grubby bunch of amateurs like Davie Jones and the King Bees got a brand-new track by Paul Revere and the Raiders and beat all rivals to the studio. They could do this mainly because Paul Revere and the Raiders, in spring 1964, might as well have been a fictional band in the UK–they were a regional American band with no UK chart hits. So who knows how Bowie & Co. came across this song: perhaps their producer Leslie Conn, who had ties to Dick James (the Beatles’ song publisher) had suggested it.

“Louie Go Home” was the Raiders’ sequel to “Louie Louie.” The Raiders had battled with the Kingsmen throughout 1963 as to whose cover of “Louie, Louie” would chart higher, until Mitch Miller at Columbia killed promotion on the Raiders’ single after the Kingsmen finally started charting nationally. The Raiders’ “Louie Go Home” is a murky New Orleans R&B stew-the track is built on the piano, the left-hand riff doubled by saxophone and bass, all overlaid by a churning, clanking layer of percussion.

The Raiders were a stage band, so “Louie Go Home” is a series of shticks to rev up an audience–a breakdown, a call-and-response vocal, some “little bit softer now, little bit louder now” audience bait. Bowie and the King Bees dutifully try to imitate it all, but the result is thin gruel: lacking a piano, the King Bees have to weigh the riff entirely on the bass while the guitars hit on the off-beat; the drummer does his best to kill the groove, thwacking away as if determined to frustrate prospective dancers.

If “Liza Jane” took the Stones as a cue, it’s b-side is more Beatles–the vocal harmonies in the bridge are close to those in the Beatles’ version of “Money” (at 1:10, it sounds as if they’re about to sing “that’s…what I want”) while Bowie seems to be imitating John Lennon singing “Twist and Shout.”

Originally penciled in as the A-side but wisely switched, as it lacks the punch of “Liza Jane.” Earnest, clumsy, not too terrible.

B-side of “Liza Jane” (Early On).

Liza Jane

July 29, 2009

Liza Jane.
Liza Jane (Toy, 2000).
Liza Jane (live, 2004).

So it all begins here.

David Bowie, in New Jersey in June 2004, sang the first verse and chorus of his debut single “Liza Jane” to honor its fortieth anniversary and prefaced it by calling the song “absolutely dreadful” and “excruciating,” which isn’t a bad description of the sludgy blues fragment he offered that night.

The original single, though, is pretty hot, especially given it’s the work of “five white boys from Kent singing about wayward women and freight trains,” led by a 17-year-old kid who bit his lip on stage whenever anyone cheered, and whose first gig had been a wedding anniversary at which the band played two songs and bombed (Christopher Sandford).

Bowie and some of his critics/biographers often retcon his life so that the ’60s are seen now as one long prologue, to the point where Bowie seems to just wink into being as the decade ended, as though sensing his time had come at last. This obscures the fact that Bowie was a working journeyman professional musician for much of the ’60s: “Liza Jane,” released in June 1964, predates “You Really Got Me” and “It’s All Over Now” and is contemporaneous with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

“Liza Jane” is doubly derivative (aping the Stones aping American electric blues) but it’s no matter: the bassline is thick and supple enough to balance out the stiff beat, a sax riff and guitar fills plug up the gaps, there’s your standard garage band 12-bar guitar solo (by Roger Bluck) and Bowie (still called Davie Jones here) varies from a yelp to a growl. The song mainly exists so everyone can sing “Ohhhhh-Little-LI-za!!” as salaciously as possible. Cheap (the disc seems to have been mastered loud enough to reach the border of distortion), thumping teenage music–there’ve been greater debuts, but there’ve been far more worse.

“Liza Jane” and its b-side were cut over seven hours in a West Hampstead studio, and it was “composed” by Leslie Conn, the producer, though it’s basically the band’s variation on the American standard “Lil’ Liza Jane” (Conn later called the standard a “Negro spiritual” though “Lil’ Liza Jane” is a pure pop mongrel, its ancestors a jumble ranging from Stephen Foster (whose “Camptown Ladies” has a similar melody) to the mysterious Countess Ada de Lachau, an impoverished aristocrat credited as the song’s composer on the 1916 sheet music). As much a country song as it was a blues, it’s likely some recent R&B versions were the band’s primary inspirations, like Huey Piano Smith’s “Little Liza Jane” (1956).

Released on 5 June 1964 as Davie Jones and the King Bees, Vocalion Pop 9221 (on Early On).