Hop Frog

September 19, 2014

lou

Hop Frog (Edgar Allan Poe, read by Nick Gisburne).
Hop Frog (Lou Reed with Bowie).

You write in the liner notes [to The Raven] that Poe is more attuned to our century than he was to his own.

I think that we can relate more to him now than then. Recent world events seem to have a real Poe turn to them.

Lou Reed, to Larry Katz, January 2003.

Sometime in December 1966, David Bowie heard the voice of Lou Reed for the first time. Bowie put on an album that his manager had brought back from New York. First came a sweet, haunting “Sunday Morning,” then, out of nowhere, another voice breaks in: flat, unimpressed, working up the details. Up to LEX-ing-TUN: ONE-TWO-FIVE. Hey WHITE BOY. Here he cooomes..he’s all dressed-in-BLACK. Everybody’s pinned you but NOBODY caaaares.

Entranced, Bowie decided to devote the rest of his life to the song.

In August 1972, Bowie produced a record for Reed. At the brink of exhaustion (he was rehearsing with the Spiders From Mars in his downtime), Bowie had to contend with an icy Reed, barely talking and taking in the whole enterprise as if he was a critic silently watching a faltering stage act. Reed had offered some skeletal songs on acoustic guitar. Mick Ronson dressed them up, Bowie did vocal arrangements. There was a delicacy to Bowie’s work that belied the strain he was under: the little dancing motifs in “Satellite of Love,” the girl-group “spoke spoke” in “Wagon Wheel,” the acidic queen harmony in “New York Telephone Conversation.”

At last, despite the occasional public dust-up, the two settled into being friends, living within walking distance of each other’s NYC homes. In the months after 9/11, Reed was working on an album based on Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems, and he asked Bowie if he wanted to sing on a track. Bowie chose “Hop Frog,” a little rant under two minutes long.

That’s him, not me,” Reed told Venice magazine in 2003. “He chose that part. I was pretty astonished myself, because I thought he would have picked one of the other parts. I thought he would go for one of the power ballads, but it turns out that he was a perfect Hop Frog. I realized that David wanted to have some fun, and have some fun just being Bowie. He did the kind of background vocals on this that I really like, all the way back to my Transformer record when he did those kind of things. I liked it then and I still love it now.”

It would be their last collaboration.

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Reed had been asked to write some Poe-related songs by the stage director Robert Wilson for a show, “POEtry,” which played in Hamburg and Brooklyn. “Bob thought this is something that could occur easily, without any weird rubbings going on,” Reed told the New York Times. “I saw it as a can’t-win situation. I knew people would say, ‘How dare he rewrite Poe?’ But I thought, here’s the opportunity of a lifetime for real fun…It’s accessible, among other things. And I felt I was in league with the master. In that kind of psychology, that interest in the drives and the meaning of obsession and compulsion in that realm Poe reigns supreme. Particularly now, with the anxiety and everything else that’s permeating our lives right now.”

He turned the project into an album, realizing it would also serve as a grand Viking funeral for his recording career. One last enormous folly: a 2-CD, 36-track album of rewritten Poe and reconfigured Reed, guest-starring Ornette Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Laurie Anderson, Antony Hegarty, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Bowie.

Can you imagine what it took to do that?” Reed asked Uncut. “I mean, I’m serious. Imagine! Even now I can’t believe that we’ve done it. This might be a nice way to say ‘Goodbye’, a good way to go out…it’s like ‘Pheww!’ Really. Anyway, I don’t think you’ll get a chance to make records like this with people downloading their music… unless you take the viewpoint that there’s only one good track on it.”

The Raven was also a farewell and tribute to the late 20th Century “pop” bohemian New York, the NYC of The Performance Group and The Knitting Factory, the Kitchen and St. Ann’s Warehouse. Reed cut “Fire Music,” a piece of extended feedback, a few days after the WTC attacks. On the album, it’s preceded by Amanda Plummer screaming “Burn, monkeys! Burn!” (why? see below).

17_rackham_poe_hopfrog

Reed’s “Hop Frog” has little to do with Poe’s story, a lurid revenge piece in the line of “Cask of Amontillado.” (The following tracks, “Every Frog Has Its Day,” “The Courtly Orangutans” and “Tripitena’s Speech,” are the narrative). Hop-Frog, a dwarf who walks with a limp, is the slave of a cruel king, for whom he’s the long-suffering court jester (you get the idea George R.R. Martin may have read this story). Offended by the king throwing a drink in the face of fellow dwarf Tripetta (renamed “Tripitena” here), Hop-Frog devises a scheme in which he has the king and his ministers dress up as escaped orangutans for a masked ball. Their costumes are made of pitch and flax, the “orangutans” are chained together to further the illusion. Hop-Frog sets them ablaze, leaving the king and his party as torched ape-men corpses. He escapes after announcing “I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest.”

Reed’s “Hop Frog” essentially plays off that last line. It’s a strut, a boast, savoring the clash of “ahp” and “ahg” sounds in the title. Its backdrop is a vein of feedback, a vicious, cycling Reed rhythm guitar and Tony Smith’s heavy-mixed drums. Bowie holds back a bit in the first verse, creeping in to echo, then top Reed’s voice. Then he sets about taking over the song.

Now dominating over Reed’s voice, Bowie devised a set of background harmonies, a funfair ride of rising and falling phrases (“I love David’s background parts that he does, when he goes up really high: I love his voice,” Reed told Australian DJ John Faine) and outfitting an army of Bowies for the final verse. Bowie’s having a whale of a time. You can see me in the ballroom! You can see me in the BED-room! You can see me in the WOODS! Hap!-HOP FROG! He closes with a last, plummeting trademark “wail” note. Reed pays him homage with a fanfare on guitar. Exeunt omnes.

Everything ends. Reed and Bowie went out with a noisy nose-tweak of a track starring a vengeful, murderous Poe dwarf. Sounds about right. See you, Lou.

Recorded October-early November 2001, New York. Released 28 January 2003 on The Raven (released in single and double-CD versions. If you have Spotify, unabridged version’s here.)

Top: Julian Schnabel, “Lou Reed,” 2002; Bowie and Lou, approaching the end of the game, 2007; Arthur Rackham, “Hop-Frog, Trippetta, the king and his councilors,” 1935.


Perfect Day

September 16, 2013

London_1997

Perfect Day (Lou Reed, 1972).
Perfect Day (BBC promotional film, 1997).

In an ideal world, it probably wouldn’t be necessary for the BBC to advertise itself like this.

Jane Frost, 1999.

Blame Trainspotting: Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” arranged and produced in 1972 by Mick Ronson and Bowie, had a second life a quarter of a century later, thanks in part to Danny Boyle’s film. As Boyle used it to score a heroin overdose sequence, “Perfect Day” was subsequently interpreted by an entire generation as being a song about scag.

Sure, maybe it was: you could read the song that way. But it’s more interesting to take “Perfect Day” at its word. An alienated, drugged-out wastrel spends a day in the park with his girlfriend or boyfriend. He does “normal” things—goes to a zoo, sees a film, has a picnic—which seem surreal to him. His life is so bent out of shape, his way of viewing the world so corroded, that banal existence has become strange and beautiful. The perfect day for him is one that the good and prosperous people of the world would forget about in a week. And what to make of the closing line? You’re going to reap just what you sow, Reed sings sweetly and ominously. Has he reformed? Or is he just clearing his head to ruin his partner’s life with greater force?

A few months after the first Labour parliamentary victory in nearly 20 years, the BBC made a celebration and a justification of itself, a four-minute promotional film featuring the stars of pop, country, R&B, jazz (well, they got Courtney Pine) and classical. All singing lines from “Perfect Day.” The promo film was masterfully shot and cut (Simon Hanhart produced the music), making a smooth whole out of what could have been an ungainly patchwork. There was a clamoring for the track to be released as a single, and soon enough it was, with all proceeds going to Children in Need: it would be Bowie’s last (collaborative) #1.

Jane Frost, the BBC’s head of corporate marketing, was the force behind it. After tenures in marketing for Lever Brothers and Shell, Frost was recruited by the BBC in 1995: her main job was to explain the service’s role to a new generation, using the language of pop videos and advertisements. The BBC had just won a battle to raise its license fee (the fee for color TVs would increase from £71 in 1990 to £104 in 2000) and in Frost’s words, it wanted to remind viewers what they would miss if it ever went away (“if it disappeared, you really would be losing something”).*

Assembling an all-star cast to sing Reed’s “Perfect Day” was Frost’s first big set-piece. “The production values are high, because we want to catch people’s attention—they’ve got to be a cut above the standard of the old public information films,” she told the Guardian in 1999. “But you’d be surprised how cheaply you can make something when the goodwill is there.” Most performers accepted standard minimum Equity payments of £250, while Bowie went one further: he waived his fee, citing the “years of pleasure” given to him by The Flower Pot Men.

reaping what you sow

As for the production itself, it’s easy enough to criticize: its overstuffed wedding cake of an arrangement, the pomposity of some of its performers (Bono, giving off a comfortable smugness here, takes the crown, though Huey Morgan is a viable contender), its inadvertent comic moments (Reed apparently doing a Stevie Wonder impersonation; a ludicrous Evan Dando cameo). For Bowie fans, his two lines, which he sings with a trace of wry bemusement, was evidence that Bowie should’ve covered the song himself, though there’s no evidence he ever considered it.

Still, of all the Bowie collaborations, “Perfect Day” contains the greatest amount of sheer vocal talent (Tammy Wynette, Heather Small, Emmylou Harris, Gabrielle) and it’s the only Bowie duet, if only by montage, with the likes of Brett Anderson, Boyzone, Dr. John, Shane MacGowan (appearing with great comic timing) and Tom Jones, the latter filmed singing “you’re gonna REEEAAAAP” as if auditioning for the part of Galactus.

Amid all the exquisitely-framed shots and cheery goodwill and sense of “culture,” was there someone forgotten? The man from Hull who, sitting down and hearing Reed play “Perfect Day” on guitar at Trident Studios, had suggested it would work better as a piano song? And who’d then played the piano line himself, and later scored the strings? So take the Beeb’s “Perfect Day” for whatever you’d like—as a fine or a ludicrous spectacle, as a pleasant way to support charity, as a latter-day career boost for Reed, as a fine public service message. I’ll take it as a secret requiem for Mick Ronson; a world’s worth of performers unknowingly singing their respects to him.

Recorded ca. summer 1997 and released as a single on 3 October 1997 (Chrysalis CDNEED01, UK #1). (& so I’ve passed Tom Ewing at last (happy 10th birthday, Popular!)).

* In this context, a few critics at the time noted an implied threat in the increasingly ecstatic repeats of “you’re going to reap what you sow.”

Top: promo poster for Toby Mott’s “Made in London” exhibition, Maureen Paley Interim Art, autumn 1997.


Dirty Blvd.

August 21, 2013

bdaybowie

Dirty Blvd. (Lou Reed, 1989).
Dirty Blvd. (Bowie and Reed, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).

How will David Bowie face up to his unmasked, lined face at 50?

“I shall welcome it, Lord yes,” he said. “Pop stars are capable of growing old. Mick Jagger at 50 will be marvellous—a battered old roué—I can just see him. An aging rock star doesn’t have to opt out of life. When I’m 50, I’ll prove it.”

Jean Rook, “Bowie Reborn,” Daily Express, 14 February 1979.

His other milestone birthdays had passed privately, but for his 50th Bowie threw himself a celebration at Madison Square Garden; it was simulcast via pay-per-view television. As a consolation prize to Britain, he, Gail Ann Dorsey and Reeves Gabrels cut ten songs during rehearsals to be played on a Radio One special to air on the same day as the New York show. ChangesNowBowie was ruminative and fresh, a paging through the back catalog: he revived “The Supermen,” “Lady Stardust” and “Quicksand,” pulled “Repetition” from out of nowhere, rehabilitated Tin Machine with “Shopping for Girls” and “I Can’t Read.”

The big party itself was another matter: its location and guests were chosen for practical reasons. Most of his musicians and support staff were based around New York, and Bowie was still doing final mixes on Earthling while rehearsing the show.* Two weeks after the concert he would release the new album and he was planning to tour it for much of 1997. So the concert’s organizing theme was to offer audiences a preview of Earthling and to establish Bowie as an “alternative rock” icon, with most of his guests a generation younger than him.

Bowie opened with “Little Wonder,” dug into “Hearts Filthy Lesson”. Some guests were a subtle nod at Tin Machine’s influences: Frank Black, who came on to sing “Scary Monsters” and “Fashion,” and Sonic Youth, who bloodied up “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Dave Grohl (seemingly a stand-in for the late Kurt Cobain—a Cobain/Bowie duet on “Man Who Sold the World” would’ve been inevitable) added munitions to “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Hallo Spaceboy.” Robert Smith, the most inspired guest choice, sang “The Last Thing You Should Do” and an oddly heartening “Quicksand” (Smith had lobbied to sing “Young Americans”). Billy Corgan helped close out the show like a kid who’d won a contest.

For some fans, this immersion in the present tense was disappointing. The biographer David Buckley made a case for the prosecution: Just for once, it would have been a poignant and magnanimous gesture to have filled the bill with musicians who were actually part and parcel of [Bowie’s] history. Imagine Bowie singing “Breaking Glass” and “Station to Station” again with Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. Bringing John Hutchinson on stage to sing “Space Oddity,” Luther Vandross to sing “Young Americans” or “Fascination.” Playing “Moonage Daydream” with Bolder and Woodmansey. Playing live with Iggy Pop for the first time in 20 years. Playing live with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno for the first time ever. Bringing on Nile Rodgers for “Let’s Dance.”

Alomar, for one, was irritated. “I wasn’t asked to play,” he told Buckley. “He could have had asked Luther Vandross, who’s now a superstar. But that whole thing was a political thing for him, to get together with the people who he thought would project him into the future…Sonic Youth? Come on, give me a break! They’re brain dead!…Who are these people?”

David is generally more about the present than the past,” Gabrels told Buckley, adding that, contra Alomar, “I was concerned that the list of participants would end up being too mainstream. For the longest time Madonna was expected to perform.”

So you have the case of a fanbase (and a peer group) whose nostalgia for Bowie’s past was apparently far greater than his own. Or the case of a fanbase that, despite how long they’d been dealing with Bowie’s zigs and zags, still fundamentally misunderstood him. The idea of Bowie doing a Last Waltz-style “This Is My Life” retrospective (Buckley even suggested that the Lower Third should’ve been there) was an improbable conceit. Bowie would catalog his past, keep all his old reviews and stage sets and outtakes, and he would shamelessly raid from his past whenever it suited him. But he wasn’t going to star in a revue about himself (it’s telling that during Bowie’s comeback year of 2013, people will stand in line for hours to see an exhibit of his clothes).

97andcry

The only person who’d been invited that night who actually hailed from Bowie’s past, who had been Bowie’s influence, was Lou Reed. Introduced as “the king of New York,” Reed played “Queen Bitch,” Bowie’s annexation of his and Sterling Morrison’s sound. He looked bemused, as if wondering whether he’d written the song (he had, in a way). Gail Ann Dorsey wore a smile that could’ve powered the Chrysler Building. “Waiting for the Man” seemed freighted with history. It had been 30 years since Bowie had first heard it and he still seemed in awe of the song. Then, with one more duet to go, the choice was obvious: something from Transformer. “Walk on the Wild Side.” “Perfect Day.” “Vicious.” Instead, Reed and Bowie went into “Dirty Boulevard,” a track off Reed’s 1989 New York.

Reed had had a stronger Eighties than Bowie (even his “sellout” pop album, Mistrial, seems like Haydn compared with Tonight). He’d gotten married, moved out to New Jersey. Rather than putting a chill on his writing, domestic suburban life seemed to liberate him. The records came out at an almost yearly clip, like issues of an anthology: The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations.

So New York wasn’t the “return to form” of, say, Neil Young’s Freedom: it was a mild course correction rather than a career revival. But it was lumped with the other albums of the Boomer Counter-Reformation (Steel Wheels, Oh Mercy, Now and Zen, Flowers in the Dirt, etc etc.); it was another example of an older legend bringing things back to basics (“nothing beats 2 guitars bass drums,” Reed wrote on the liner) after the fey, synthesized Eighties. “Dirty Boulevard,” the lead-off single, had a thick muscle of a guitar riff that compensated for a lyric whose last verse is so on the nose that it feels like it was workshopped (in another life, Reed was a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa).

The performance of “Dirty Blvd.” at Bowie’s concert had the feel of Bowie guesting at a Reed concert: at times, Bowie appears to have learned his verses during the soundcheck. Still, there was the riff and the visible enjoyment the two of them took from their mere proximity. Maybe doing “Dirty Boulevard” was a whim (or a requirement by Lou), and Bowie considered that following a whim on stage would make a far better self-tribute than reuniting the Spiders.

At the end of the show, Bowie made a concession: he came out alone with his 12-string acoustic guitar and sang “Space Oddity,” the song that made him. Without Major Tom, without the sway on guitar from F major 7 to E minor, none of it—the show, the crowd, the life—would have existed. “I don’t know where I’m going from here,” he said. “But I promise I won’t bore you.” Then he was off for another year of tours and TV spots. He’d dodged the snare, at least this time.

Performed at Madison Square Garden, 9 January 1997. The complete concert was never issued on CD or DVD, though plenty of “official” bootlegs are out there.

* Thurston Moore, to Marc Spitz: “We just sort of sat down and he blasted the track to us.” Rehearsals took place in an empty sports arena in Hartford. “They were pre-creating the show. Who the fuck rents out a fucking arena? People with his kind of revenue…they have airplanes…they rent out arenas.”

Top: birthday imp; crowd’s eye view of birthday imp (via turistadeguerra).


White Light/White Heat

May 25, 2010

White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1973).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1983).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1987).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1990).
White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (Bowie with Lou Reed, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (live, 2003).

Covering “Waiting For the Man” gave the young David Bowie a hint of street cred, covering “White Light/White Heat” just gave him power. As Bowie and the Spiders honed their live act, they swapped out the likes of “Starman” and “Andy Warhol” for bruising workouts like “White Light,” whose relentless drone rhythm and severity of design (mainly just thrashing on G and D chords, then thrashing on F at the end) made it a hard contrast to the more fanciful Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust songs. It was a staple of the Ziggy tour by May 1972, and Bowie would play it for decades.

Giving prominence to “White Light/White Heat” and “Waiting for The Man” also helped Bowie bring Lou Reed into his rapidly-expanding sphere of influence and in July 1972, Reed played his first-ever UK concert as Bowie’s guest. Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Reed’s Transformer* over a manic six weeks in the summer of ’72, working with Reed during the day, playing concerts across the UK at night. Reed, drugged into near-catatonia, needed a translator to understand Ronson; Bowie sometimes was found in the studio bathroom weeping; Ronson did much of the work and his touches are all over the record, like the soaring string arrangement on “Perfect Day.”

“White Light/White Heat” is mainly about the joys of speed, though VU chronicler Richie Unterberger said in a Well interview last year that another possible influence was Alice Bailey’s “A Treatise on White Magic,” which delves into astral projection “all down a stream of pure White Light.'” (Reed reportedly mentioned the book in radio interviews and Unterberger interviewed a fan who recalled Reed babbling about psychic healing via “light projection.”) Bowie likely had no clue about this when he covered the song, though it’s fitting given his own interest in astral projection (“Did You Ever Have a Dream”). “White Light” was transcendence, chemical or no.

Bowie recorded two versions of “White Light/White Heat” in May 1972 for the BBC, and the song was central to the 1972-1973 Ziggy tours; a recording from the last Spiders concert in July 1973 was issued as a single a decade later (RCA 372) to promote the concert film Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture. Bowie recorded a version of “White Light” in 1973 for his covers LP Pin-Ups but eventually scrapped it, with Ronson using the backing track for his own cover on 1975’s Play Don’t Worry.

Top: L to R: The top student, the feral child, the dark master (Mick Rock, 1972).

* It’s been repeatedly claimed, even in credible Bowie biographies like Strange Fascination, that Bowie secretly wrote “Wagon Wheel,” a forgotten track on Reed’s Transformer. To my knowledge, this is bunk (seriously, “Wagon Wheel”?), and there appears to be some proof dispelling the rumor—a tape allegedly exists of Reed singing “Wagon Wheel” in New York in 1971, a time when he had only met Bowie once at a nightclub—but doubtless this bizarre legend will persist for decades to come.


Man In the Middle

March 5, 2010

Man In the Middle.

If “Queen Bitch” was Bowie remaking the Velvet Underground in his own image, “Man In the Middle,” the proposed B-side of the unreleased second Arnold Corns single, is just a rank imitation. Bowie gets Freddi Buretti to do a fairly inspired mimicry of Lou Reed’s voice circa Loaded, complete with having Buretti sing “it’s the symbol of a new age.”

By the time the single was cut, the pointlessness of the Arnold Corns project was apparent and so Bowie wisely cut his losses and went to work on Ziggy Stardust. Buretti would design costumes for Bowie from the Ziggy to the Diamond Dogs eras, and then seems to have vanished from the public eye sometime around 1975.

Recorded 17 June 1971. Slated to be a single c/w “Looking For a Friend,” but never released.

Top: Seminal 1971 publication (is that a sacrificed raven?).


Queen Bitch

March 4, 2010

Queen Bitch (first performance, BBC, 1971).
Queen Bitch (Hunky Dory).
Queen Bitch (broadcast, 1972).
Queen Bitch (rehearsal, 1976).
Queen Bitch (with Lou Reed, 1997).

Queen Bitch (with the Arcade Fire, 2005).

“I’m up on the eleventh floor, and I’m watching the cruisers below.” That’s how it starts: the singer unable to sit still, pacing the narrow length of his hotel room, unwillingly returning to the window over and over again so he can watch his lover pick up someone on the street. It could be a transvestite, or a female prostitute—it’s galling to the singer in any case. And what’s most galling isn’t the betrayal, really, but the sort of pickup his man’s descending to—“Oh God, I could do better than that! he snarls in desperation and envy. Is he talking about his own taste in cruising, or that he’s flashier and prettier than the streetwalker? It’s either or both.

It’s Bowie’s Velvet Underground song (the riff’s a bit like “Sweet Jane”‘s, and “sister Flo” is a cousin of “Sister Ray”), but “Queen Bitch” isn’t an imitation of the VU as much as it’s an utter annexation of their sound. It’s as if Bowie had taken a photograph of one of Lou Reed’s urban landscapes and imposed his image upon a corner of it, a vicious face framed in a hotel window. When Reed finally sang it in public, at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert, he looked amused and slightly bewildered, as if wondering whether he had written the song himself.

There’s the riff, of course—a primal progression of C-G-F. Bowie gives it first on his 12-string acoustic, then Mick Ronson zips in and steals it whole, his guitar mixed so that it leaps from right speaker to left, his tone loud and dirty. The riff is all there is (no solos, only a slight variation in the chorus): it’s set at a breakneck tempo, repeated twice with each appearance, and arranged so that the repeat of “C” comes just before the bar, heightening the anticipation, furthering the drive. Bowie’s so enamored with the riff (and he should be) he has it bolster most lines of his verses.

The first verse, only five lines, sets the stage, while the chorus delivers the put-down. But in the second and third verses, as the singer’s indignation bursts, he simply won’t let the song go, pushing out the verses for another three or four lines, the band coming with him—Woodmansey crashing on cymbals, Ronson thrashing his guitar—while the singer pounds his hands against the cheap hotel wall. It ends in a series of jump cuts: “And he’s down on the street! so I throw both his bags down the hall! And I’m phoning a cab, ‘cos my stomach feels small!…It COULD’VE BEEN ME oh yeah IT COULD’VE BEEN ME!”

This blog’s title is taken from “Queen Bitch”: there are days when I think Bowie never bettered it. Debuted at the BBC on 3 June 1971, recorded for Hunky Dory a month or so later. Bowie’s always come back to it, most recently in the mid-2000s.

Top: Helen Levitt, “New York,” ca. 1971.


I’m Waiting For the Man

September 24, 2009

66vu

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.