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.

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.