David Bowie & the Velvet Undergound
A former manager of mine, Ken Pitt, had done some type of work as a PR-man that had brought him into contact with the Factory. Warhol had given him this coverless test pressing, it was just a plastic demo of Velvet’s very first album in 1965-ish, something like that, and he was particularly pleased because Warhol has signed the sticker in the middle. I still have it, and he had said, “Well I don’t know why he’s doing music, his music is as bad as his painting. You like weird stuff, see what you think of this.”
What I ‘thought of this’ was that here was the best band in the world.
I’d never heard anything quite like it. It was a revelation to me. There were elements that Lou [Reed] was doing that I thought were just unavoidably right for both the times and for where music was going. One was the use of cacophony as background noise to create a kind of ambience that had been hither to unknown in rock, I think, and the other thing was the nature of his lyric writing, which for me, smacked of things like Hubit Selby Junior’s then recently released The Last Exit to Brooklyn and also John Retchy’s book City of the Night. Both books had made a huge impact on me, and Lou’s writing was right in that ballpark.
[It was] the New York that I wanted to know about. Everybody has their own New York. For me New York was always; James Dean walking up the middle of the road, and the village thugs. It was the beats and it was SoHo and it was that kind of bohemian intellectual extravagance that made it so vibrant for someone like me growing up in quite a grey, suburban, tenement-filled south London. It seemed to be the heart, the network of life and it was where we all seemed to want to escape to, people like me we wanted out and we wanted in, to places like New York.
[Bob] Dylan had certainly brought a new kind of intelligence to pop song writing but then Lou had taken it even further into the avant-garde. It had its roots in Baudelaire and Rimbaud. That side–that other thread of history, which wasn’t talked about very much, it is now of course, now it IS history, but at that time it was merely a thread–it wasn’t considered important. It was those fringe, strange bands that nobody ever bought, like the Velvet Underground, that actually have created modern music.
In December of that year, my band Buzz broke up, but not without my demanding we play I’m Waiting for the Man as one of the encore songs at our last gig. Amusingly, not only was I to cover Velvet’s song before anyone else in the world, I actually did it before the album came out.
Image attribution: 1. Velvet Underground performing in 1965 at Cafe Bizzarre in Grenwhich Village New York, Photo by Adam Ritchie sourced from adam-ritchie-photography.co.uk 2. David Bowie in London 1965 image sourced from bowiesongs.wordpress.com
Words by David Bowie sourced from David Bowie on Lou Reed, Writing and New York, American Masters: In Their Own Words, American Masters PBS and David Bowie’s Favourite Albums, Vanity Fair November issue 2003.