The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #288: I’m Waiting For The Man by Velvet Underground and Nico (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #288: I’m Waiting For The Man by Velvet Underground and Nico.

About half way through my teaching career, I spent a couple of summers taking an excellent, two-part course on teaching Visual Arts. Aside from being immersed in an environemnt that oozed creativty each day, one of my favourite moments was a field trip we took to see an Andy Warhol exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Andy Warhol, as you may know, was a famous artist and art personality in NYC, in particular, in the 1960s and 70s. While I enjoyed looking at some of his more famous paintings, I have to be honest and admit that it was the exhibits that were lesser known and more obscure, in nature, that left the most lasting impression. For Warhol, Art was more than a process aimed at arriving at a product. Sure, he produced paintings and other works of Art. But, when you got to the very root of it all, Art was more a mindset or a philosophy that allowed his world to be de-constructed and re-formed in endless ways, all of which held meaning. So, as I looked at Warhol’s work, it was akin to looking at the vastness of the universe because of the infinite variety of creation at play before my eyes and mind. It is important to note this because, in his heyday, Andy Warhol helped create and lead an Art Collective in NYC that had, as its underlying philosophy, the continuous exploration of the modern world through an artist’s eyes. In Warhol’s Collective scene, there were few rules and much artistic freedom. Anything might be Art. Anyone could be Art (at least, for fifteen minutes, anyway). His Collective attracted all manner of artists; among them, the members of a band that would come to call themselves, The Velvet Underground.

The Velvet Underground consisted of singer/guitarist, Lou Reed, keyboardist, John Cale, guitarist, Sterling Morrison and drummer, Moe Tucker. They became the “house band” for Warhol’s Collective. In that role, they created songs unlike any that were being played on the radio in the 1960s. They experimented with sound combinations, distortion, the length of songs and any other way you can think of to take traditional song structure and turn it inside out and upside down. In due course, they combined their musical inventiveness with Lou Reed’s poetry and were able to cobble together enough songs to put out an album. Lou Reed often wrote about the underbelly of life in NYC and, as such, the songs that The Velvet Underground produced often contained direct lyrics or specific imagery that they were deemed inappropriate and, even, obscene. The song, “I’m Waiting For The Man” is a case in point.

“I’m Waiting For The Man” (or, as it is, sometimes, referred to as, “I’m Waiting For My Man”) is a song about the singer travelling to Harlem to buy $26.00 worth of heroin from his drug dealer.

“I’m waiting for my man.

Twenty-six dollars in my hand.

Up to Lexington, 125.

Feel sick and dirty,

more dead than alive.

I’m waiting for my man.”

In the song, there are issues of Race (as the White buyer has to explain his presence to the Black residents who live nearby.

“Hey! White Boy! Whatcha doing uptown?!

Hey! White Boy! You chasin’ our women around?”

It is, also, clear that the drug dealer is in charge and that the singer is in a subservient position.

“Here he comes, he’s all dressed in black;

PR shoes and big straw hat.

He’s never early.

He’s always late.

First thing you learn is you gotta wait.

I’m waiting for my man.”

As the song goes on, the singer scores his drugs and relishes the immediate high he feels. He tells his wife/girlfriend that life is ok now….well, at least, until the next day when, again, he will go and wait for his man.

At Andy Warhol’s insistence, the band was convinced to add the vocal talents of a German model, who went by the name, Nico, to the album. Thus, the debut about is called, “The Velvet Underground and Nico”. The album cover art features a yellow banana that was drawn by Warhol, himself. The album went on to become one of the most respected and acclaimed albums of all-time but, at the time, it was met with confusion and even, derision. Consequently, record sales for the album were very poor…only 30,000 altogether. When compared to most albums on this list of the greatest songs of all-time (which sell in the millions or tens of millions and, in some cases, the hundreds of millions), 30,000 is a paltry amount. However, the grittiness of Lou Reed’s lyrics and the manner in which the band de-constructed and re-built their song structures, blew the minds of many like-minded musicians around the world. There is a famous quote attributed to the band and to this album, in particular, that goes something like,

“The album may have sold only 30,000 copies but, each person who bought the album ended up starting their own band.”

One such person who did just that was David Bowie. In the 1960s, Bowie was just a young man starting out. He listened to “The Velvet Underground and Nico” and, specifically, “I’m Waiting For The Man” and deemed it the future of music. He learned to play the song and often covered it live during his own concerts. *I have a video of Lou Reed and David Bowie playing this song together. I shall provide the link below.

The Velvet Underground were inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. During their induction speeches, John Cale famously remarked that their induction was proof that record sales were a poor barometer of the merits of a band. He is correct, of course. The Velvet Underground were never about becoming rock stars, in the traditional sense. It was about the Art. And, when an artist sees the world with artistic vision then, what results are nothing less than everything imaginable. That’s why The Velvet Underground were so important and influential. They were, arguably, the truest, purest artists of their time. When other creative types, like David Bowie, saw what they were doing, they all said to themselves that they longed to be that free, too. Here are The Velvet Underground and Nico with “I’m Waiting For The Man”.

*Note: Lou Reed usually sings lead on this song but, all members of the band have taken their turn at creating their version. In this case, keyboardist John Cale takes lead vocal duties. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “I’m Waiting For The Man” by Velvet Underground and Nico, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “I’m Waiting For The Man”, as sung by David Bowie and Lou Reed, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Velvet Underground and Nico can be found here.

Thanks to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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