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David Bowie’s favourite Velvet Underground track

@TomTaylorFO

“I always write well in New York,” David Bowie once remarked. This self-assessment was just as well too, considering he also once said: “I realised the other day that I’ve lived in New York longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. It’s amazing. I am a New Yorker. It’s strange. I never thought I would be.”

As a man who seemingly fell to Earth, it is little surprise that everyone’s favourite alien shacked up in the Big Apple. It is a city with a cutting-edge culture all of its own. As another of the city’s forebearers, Andy Warhol, once opined: “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants.” 

Warhol knew this cultural oddity more than most, and it would certainly come to fruition when he managed the Velvet Underground, the eponymous band that nobody knew they wanted until time caught up with them. As Brian Eno explains: “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”

This notion of being ahead of your time is almost a biological advantage in the city that never sleeps. As Richard Hell, the musician who was at the forefront of the CGBG punk scene with The Voidoids, once said: “Thing always change, and New York teaches you that.” This notion of perpetual change is perhaps why the city has ploughed into new musical territory time and time again. And is also the reason why Bowie adopted it as his new home and became enamoured with its output.

In fact, Bowie had an eye on New York long before he started living there. “My manager brought back an album, it was just a plastic demo of Velvet’s very first album in 1965-ish, something like that,” Bowie recalled in an interview with PBS. “He was particularly pleased because Warhol had signed the sticker in the middle, I still have it by the way. He said, ‘I don’t know why he’s doing music, this music is as bad as his painting’ and I thought, ‘I’m gonna like this.’ I’d never heard anything quite like it, it was a revelation to me.”

Needless to say, Bowie did like it, he loved it in fact, and it had a huge impact on his own artistry. “It influenced what I was trying to do, I don’t think I ever felt that I was in a position to become a Velvet’s clone but there were elements of what I thought Lou was doing that were unavoidably right for both the times and where music was going. One of them was the use of cacophony as background noise and to create an ambience that had been unknown in rock I think.”

What is avant-garde music?

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He then added: “The other thing was the nature of his lyric writing which for me just smacked of things like Hubert Selby Jr, The Last Exit from Brooklyn and also John Rechy’s book City of the Night. Both books of which have made a huge impact on me and Lou’s writing was right in that ballpark. It was Dylan who brought a new kind of intelligence to pop songwriting but then it was Lou who had taken it even further and into the avant-garde.”

However, much like Bowie’s own output, this exploration of the avant-garde was always melodious. The eclectic and literary influences in both Bowie and Reed’s work were tempered with the inherent beauty always present and often underreported—like a twist of orange in a syringe of junk. Bowie was forever moving with the times even when he wasn’t moving them himself, but beneath it all, was a backbone of timeless songwriting. 

Thus, when picking his favourite songs of all time for a BBC Star Special broadcast, it is no surprise that he opted for one of the most beauteous riffs ever lassoed from the rock ‘n’ roll ether in the shape of ‘Sweet Jane’. The track couples the surreal ways of city life in a blast of beat-inspired lyricism with a gorgeous soundscape that heralded indie anthems to come years down the line. 

The world that the song relishes in is one that Bowie truly loved. “It’s the New York that I want to know about. Everybody has their own New York, but for me, New York was always James Dean walking out into the middle of the road. It was always the thugs, and it was the beats and it was Soho.” And seemingly it was always ‘Sweet Jane’. You can’t look out of the window in New York, without spying a sight that would inspire your songwriting and ‘Sweet Jane’ is the distilled triumph of that. In fact, it could be a theme song for the city’s swirling demimonde in rock ‘n’ rollercoaster symphony.

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