David Bowie and Lou Reed both have legacies that speak for themselves, but they needed each other dearly. They played instrumental parts in each other’s career, with Bowie famously launching Reed’s post-Velvet Underground career by producing Transformer, but the role that Reed played in the Starman’s formative musical years.
The pair met in 1971 as Bowie—not a massive star at this point by any stretch of the imagination—was introduced to Reed by Tony Zanetta, a character who would become the manager of Bowie’s infamous ‘Diamond Dogs Tour’. Zanetta had caught Bowie’s eye when depicting Andy Warhol in the film Pork and he would also introduce Bowie to Warhol and Iggy Pop during this same week. Bowie then produced Transformer and, in 1972, they were both two of the most sought-after stars on the planet, but the chances they’d get to work together were few and far between.
“We’re still friends after all these years,” Reed told Rolling Stone in 2004. “We go to the occasional art show and museum together, and I always like working with him. I really love what David does, so I’m happy he’s still doing it and that he’s still interested. I saw him play here in New York on his last tour, and it was one of the greatest rock shows I’ve ever seen. At least as far as white people go. Seriously.”
One time that their stars did align came in 1997, the night was a celebration of Bowie turning 50 and the birthday bash reads like a who’s who of rock royalty. The legendary singer welcomed Frank Black, the Foo Fighters, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Sonic Youth and Billy Corgan, but it was Lou Reed’s appearance that would steal the show. Reed joined Bowie fora blistering version of ‘Queen Bitch’ before they erupted into ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Dirty Blvd’ and finishing on a euphoric ‘White Light/White Heat’.
Following the concert, Bowie touched on how listening to The Velvet Underground was a life-affirming moment and made him approach his attitude towards making music differently. “Well, firstly I think ‘Waiting For The Man’ is probably the most important of the four in a way,” he told PBS. “My then manager brought back an album, it was just a plastic demo of Velvet’s very first album in 1965-ish, something like that.
“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.”
Bowie is then asked if the record became an influence to him, and responded: “Yes, tentatively. 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.”
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.”
Following Reed’s death in 2013, Bowie simply said: “He was a master”. The respect that the Thin White Duke had for Reed burned bright for 50-years from the first moment they met right until the end. Whilst the Velvet Underground singer helped him immensely in an artistic sense; Bowie beautifully reciprocated that with the helping hand he played in making Reed a star in his own right on Transformer.