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When David Bowie saw the Velvet Underground and got conned by a Lou Reed impersonator

Andy Warhol once said, “Living in New York City gives people real incentives to want things that nobody else wants.” The fact that nobody outside of the Big Apples crowded dive bars wanted the Velvet Underground, one of the greatest bands in history no less, adds a fair bit of credence to that proclamation. In their own sui generis way, the bohemian combination of Andy Warhol and the proto-indie outfit fronted by Lou Reed just about defined the latter part of the sixties. After all, what is rock ‘n’ roll about if not celebrating the very notion of niche individualism? 

Nobody defines that rock ‘n’ roll ethos better than David Bowie, and he had his eye on the boundary-pushing ways of his forebearers long before the subterranean zeppelin ever floated a foot or so above the sticky carpets that spawned them. In fact, Bowie’s finger was so close to the pulse of anything avant-garde that he may have even got his dates a bit premature when he recalled the first time he ever heard the band. 

“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.” The literary bravura and iconoclastic cacophony of pure unbridled artistry clearly had an effect on what was to come for ‘The Starman’, but much like Lou Reed’s troupe, it would take him a while to be recognised by the wider world. 

As it happens, the Velvet Underground’s first ‘revolutionary’ bruised banana record is the quintessential iconic flop. As Brian Eno once said, “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!”

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Whilst Eno’s figures might not be exact, his point certainly remains. One of the most important albums ever peaked at number 171. The prophetic album seems like a prognostication of where music would go, but upon release, the perceived image we have of the liberal swinging sixties obviously wasn’t liberal enough for overt tales of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Likewise, by the time of the follow-up, the populous was still behind the curve as White Light/White Heat performed even worse, charting at 199.

Nevertheless, a clutch of these records made their way over to London, where Eno’s decree was proving true. “One of that tiny bastion of Velvet Underground fans in London at the time, before they were generally known,” Bowie recalled in an interview with the BBC. “[I was in] New York, having caught one of the last performances of The Velvet Underground, a band I had admired tremendously since around 66/67.  I’d gotten into the Electric Circus to see the gig. I watched the entire show, and there were not that many people in the audience because their star had begun to dim in New York.”

It is remarkable to think of a star as bright as the Velvet’s – as unseen as it may have been – ever dimming once gazed upon, but it is a trick of retrospective cultural history to think that surely couldn’t have been the case. And perhaps there is a hopeful message in that for any aspiring artists feeling down on their luck in that notion. Part of the reason that their stars had first blazed in the. New York underground was the same reason it began to drift further towards obscurity. 

(Credit: Polydor)

Their ties to Andy Warhol’s EPI movement meant that it was hard for people to see them as a band and not an art exhibition. On the one hand, they garnered acclaim and had firmly placed themselves on the cutting edge of culture, but the huge drawback for them was that punters were unable to see them as a separate entity, they were simply deemed by many to be a part of a multimedia experience. People liked them as much as they like the carrots on a roast dinner, but you wouldn’t have them on their own.

London, kept away from the goings-on of the Factory scene, didn’t have the same problem, thus, they remained a celebrated cult act, and when Bowie finally got to see his heroes, he was overjoyed. “The whole band were there with Lou Reed singing the songs and I thought it was just tremendous. I was singing along with the band, stuck right there at the apron of the stage. ‘Waiting For The Man’, ‘White Light/ White Heat’, ‘Heroin’…All that kind of stuff,” Bowie recalled. 

In fact, he was so amazed that adrenaline even marched his feet backstage. “I knocked on the door,” he continued, “and I said ‘Is Lou Reed in? I’d love to talk to him, I’m from England, cos I’m in music too, and he’s a bit of a hero to me.’ This guy said, ‘Wait here’.” As it happens, ‘this guy’ was John Cale and he saw the chance to pull a little prank. “Lou comes out and we sat talking on the bench for about quarter of an hour about writing songs, and what it’s like to be Lou Reed, and all that…and afterwards I was floating on a cloud and went back to my hotel room.”

He continues: “I said to this guy that I knew in New York: “I’ve just seen the Velvet Underground and I got to talk with Lou Reed for fifteen minutes”, and he said, ‘Yeah? Lou Reed left the band last year, I think you’ve been done.’ I said, ‘It looked like Lou Reed’ and he said, ‘That’s Doug Yule, he’s the guy that took over from Lou Reed.’ I thought what an impostor, wow, that’s incredible.

However, Cale’s pranking ways may well have been for the best, as the whole experience turned out to be for the best, spawning a Bowie classic. “It doesn’t matter really, cos I still talked to Lou Reed as far as I was concerned. Coming back to England, one of the memories I brought back with me, was all that. So I wrote ‘Queen Bitch’ as a sort of homage to Lou Reed.”

It was a moment that even lived on in the memory of the legendary Doug Yule, who told Record Collector: “I remember this English kid coming backstage, and I was holding forth as if I was somebody, feeling very self-important as the leader of this band. He came in and obviously assumed I was Lou Reed, and so I had to explain that Lou wasn’t there. It was only a few years ago that I heard the story back from someone else, and realised that the English kid was David Bowie. In 1971, I’d never heard of him.” Isn’t it funny the way that future history books might well declare that Bowie and the Underground began changing history in 1971, yet on subterranean ground level they were barely recognisable.