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Music

The first song David Bowie heard after arriving in America

@SamWKemp

Some songs are so connected to a moment in time that it’s virtually impossible to listen to them without slipping into a reverie. Music has a habit of soaking up life, so much so that a good song can carry the memory of a place, person or occasion for a lifetime. We’ve all got a handful of these ‘luggage’ tracks: songs that, like Russian Dolls, contain far more than one might think. David Bowie certainly had a fair few songs like this. Indeed, there was one song in particular that the glam icon always felt carried the essence of America, perhaps because it was the first track he heard on his arrival to the nation.

Despite his fear of flying, David Bowie boarded a flight to America on January 27th, 1971. By that time, he’d already released three albums, many of which had been pretty successful in the UK. America, on the other hand, was a completely different beast. Bowie was still relatively unknown stateside, but this tour – financed by Mercury Records to promote his latest album The Man Who Sold The World – had been designed to remedy that.

When Bowie arrived into New York, he felt as though he’d arrived. This was the home of many of his heroes, including Andy Warhol, who he had the good fortune to meet during his stay in New York. The city hummed with the sound of Warhol’s factory crowd, as was made clear by the first single Bowie heard when he arrived at the first stop of this extensive promotional tour.

Speaking to the BBC, Bowie said: “The first single that I heard when I first went to America on the first day that I got there was in New York and I was taken over to a writer’s apartment that he had, I think it was probably on 8th Avenue somewhere, and he played me a new album that had just come out and he was very excited about this track – and so was I – and I expect you were as well when you heard it. ‘It was Sweet Jane’ by the Velvet Underground.”

Bowie had been a fan of The Velvet Underground since the mid-’60s. Indeed, he was one of the very few Brits to get hold of a copy of the group’s 1965 debut. “My then manager brought back an album,” David told PBS, “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.”

By the time Lou Reed wrote ‘Sweet Jane’, The Velvets were on the cusp of implosion. Indeed Loaded, from which this track is plucked, was their last studio venture. ‘Sweet Jane’ was an attempt by Reed to write a hit for The Velvet Underground, who, despite being highly influential and critically lauded, were a commercial failure. Perhaps partly because of this pressure, the recording of the album was plagued by acrimony. Reed left the group before ‘Sweet Jane’ was finished, leaving the remaining members to edit it down, curing the coda at the end of the track. Reed, angered by this decision, later criticised his former bandmates, arguing that he should have been there to show them what to do. Still, Bowie didn’t seem to mind.