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The moment David Bowie embarrassed himself in front of Andy Warhol

It may seem difficult to accept now, but there was a time when David Bowie was just another unknown singer searching for fame in New York. While the acclaimed Starman is well-known across the entire universe these days, for some years the singer struggled to make an impact in his native Britain let alone do the unthinkable and ‘crack America’. That said, it was during these comparative wilderness years that Bowie took himself to the Big Apple and found the foundations of Ziggy Stardust on the filthy streets of New York City and came back with two new friends in Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. One man, however, did not find himself on the singer’s Christmas card list; Andy Warhol.

David Bowie had been an early adopter of Lou Reed’s band the Velvet Underground and the group Andy Warhol seemingly produced through his arthouse The Factory. In fact, it has been claimed that it was Bowie, way back in the late sixties, that had given the band their first British cover as he sang ‘Waiting For The Man’ to a somewhat bemused audience. When Bowie met the actor Tony Zanetta in London, he became instantly obsessed with the actor, not least of all because Zanetta was in the capital to play Andy Warhol in the stage production of his play Pork.

Bowie and Zanetta grew close friends and the actor agreed to show Bowie around New York when he arrived in 1971. Still, somewhat far from his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust and miles away from being considered a superstar, Bowie arrived at the seedy arthouse haunts of New York like a dewy-eyed fan, both bewildered and beguiled by what he saw. He may have been signing his new record contract with RCA, but Bowie’s star was far from gleaming.

Zanetta spoke to Bedford and Bowery about the singer’s time in New York and how close they became during this time. The actor claims that it didn’t take long for Bowie to request a meeting with the great Warhol himself, rather than just the man who played him. “We all marched over to The Factory,” the actor remembers. “The meeting was kind of tense because Warhol was not a great talker, you had to talk and entertain Andy, and David really wasn’t a great talker either. Nobody was really taking this conversation and running with it.”

It’s easy to imagine the scene and how tense it must have been. Bowie, clearly a fan but with his own disposition for remaining mystical face to face with a bonafide emperor of the art world, seemingly struggled to engage with anyone brought before him. Awkwardness is one thing but, soon enough, things went from bad to worse as Bowie uncharacteristically embarrassed himself: “So they were circling each other and then David gave him a copy of Hunky Dory on which was his ode to Andy Warhol, the song ‘Andy Warhol’.”

The track isn’t one of Bowie’s best, starting of course with his uncanny impression of Warhol and a comedic expression that shows off Bowie’s acting skills, the song soon descends into a folk-pop track about the mercurial pop artist that is certainly tinged with apprehension and darkness. The lyrics highlight a distrust of the artist: “Andy Warhol looks a scream, hang him on my wall / Andy Warhol silver screen, can’t tell them apart at all,” all of which may have contributed to the artist’s reaction.

“Warhol didn’t say anything but absolutely hated it,” Zanetta remembers of the tense crossing of paths, “Which didn’t help the meeting. Remember, David Bowie was not a big star. He was just some guy off the street as far as Andy Warhol was concerned.” Things did eventually soften a little and, as one may imagine, around fashion. “They found a common ground in David’s shoes. David was wearing yellow Mary Janes and Andy had been a shoe illustrator, which David knew so they began talking about shoes. Otherwise, it was not the greatest meeting [laughs].

“He also met Lou Reed that week and Iggy Pop that week,” recalls the actor. “So it was a big, big, big week. And it was the beginning of the whole next phase of his life and career and as it turns out all of our lives and careers.” Zanetta would end up becoming the tour manager for Bowie across his next two US jaunts and counted him as a good friend up until his death.

Sadly, the possibility of two of the 20th century’s most creative and purposeful minds ended with the drop of a record needle as Bowie and Warhol quickly ascertained they were never going to be great friends. But Bowie certainly made off the better of the two from their meeting. Bowie could count two lifelong partners in Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, who he met on the trip and the seedlings of his upcoming creation Ziggy Stardust who he lifted from the underbelly of NYC. But we’re sure that both Bowie and Warhol were left cringing whenever they reminisced about their brief and awkward meeting.