Few rock groups can claim to have broken so much new territory, and maintain such consistent brilliance on record, as the Velvet Underground during their brief lifespan. It was the group’s lot to be ahead of, or at least out of step with, their time. The mid- to late ’60s was an era of explosive growth and experimentation in rock, but the Velvets’ innovations — which blended the energy of rock with the sonic adventurism of the avant-garde, and introduced a new degree of social realism and sexual kinkiness into rock lyrics — were too abrasive for the mainstream to handle. During their time, the group experienced little commercial success; though they were hugely appreciated by a cult audience and some critics, the larger public treated them with indifference or, occasionally, scorn. The Velvets’ music was too important to languish in obscurity, though; their cult only grew larger and larger in the years following their demise, and continued to mushroom through the years. By the 1980s, they were acknowledged not just as one of the most important rock bands of the ’60s, but one of the best of all time, and one whose immense significance cannot be measured by their relatively modest sales.
Historians often hail the group for their incalculable influence upon the punk and new wave of subsequent years, and while the Velvets were undoubtedly a key touchstone of the movements, to focus upon these elements of their vision is to only get part of the story. The group was uncompromising in its music and lyrics, to be sure, sometimes espousing a bleakness and primitivism that would inspire alienated singers and songwriters of future generations. But the band’s colorful and oft-grim soundscapes were firmly grounded in strong, well-constructed songs that could be as humanistic and compassionate as they were outrageous and confrontational. The member most responsible for these qualities was guitarist, singer, and songwriter Lou Reed, whose sing-speak vocals and gripping narratives came to define street-savvy rock & roll.
Reed loved rock & roll from an early age, and even recorded a doo wop-type single as a Long Island teenager in the late ’50s (as a member of the Shades). By the early ’60s, he was also getting into avant-garde jazz and serious poetry, coming under the influence of author Delmore Schwartz while studying at Syracuse University. After graduation, he set his sights considerably lower, churning out tunes for exploitation rock albums as a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records in New York City. Reed did learn some useful things about production at Pickwick, and it was while working there that he met John Cale, a classically trained Welshman who had moved to America to study and perform “serious” music. Cale, who had performed with John Cage and LaMonte Young, found himself increasingly attracted to rock & roll; Reed, for his part, was interested in the avant-garde as well as pop. Reed and Cale were both interested in fusing the avant-garde with rock & roll, and had found the ideal partners for making the vision (a very radical one for the mid-’60s) work; their synergy would be the crucial axis of the Velvet Underground’s early work.
Reed and Cale (who would play bass, viola, and organ) would need to assemble a full band, making tentative steps along this direction by performing together in the Primitives (which also included experimental filmmaker Tony Conrad and avant-garde sculptor Walter DeMaria) to promote a bizarre Reed-penned Pickwick single (“The Ostrich”). By 1965, the group was a quartet called the Velvet Underground, including Reed, Cale, guitarist Sterling Morrison (an old friend of Reed’s), and drummer Angus MacLise. MacLise quit before the band’s first paying gig, claiming that accepting money for art was a sellout; the Velvets quickly recruited drummer Maureen Tucker, a sister of one of Morrison’s friends.
Even at this point, the Velvets were well on their way to developing something quite different. Their original material, principally penned and sung by Reed, dealt with the hard urban realities of Manhattan, describing drug use, sadomasochism, and decadence in cool, unapologetic detail in “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” These were wedded to basic, hard-nosed rock riffs, toughened by Tucker’s metronome beats; the oddly tuned, rumbling guitars; and Cale’s occasional viola scrapes. It was an uncommercial blend to say the least, but the Velvets got an unexpected benefactor when artist and all-around pop art icon Andy Warhol caught the band at a club around the end of 1965. Warhol quickly assumed management of the group, incorporating them into his mixed-media/performance art ensemble, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. By spring 1966, Warhol was producing their debut album.
Warhol was also responsible for embellishing the quartet with Nico, a mysterious European model/chanteuse with a deep voice whom the band accepted rather reluctantly, viewing her spectral presence as rather ornamental. Reed remained the principal lead vocalist, but Nico did sing three of the best songs on the group’s debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, often known as “the banana album” because of its distinctive Warhol-designed cover. Recognized today as one of the core classic albums of rock, it featured an extraordinarily strong set of songs, highlighted by “Heroin,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Venus in Furs,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Femme Fatale,” “Black Angel’s Death Song,” “Sunday Morning”, and “I’m Waiting For The Man.” The sensational drug-and-sex items (especially “Heroin”) got most of the ink, but the more conventional numbers showed Reed to be a songwriter capable of considerable melodicism, sensitivity, and almost naked introspection.
The Song “I’m Waiting For The Man” is about waiting on a street corner in Harlem, near the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, in New York City and purchasing $26 worth of heroin (equivalent to $211 in 2019), sung from the point of view of the purchaser, who has presumably traveled to Harlem from another part of the city; the “man” in the title is a drug dealer.
Along with traditional guitars, bass, and drums, the song also features pounding, percussive rock-and-roll barrelhouse-style piano. It is one of the band’s more popular songs, and one of their many compositions featuring drugs as subject matter.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song number 161 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It noted:
Originally a rootsy Dylan hommage, the song evolved into a proto-punk classic steeped in New York grit. The Velvets mixed R&B rhythm-guitar workout, blues-piano stomp and dreamy art drone, as Reed deadpans a story about scoring $26 worth of heroin in Harlem. “Everything about that song holds true,” said Reed, “except the price.”
In a song review for AllMusic, Dave Thompson called it “one of the all-time classic rock songs … Over chunky guitar, clunking piano, and jackhammer drums, Reed half-sings, half-intones what he would once describe as a love song about a man and the subway.” He notes that it has been recorded by numerous artists, including “David Bowie and the Stooges [who] both cut fascinating takes on the song”. Bowie’s later 1977 song “‘Heroes'” was influenced by Reed’s writing. Each member of the Velvet Underground have performed the song based on their own interpretations.
Watch the video below to learn more about the Velvet Underground and their hit song ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’!