“I’m Waiting for the Man” is a song by American rock band the Velvet Underground. Written by Lou Reed, it was first released on their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico. The lyrics describe a man’s efforts to obtain heroin in Harlem.

In various reviews, it is described as “tough garage rock”, “proto-punk classic”, and “one of the all-time classic rock songs”, with renditions by a number of artists.

In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song at number 159 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was moved to number 161 in 2010, and finally re-ranked at number 81 in 2021.

The magazine noted:

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 December 1966, David Bowie’s manager, Kenneth Pitt, acquired an acetate of the then-unreleased The Velvet Underground & Nico and presented it to Bowie. Upon hearing “I’m Waiting for the Man”, he went to his band at the time, the Buzz, and told them they were going to learn it: “We learned ‘Waiting for the Man’ right then and there and we were playing it on stage within a week.” He later recalled in an 2003 interview with Vanity Fair: “Amusingly, not only was I to cover a Velvets song before anyone else in the world, I actually did it before the album came out. Now that’s the essence of Mod.”

Bowie first attempted to record “I’m Waiting for the Man” in the studio during the sessions for his 1967 debut album, and later properly recorded it with another band, the Riot Squad, on April 5, 1967. In his book Rebel Rebel, Chris O’Leary notes the subpar quality of the recording, writing that it “sounded as if they were making do with what they’d found in a school music room.” This version later appeared on the Riot Squad compilations The Last Chapter: Mods & Sods (2012) and The Toy Soldier EP. In this version, Bowie misinterpreted the song’s subject matter, containing the line “I’m just looking for a good friendly behind” instead of “I’m just looking for a dear, dear friend of mine”. Tony Visconti later told biographer Nicholas Pegg: “A very young David Bowie didn’t yet know that ‘the man’ in Harlem parlance meant the drug dealer. So he naturally assumed it was a gay encounter involving money.”

Bowie performed “I’m Waiting for the Man”, often titled as “Waiting for the Man”, for BBC radio shows in 1972 (one recording appearing on 2000’s Bowie at the Beeb) and frequently on the Ziggy Stardust Tour (one recording appearing on 1994’s Santa Monica ’72). He would further perform it on the 1976 Isolar Tour and the 1990 Sound+Vision Tour. While his 1967 recording followed Reed’s original chord structure, Bowie made subtle changes to his live performances. He performed the song with Reed at his 50th birthday bash in 1997. David Buckley writes that Bowie’s 1977 song “‘Heroes'” was influenced by Reed’s writing.


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