Friday, April 27

Cold Chillin'

I was out running errands, listening to disc 3 of VU's The Quine Tapes and found myself in a mall parking lot replaying "I'm Waiting For The Man". Again. And again. I had to have sat there, listening, for over half an hour. The entire experience was strange; I had listened to both the song and the album numerous times, but it was as if I had never heard it before. The version recorded on November 27, 1969 changed my perception of how the song could be interpreted.

Let me make the assumption that there is at least passing familiarity with the version of the track from The Velvet Underground & Nico. Aggressive accompaniment (Reed & Morrison's staccato fretwork, Cale's atonal Jerry Lee Lewis percussive piano), with jittery, anxious vocals by Reed in a first-person tale of an addict. This, in my listening experience, was also the model for the live performances, both before and after Cale's departure (see 1969: Live and disc 1 of The Quine Tapes, where the song's structure is essentially the same, though the band wanders a bit and lack some of the propulsion Cale's piano led to the proceedings).

Now to jump back to the recording from 11/27/69. From the start there is a difference. Where the early recordings had immediate motion, even if by 1969 they were somewhat unfocused, this is shambolic. There is no jitter, shudder or motion. The rhythm is lethargic, as if the band was laying down instead of laying it down. The drop in tempo turns the the lead guitar from pointillist dots and sharp punctuation to swirly, hazy ellipses (I hope people are used to my groan-inducing turns of phrase by now). Reed changes his vocal style from the crisp nervous diction, staccato shake and focused craving to one of relaxed ambivalence. He's adding verses – seemingly on the fly – riffing off of the circular motifs of the guitar to remember:

Ever since I was a little boy
Had the strangest dream
Everything that I saw
Didn't seem to be what it seemed

The whole performance is dreamlike. Milky. There is a floating feeling throughout; just the tiniest tether of Moe Tucker's solid beat, a pulse that makes it all real.

As the song drifts past the nine-minute mark, the singer finally scores:

Go on up to a Brownstone, up three flights of stairs
Everybody's pinned you, but nobody cares (oh no)
He's got the works, gives you sweet taste
Then he's gotta split because he's got no time to waste
I'm waiting for my man

This is a significant change; the original lyric is "Then you gotta split because you got no time to waste" (You can hear Doug Yule, Cale's replacement, is singing these original lines in the background). The change is indicative of the entire take – where once was a tale of craving, of needing the fix, feeling the fire ripping at the guts, desperately trying to keep it together just long enough – the need now switches to the seller, who has other mouths to fill, so to speak. There is now a reason for this wistful, strolling take on the song; the singer is already fixed, just picking up more before the hunger ever hits. By tweaking these few words there is a sea change of meaning (the several added verses are mainly color, though their mere addition is further indication of the lack of urgency on the part of the singer), and the last verse changes tone from "leave me alone, the future doesn't matter" to "Hey, I've got it under control, we're good for now":

Hey baby don't you holler - darling, don't you bawl and shout
You know that I'm feeling good, gonna work it on out
I'm feeling good, feeling so fine
Until tomorrow, but that's just some other time
I'm waiting for my man

"I'm Waiting For The Man" - The Velvet Underground, as performed 11/27/69

[Note: This is a piece that has gone through many incarnations. It was the first thing I wrote last spring when I was thinking of blogging again (in fact, it is on the web in the original incarnation, if people want to try to find it), and was revisited as a "test run" for a podcast idea last fall. I was unhappy with both attempts as they stood, so decided in the wake of the Guitar amps post to revisit and revise. It isn't quite there yet, but I think it is stronger than before. Makes me wish I had an editor, or had ever taken a comp or journalism class.]


Ian said...

This is excellent, very well done.

Nice podcast too.

Erik said...

Thanks. I appreciate the kind words, and glad you liked the podcast as well.