Back in 2016, I spent the year trawling the internet for interesting cover versions of the Velvet Underground song “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Here’s a list of the versions I listened to and my notes on what I learned listening to them.
I mentioned to my boyfriend (the biggest Velvet Underground fan that I know) that he should start a Tumblr strictly dedicated to recordings of people covering “I’m Waiting for the Man,” and as soon as it came out of my mouth, I was like, damn, I’m totally stealing my own idea. So, here’s the inaugural entry, of who else but David Bowie cranking it out in rehearsal, visibly cracking himself up throughout.
It was appropriate, given the circumstances of his passing in January, to start my “I’m Waiting for the Man” covers series with David Bowie, but this version by Richard Hawley is really #1 in my heart. I first heard it in a hotel room in Drumshanbo, Ireland, in the summer of 2012, over the tinny speakers on an iPad. It actually ups the ante on Lou Reed’s effortless cool by completely avoiding any kind of derivative rock arrangement, aiming instead for a kind of down-tempo lounge rave-up style that somehow still leaves enough room for a sense of sublime depravity.
MARCH–THE BLACK VELVET BAND
There’s of course plenty of professional musicians who have covered “I’m Waiting for the Man”–and I’ll be posting a bunch more of them below–but I just couldn’t resist sharing this winningly rough-around-the-edges recording of a couple of young Italian buskers playing it outside some mall-esque boardwalk with a cigar-box guitar. A number of years ago, I got slightly obsessed with French rap music, and after hearing this cover (as well as this bombastic-fantastic version of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”), I could easily see myself getting on a similar kind of Italian rock kick.
APRIL–ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
I was gonna be a little rough on this cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” by Echo & the Bunnymen. I was all set to talk about how, sure, it seems like it’d be easy to blow through a cover of this song, just because it doesn’t necessarily require a fancy arrangement–as long as you can keep all the lyrics straight, you’re basically set–though, if that’s all you’re going to do, why bother? I was going to go on a long tirade about how you actually do have to do something fancy to the arrangement in order to compensate for not having, y’know, Lou Reed fronting the band with his magnificent attitude and the Velvets’ extremely specific late-’60s New York dirtbag sound that’s always seemingly on the verge of coming completely unhinged. But, then I realized that Ian McCulloch was probably just like, “why in God’s name to I have to lead this whole thing off with an ad for bloody Jägermeister?” and then decided to pull out one of the first songs he probably ever learned to cover as a young musician just to get through the damn taping. In that sense, playing a completely pedestrian cover of a song that’s pretty guaranteed to elicit a happy “oh yeah, I love that song!” response from a crowd of NME journo-snobs is actually kinda punk rock indeed.
This version of “I’m Waiting for the Man” comes from this lovely little bit of non-professionally filmed footage of a 2010 Juliette Lewis show in Paris. It’s exactly what a cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” should be, which is to say, kind of a mess. I love that the first, like, two minutes of the video is just technical trouble getting all the amps and mics to work, French heckling, and Lewis vamping to kill time. And then the performance of the song itself is just shoutin’, shoutin’, shoutin’. There’s absolutely no nuance, nor should there be. I cringe with acute recognition, especially during her little improvised monologue, at how much she clearly LOVES being on stage and how hard she’s working to keep the performance together and make the audience happy. It’s a disaster, and it’s perfect.
I heave a big sigh over Beck’s “Record Club” cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man,” recorded with (according to Stereogum) Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Brian Lebarton, Bram Inscore, Yo, Giovanni Ribisi, Chris Holmes, and Thorunn Magnusdottir. I will go to the mat for Beck as a vocalist any day of the week, but as far as what writer Amrit Singh hears as “a loopy and ramshackle strain of psychedelia,” I mostly hear as a needlessly sloppy in-joke among pros who should’ve known better. Just because the Velvets sounded like they were falling apart, musically, doesn’t mean that they actually were and I always kind of take it as an affront to Lou Reed’s massive (if ornery) intellect when people are like, “yeah, let’s just fart through this; it’ll sound cool.”
Argh, I wish The Districts had covered the entirety of “I’m Waiting for the Man” rather than just using a couple verses as an intro to their own song. Nevertheless, even if it’s not a full cover, I couldn’t resist highlighting this video clip this month because of how much I adore their rough and tumble tribute to Lou Reed (apparently performed and recorded on the actual day of his death). The lead singer’s vocal affectations are pure 2010s (that kind of yelpy, choked enunciation that, even in a rock context, always sounds about an inch away from all that nuevo-banjo white-bread hoedown music that I’m still patiently waiting to fall out of style), but I don’t think I’ll ever not love that slightly falling apart, we-can-barely-play-our-instruments sensibility unique to really young kids just waking up to the power of playing a few simple chords really fast and really loud.
I tend to be a sucker for people rewriting, bobbling, misremembering, or otherwise changing the lyrics on the fly during a performance of a song, so I was especially delighted by this short video of The Tubes speeding through a verse or two of “I’m Waiting for the Man” with only the most scant fidelity to the actual words.
Hey, music nerds–remember when we were all suddenly huge fans of the band Of Montreal a decade ago, thanks to the release of their confessional, psychedelic, and completely insane album Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? Those were the days. Before Pitchfork anointed it Best New Music, I’d mostly remembered the band for their annoyingly catchy song “Fun Loving Nun,” which I used to play occasionally on the radio show I hosted for a few years at Indiana University’s student station WIUS. Anyway, I lost track of them a bit after I found 2010’s False Priest to be a bit on the side of diminishing returns, but apparently Kevin Barnes is still out there bare-torso’d, glamming it up, if this terrific cover of “I’m Waiting for the Man” is any indication. It’s properly loud and relentless, if just slightly embarrassingly fanboyish.
I went through a phase a while ago where I got really into contemporary French pop music. I love the through-the-looking-glass quality of it, how even when it’s trying to be faithful to American or UK standards of production and style, it’s ever so slightly strange, wonderfully so. Simultaneously too precise and too nonchalant. So it is with Vanessa Paradis’s take on “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Every note is in the exact right place, she sings all the lyrics faithfully in English, yet it’s suffused with a kind of winking shrugginess. Like, she’s not going to try that hard to whip herself and her band into any sort of punk-esque rock ‘n’ roll frenzy despite all the outward appearances to the contrary. Bonus points for the shortest sax solo I think I’ve ever heard and for the two George Michael lookalike backup singers.
NOVEMBER–Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
As the year has worn on, I’ve been getting nervous that I’d start running out of interesting covers of “I’m Waiting for the Man.” I needn’t have worried this month–I happily discovered Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark’s 1980 version, which was apparently the B-side to their single “Messages.” My boyfriend and I laugh a lot about how I, irrationally, have very little tolerance for that herky-jerky late ’70s/early ’80s “Synth Britannia” stuff. (Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that, though I do love repetitious dance music, there’s not enough bass in the genre for my tastes.) However, if given the choice between another overblown bar band rave-up version of the song and an endearingly tinny take on it that clocks in at less than three minutes yet still manages to include a shrill and reedy keyboard solo, give me the early ’80s version any day of the week. Plus! I have no idea where the video footage that’s linked to the song on YouTube comes from, but I love the awkward B-movie artiness of it. (Is that yogurt that he’s eating in what feels like one long take for, like, three straight minutes?)
DECEMBER–THE FELUS CREMINS BAND
I wish I could say I’d planned this idea in advance, but it only came to me a few weeks ago. Of course it felt supremely obvious as soon as I thought of it. But, for the final cover version of “I’m Waiting for the Man” this year, I present…me! Click here to listen to The Felus Cremins Band covering the song in our living room.