Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music. Day One: “It’s Warhol, actually.”

Andy Warhol, David Bowie’s musical tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, from the album Hunky Dory (1971) is just one of the many Bowie songs influenced by the American counterculture of the 1960’s.  Bowie’s interest in Warhol was in no small part due to his love of The Velvet Underground, the band whom Andy Warhol managed and was, aesthetically, something of a svengali figure to.

Bowie was an avid Velvet Underground fan and the experimental art rock ethic of the music with its Lou Reed penned lyrical tales of New York’s dark underbelly was a key factor in influencing Bowie to ditch the whimsical pop style of his early years.  Bowie has performed the Velvet underground songs I’m Waiting For The Man (from their album Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967) and White Light / White Heat, (from the album White Light / White Heat, 1968),  at different points in his career, most notably in the early 70’s.

Bowie also produced and played on Lou Reed’s Transformer album in 1972. Transformer included Lou Reed’s own song for Andy Warhol, Andy’s Chest, a Dada inspired piece written for Andy following the artist’s attempted murder by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

Lou Reed would later go on to release a full length tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella (1990), with Velvet Underground collaborator John Cale, following Warhol’s unexpected death in 1987.

As well as Bowie’s tribute to Andy Warhol, Hunky Dory also featured Queen Bitch, a self-proclaiming Velvet Underground pastiche (see the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory:  “Some V.U white light”) in tribute to the band and in particular, Lou Reed.   The sound of The Velvet Underground would provide a major template for the glam rock sound adopted by Bowie on Hunky Dory’s seminal follow up album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).

Whilst The Velvet Underground were important to Bowie’s sound, Bowie’s image was greatly influenced by Andy Warhol.  Andy Warhol understood the media like no other and showed Bowie how to use it before it used you.  This was done by consciously adopting an image.  The success of Andy Warhol also made it more important to have an image.  Bowie was at the zenith of his success when he displayed complete invulnerability, much like Warhol’s, which hinged on the sense that he wasn’t quite human.  There was no fixed personality, more an ever changing array of personalities, a myriad of masks created by the singer.

Bowie played his tribute song to Andy Warhol when he met him in 1971.  Warhol reportedly didn’t like the song as he thought the lyrics made fun of his physical appearance.  Speaking about his meeting with Andy Warhol, in a BBC interview in 2002, Bowie said:

“The only touch point that we had was a pair of shoes that I was wearing from Anello and Davide, they were real strange little jobs.  I think they were yellow.  As far as I remember they were yellow with a half, no, a two inch heel on them and he really liked them.  And of course it occurred to me that the reason that he was getting quite fascinated with these was that he used to be a shoe designer, or at least he used to do a lot of pictures of shoes anyway because I remember seeing them.  So I thought, oh he liked them then, let’s talk about my shoes.  It became quite a disillusionment in its way.  But on the other hand, it supported everything that I wanted to believe about him, that I was with Andy Warhol for an hour and he said nothing, except he liked my shoes.  Wow, that’s a real anecdote.  Because I’d bought the whole pop art thing that he wasn’t a real person, he was just a creation.  15 years after that, I would be looking at myself and thinking, ‘Don’t people realise that I’m a real person’”.

In 1996, Bowie would have the honour of playing Andy Warhol in the film BasquiatBaquiat is a film based on the life of another influential artist on Bowie’s work, Brooklyn born postmodernist / neo expressionist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Speaking of Bowie’s portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat after the film’s release, Paul Morrissey, the director of many of the films which Warhol produced told People Magazine:

“Bowie was the best by far.  You came away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phony piece of shit, which is how others show him … At least Bowie knew Andy.  They went to the same parties”.