David Bowie and Lou Reed Perform Live Together for the First and Last Time: 1972 and 1997

I dis­cov­ered one of my favorite pieces of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia—a full page ad for the 1983 album from David Bowie’s Zig­gy Star­dust con­cert film—at a flea mar­ket. It’s a nice lit­tle piece of his­to­ry, but a lit­tle bit mis­lead­ing to con­sumers at the time, since it says, “fea­tur­ing the sin­gle ‘White Light/White Heat.’” As every­one knows, “White Light/White Heat” is not a Bowie sin­gle, but a Lou Reed song, one of his many odes to hero­in as lead singer of the Vel­vet Under­ground.

But what­ev­er the admen had in mind in pro­mot­ing this track over Bowie’s many orig­i­nal hits, the star him­self has nev­er been shy about acknowl­edg­ing his debts. When it comes to Zig­gy, “the song­writer who most influ­enced” the glam rock alien is cer­tain­ly Reed, as Bowie him­self says in this 1977 inter­view.

Today, on the one-year anniver­sary of Reed’s death, we revis­it their cre­ative and per­son­al rela­tion­ship, a mutu­al admi­ra­tion that spanned more than four decades. Not only did Bowie cov­er Reed’s songs and pro­duce his 1972 solo album Trans­former, but he wrote 1971’s “Queen Bitch” as a trib­ute to Reed and the Vel­vets. In 1997, Bowie and Reed took the stage togeth­er to per­form the song. The occa­sion was Bowie’s 50th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion at Madi­son Square Gar­den, and the all-star line­up that night includ­ed Frank Black, Dave Grohl, Son­ic Youth, Robert Smith, and Bil­ly Cor­gan (see the full setlist here). But Reed’s appear­ance was the most excit­ing, and in hind­sight, most poignant. At the top of the post, see the two old friends play “Queen Bitch,” just above, they do “White Light/White Heat,” and below, Reed’s clas­sic “Wait­ing for the Man” (they also played Reed’s 1989 “Dirty Boule­vard” togeth­er).

At the time, Bowie was at “some­what of a low point” in his career, writes Rolling Stone, though poised for a come­back with the upcom­ing sin­gle (and Trent Reznor-star­ring video) “I’m Afraid of Amer­i­cans,” which he played with Son­ic Youth that night. But the first time he and Reed shared the stage, in 1972, Bowie was rid­ing high in all his Zig­gy Star­dust glo­ry and reg­u­lar­ly cov­er­ing Vel­vet Under­ground songs on tour. That year, he brought Reed on stage in Lon­don for his “very, very first appear­ance on any stage in Eng­land.” Hear them do “White Light/White Heat” in some­what muf­fled live audio below. They also played “Wait­ing for the Man” and “Sweet Jane” togeth­er, which you can hear at the bot­tom of the post.

While Bowie seems to have tak­en every oppor­tu­ni­ty to lav­ish praise on his idol, Reed was a bit more under­stat­ed, though no less sin­cere, in his appre­ci­a­tion. In 2004, he told Rolling Stone, “We’re still friends after all these years. We go to the occa­sion­al art show and muse­um togeth­er, and I always like work­ing with him […] I saw him play here in New York on his last tour, and it was one of the great­est rock shows I’ve ever seen. At least as far as white peo­ple go. Seri­ous­ly.” Seri­ous­ly, Lou Reed, you are sore­ly missed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rock and Roll Heart, 1998 Doc­u­men­tary Retraces the Remark­able Career of Lou Reed

Teenage Lou Reed Sings Doo-Wop Music (1958–1962)

David Bowie Recalls the Strange Expe­ri­ence of Invent­ing the Char­ac­ter Zig­gy Star­dust (1977)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • White Light White Heat was indeed the only sin­gle off the ZSTMP album. It reached #46 in the UK charts.

  • Greg says:

    Thanks for post­ing these. “White Light/White Heat” was pre­sum­ably fea­tured on the album cov­er and put out as a sin­gle because it’s the only song in the show that Bowie had nev­er released on a stu­dio album. That was a lure to the cus­tomer who might own all the oth­er tracks in their stu­dio ren­di­tions (and even, in the case of a cou­ple of tracks, on one of the two pre­vi­ous­ly released offi­cial live albums, “David Live” and “Stage”).

  • Julian West says:

    White Light/White Heat is anoth­er Lou drug song, but it’s not hero­in. It’s amphet­a­mines. Watch that speed­f­reak. Wait­ing For The Man and Hero­in are both about smack. (as is Sis­ter Ray, prob­a­bly). Lou has claimed that it’s not about drugs at all, but I would take that with a pinch of coke.

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