Waiting For The Man by The Velvet Underground

“I’m Waiting for the Man” by the Velvet Underground straddles the almost uninhabited line between rollicking rock song and succinct encapsulation of life itself. The 1960’s beat movement yielded some of the most profound poets of the twentieth century, but none quite so beautifully captured the nature of human existence like Lou Reed does here. Labeled by the less discerning as a “drug song”, this tune goes far beyond the desire for amphetamines. The reason there is a severe drought of intellectual drug songs is the same reason there is an even more severe drought in intellectual sports films. It’s that intellectualizing by its very nature questions the importance of the subject, which most works of any kind either fail or refuse to do. This song poses that impregnable question of whether or not the fix is important, and that’s what makes the genius of Lou Reed’s lyrics shine through here.

The message is being conveyed the instant the needle drops on the second groove of side one on the Velvet Underground & Nico, although the listener doesn’t know it. Not yet. What can one make of the steady back-beat, the pulsating rhythm guitar, bass, and drums, in a mere instant? But the scene is set, in that as soon as your brain determines what you’re listening to, you expect more, and more never comes. This is far from a flaw in the song, but rather the brilliant establishment of its theme. The listener is waiting for a chorus, just as the strung-out narrator is waiting for his dealer, but all that awaits is more of the same rhythmic droning that the Velvets are known for.

Then, the first lines are sung by Reed in a controlled caterwaul that sounds creeps eerily between ennui and desperation. He’s up to Lexington 125, and he’s only got 26 dollars in his hand. He’s after his fix, he’s going to the ends of the Earth itself to get it, and he only brought enough cash to pay for it. The first verse’s end reveals some of the narrator’s desperation, he feels “sick and dirty, more dead than alive.”, then immediately follows it with the haunting restatement “I’m waiting for my man.” He is dreadfully ashamed of his addiction and hates himself for it, but his craving far outweighs his shame and self-loathing. In life, we’re all “waiting for the man.” We’ve got some thing we want to get a fix of that we’re waiting for. We tell ourselves that everything will be okay when that something comes and that it eventually will.

In the next verse, a local asks the narrator if he’s uptown trying to “chase all our women around”, addressing him as “white boy.” Not only does he not particularly like the narrator, he also doesn’t understand him or his motives. The narrator couldn’t care less for prostitutes when there are amphetamines to be had, and although Reed would go on to explore the theme of frivolous lasciviousness in “There She Goes Again” and “Walk on the Wild Side”, here, it’s “the furthest thing from my mind.”

When the dealer finally does make his entrance, the description of his repulsive appearance makes Ignatius Reilly sound like he’s fit for the cover of GQ. He’s all dressed in black, wearing a big straw hat. What’s more he’s always this late, and even given all of the flaws mentioned, the overpowering lust for the man’s product has got the narrator in such a vise-grip that he’s willing to stand out here by himself, be accosted by the denizens of Lexington, and risk imprisonment all for some illicit substances purchased from the sketchiest character known to man. The narrator gets that “sweet taste” he’s been waiting so long for, and then has to split because he’s “got no time to waste.” His shame and fear is returning, but all the while it’s counterbalanced by his intense desire for his high.

The haunting lyrics of the last verse bring full circle the sheer hopelessness of the narrator’s situation. He’s trying to calm down a woman who’s wracked with concern for his inebriation. He tells her not to ball and shout, because, as he tells her in his stoned haze, he’s “feeling good, I’m gonna work it on out.” The fix he’s been waiting for is here, and even the sight of his crying lover can’t bring him down from the cloud he’s floating on. Then, the facade of his satisfaction all tumbles down with his last lines, “I’m feeling good, I’m feeling oh so fine/Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time”, followed by yet another hauntingly insistent “I’m waiting for my man.” Here he reveals his cyclical dilemma of waiting for his fix, getting it, seeing its ill effects on everything he loves, and then repeating, endlessly, because satisfaction for him is only either a feverish instant or a distant memory. The drug of choice is never named, so it could be nearly any malefic that he absolutely needs to fulfill but can never have enough of. The fix could be a woman, a paycheck, or heroin as the literal interpretation of the song implies. Instead of making another “drug song”, Lou Reed reveals the plight of the Lascivious Sisyphus inside us all.

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