Written at about the same time and on the same subject, “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” naturally go together. But whereas the former was about the psychological/spiritual/philosophical aspects of the junkie life, the latter is about the logistics: The places you have to go and the people you have to deal with if you want to keep yourself supplied. In Lou Reed’s case that involved going up to Harlem, where he stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. My guess is that given his nocturnal lifestyle, he was the whitest of white people.

The power of this song is in its specificity: The narrator’s sweaty palm grasps $26, not $25 or $30. Probably all in singles. You can imagine the conversation that is going to ensue: No drug dealer asks for 26 dollars exactly; there’s going to be some sort of negotiation, and likely a shortfall that’s going to have to be made up some other way. Depending on the circumstances, blowjobs may or may not be on the table.

The location mentioned, Lexington & 125th, remains an active drug market to this day. As it happens, just last week a man was killed by being shoved onto the tracks at the East Harlem subway station at that corner.

But for all the gritty urban drama of the lyrics, early versions of “Waiting for the Man” were weirdly countrified. The Words & Music 1965 version features Reed and Cale harmonizing over gentle acoustic guitars:

Notably, Cale gets the lines “Pardon me, sir, nothing could be further from my mid/I’m just waiting for a dear, dear friend of mine,” sounding like a British tourist who’s wandered away from his group. And in this version it’s the dealer, not the buyer, who has to split because he’s got no time to waste.

Also notably, the definite article is repeatedly used in the phrase “waiting for the man.” In the album version it’s always “my man,” making the title a bit confusing.

The Peel Slowly and See box set includes several takes recorded at Ludlow Street. With Sterling Morrison on slide guitar, these are if anything more C&W sounding; Lou even sings with a noticeable twang.

As I was listening just now that shaky voice stirred something in my memory. It took a minute to figure out what it was….

As with David Bowie, when you listen to the early stuff you hear little ideas that were squirreled away for later use.

Anyway, back to Ludlow St.: Cale again gets the “furthest from my mind” couplet. At 3:27 the harmonica makes an appearance, played with a Dylanesque disregard for the ears of the listener. If you can hear this without wincing, you’re a stronger person than I.

Then out of nowhere a screeching viola pops up, as if to remind us that this is indeed the Velvet Underground. Though at this point they were not that; they were just three guys jamming in a Lower East Side apartment, with no idea what the future held for them. No spoilers.