Listening to Lou Reed led me in various directions - back to the poetry of his teacher, Delmore Schwartz, which in turn opened up the realm of American confessional poetry; The Velvet Underground introduced me to Andy Warhol and his world of weirdos and junkies and drag queens. And somewhere in the middle of that there was David Bowie. After Bowie's death I started listening to his music which I hadn't done for quite some time and it got me wondering… what if the Strawman isn't really a Strawman at all but rather a Starman?
If so could this song be understood as a coded message about/for a singer with whom Reed had had a famously conflicted relationship? Bowie was an admirer of The Velvet Underground and produced Reed's early solo album, Transformer, but the two fell out in the late 70s and had an off-on relationship for the rest of their lives. So if Strawman is a message from Lou to David what might that message mean and what is the evidence that it is a message at all?
First the evidence:
1. the way Lou says "straw" sounds a lot like "star";
2. the song talks a lot about rockets, Mars etc and evokes a wealthy rock musician who has given up on cocaine addiction and become self-righteous and preachy;
3. the next track on the album is "Dime Store Mystery" which is about Andy Warhol and references Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Reed was a friend of Scorsese and had seen the film when it came out. David Bowie plays Pontius Pilate in the film.
Errr, that's more or less it…
Second, the meaning of the message:
David Bowie in 1989 was living as a millionaire tax exile in Switzerland and producing lousy music. Strawman is a call to Bowie to get real, remember the stuff he did in the 70s and move back to New York. Look says Lou, it worked for me - by revisiting the Warhol years, hanging out on Christopher Street and getting my hands dirty I produced my best record in years. Why don't you give it a go?
It took Bowie a while to hear this message (there were the Bowie bonds and another decade of lousy music) but eventually he got it, moved back to New York, played Warhol in the film, Basquiat, and produced Heathen, which was his best album since the 70s and a bridge to the final Indian summer of Blackstar.
The case is closed. Bowie gave Reed's career a boost when he was in a post-Velvet hole and Reed eventually repaid the favor.