‘Walk on The Wild Side’ is one of those songs that has bled into the very fabric of alternative American culture – and it’s no wonder. Reed’s journey from troubled suburbanite to transgressive rock star is intricately bound to the underground art scene and creative subcultures that emerged in New York in the 1960s.
As you would expect, his most enduring anthem, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, is near-perfect miniaturisation of that hedonistic age, capturing the dying breath of the counterculture movement as it was nestled in its grave. It’s no wonder, then that Lou Reed’s infamous track was inspired by one of the counterculture era’s founding father’s, the American actor James Dean.
After appearing in Rebel Without a Cause, Dean became a symbol of a new kind of youth culture, embodying the strange new phenomena of the ‘teenager’, a term that had been coined only ten years earlier. In the mid-1940s, America’s youth began to separate themselves from their war-torn elders, but it wouldn’t be until the ’50s and the rise of the beat generation that any real role models would emerge for young people to latch on to. James Dean was arguably one of the first, capturing the roughish charm of Jac Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty with ease.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Dean became a symbol of rebellion and since then, has been namechecked by everyone from Don McLean (‘American Pie’) to Lana Del Rey (‘Blue Jeans’) – the latter of whom has drawn on Dean’s mythic status to suffuse her work with the tragic glamour of Hollywood’s golden age. Reed shares this approach, treating Dean as an embodiment of the adventurous outsider living on the fringes of acceptability.
However, he also used ‘Walk on The Wild Side‘ to interrogate how countercultural figures such as Dean were reduced to shallow archetypes, as though they were costumes people could slip on and off. Take the line: “Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day, Then I guess she had to crash Valium would have helped that bash,” in which Reed not only references the famous crash in Rebel Without a Cause but also drawn a comparison between Dean and the superficiality of countercultural youth.
‘Walk on The Wild Side’ is, at its heart an exploration of the extent to which cultural figures influence our lives and behaviour. In this sense, Reed seems to acknowledge that much of what came to define the countercultural age was – as Red Hot Chili Peppers put it in their 1999 hit ‘Californication’ – “made in a Hollywood basement”. After all, Reed himself had been part of one of New York’s most seminal rock outfits The Velvet Underground, a group which, despite seeming to represent the pinnacle of artistic authenticity, was crafted by the famed artist-come-capitalist Andy Warhol.