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The Story Behind The Song: Lou Reed's pioneering and transgressive opus, 'Walk on the Wild Side'

Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ is one of the most enduring songs that he ever produced. America’s foremost transgressive musician, Reed famously had a penchant for the risqué, and his songs were often used as a means of exploring the confusion that stemmed from his own feelings, and also the world of total hedonism and transgression that he lived in. 

Inspired as much by himself as by his surroundings, it was on tracks such as ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ where Reed truly showcased himself as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson and recorded at Trident Studios in London, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ was released on November 24th, 1972, as part of the double A-side single alongside another one of his most timeless efforts, ‘Perfect Day’. Both tracks would feature on that year’s Transformer, which is arguably Reed’s most significant opus in his post-Velvet Underground days. 

Musically, it is a classic. Featuring the portamento bassline, Thunderthighs’ “do-do-do” backing vocals and the baritone saxophone solo, one also would argue that it is the catchiest song Lou Reed ever penned. However, the most critical element of the song is in the lyrics. Like with every piece Reed penned, at the time, lyrically, the topics he discussed were incredibly progressive. It touched on ‘taboo topics’ such as transgender issues, drugs, male prostitution and oral sex.

It was fitting that Bowie and Ronson were hired as producers, as on the other side of the Atlantic, in many ways, they could be hailed as Reed’s counterparts in challenging the outdated social and sexual mores. Ironically, although the song is known as a countercultural anthem, it received widespread radio coverage, and it became Reed’s biggest hit. 

The song was so transgressive that the uber-conservative BBC, at the time, didn’t pick up on the meaning of “giving head”, which slipped under the noses of their censors. In this sense, the song could not have been any more Lou Reed. Undoubtedly his signature song, the lyrics described a variety of different individuals and their journeys to the liberal haven that New York City represented at the time.

Several of Reed’s friends and his old collaborator, Andy Warhol, along with his ‘superstars’, are mentioned. Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Joe Dallesandro, Jackie Curtis and Joe Campbell are all referenced in some capacity.

The first verse loosely describes Holly Woodlawn’s experiences. A transgender actress who grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1962 as a 15-year-old, she ran away from home and “hitchhiked her way across the USA”. On her momentous trip of personal discovery, she blossomed, had romances with other men, including US Marines, and her friend Georgette taught her how to pluck her eyebrows. 

The second figure mentioned is Candy Darling, another transgender actress, who had already been the subject of the 1969 Velvet Underground track, ‘Candy Says’. Darling grew up on Long Island, “the island”, and was a regular feature in “the back room” of the New York venue Max’s Kansas City. It is here that Reed mentions Darling “giving head”.

Reed then moved to “Little Joe”, which was the nickname of Joe Dallesandro, the actor who starred in 1968’s Flesh, a film about a teenage hustler that highlights some of Warhol’s best-known superstars. In 2014, he claimed he was still to meet Reed when the song was written and offered that the lyrics were based on his character in the film and not his person. As an interesting side note, Dallesandro’s picture is featured on the cover of The Smiths‘ 1984 debut.

Famously, “Sugar Plum Fairy” is taken as a reference to actor Joe Campbell, who played a character by that name in Warhol’s iconic 1965 film, My Hustler. A euphemism for ‘drug dealer’, it has also been argued that the term could have been used as a reference to numerous drug dealers within Warhol’s inner circle.

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The final superstar referenced in the song is Jackie Curtis, another Factory Studio actress. Warhol once said of her artistry: “Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen. Jackie is an artist. A pioneer without a frontier.” Reed discussed her drug addiction, with “speeding” and “crashing” pertaining to each end of the narcotic experience. 

He also discusses her fascination with James Dean and, one day, how she hoped to play her idol in a film. Reed’s use of a double entendre here is one of his most ingenious moments, with “speeding” and “crashing” also referencing the Rebel Without a Cause icon’s death in a car crash. The verse reads: “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”.

Acutely aware of the song’s juxtaposition as an important piece tacitly and explicitly discussing transgression and as a mainstream hit, in 1972, Reed described it as “an outright gay song”. He said it was “from me to them, but they’re carefully worded so the straights can miss out on the implications and enjoy them without being offended. I suppose though the album is going to offend some people.”

Reed had tremendous empathy for the characters he included in the song, as he always struggled with sexuality during his life. A brilliantly progressive number discussing gender roles, the song continues to endure. It has taken on new importance as of late, given just how topical gender politics have become over the last few years.

A mystifying man in life and in music, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ is one of the clearest examples of what Lou Reed was truly about. A genius musician and even better lyricist, he was capable of touching on numerous weighty subjects over the course of a single song.

Without his pioneering forward steps and those of David Bowie‘s, culture would be very different today. Although we have a long way to go in terms of gender politics and namely equality, Reed was at the forefront of the sexual revolution and helped to break down the door, paving the way for future legends such as Björk, Leigh Bowery, Buzzcocks and countless others.

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