Fifty-years ago this November, Lou Reed released his second solo album, and created his most successful and influential work. Transformer, produced by Reed fans David Bowie and Bowie’s collaborator, guitarist Mick Ronson, was viewed then (and still is) as a milestone recording. An album that contains such songs as ‘Satellite Of Love’, ‘Vicious’, the eternal ‘Perfect Day’ and Reed’s biggest solo hit ‘Walk On The Wild Side’.
Reed’s journey to Transformer began years before, with his band The Velvet Underground. Formed in 1964 by Reed, Sterling Morrison and John Cale, by 1965 the lineup was complete with the edition of Maureen Tucker. The following year they were hired by pop artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol to become his house band at The Factory – Warhol’s workspace studio and hangout in New York. It was here that Reed met the characters who formed the lyrics to ‘Walk
On The Wild Side’.
On the surface, ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ is musical minimalism, and perhaps that adds to the lyrical delivery. A dominant, and instantly recognizable bass line by session man Herbie Flowers (double bass and electric), and a gently strummed guitar covering three chords make up the bones of the piece. It strays with the twice interruption of gospel singing of “Do Doo Do” provided by the female trio The Thunder Thighs with Bowie, and a saxophone solo to the fade-out by Ronnie Ross. In a nutshell, that’s it.
So dissecting the lyrics, uncovers a hidden depth along with the people who Reed drew inspiration from, and provides an insight into the late artist’s mindset.
“Holly came from Miami, FLA”
The first protagonist of our story is Holly Woodlawn, a transgender Puerto Rican actress who at time was becoming the focal point of Andy Warhol’s movies and establishing herself as the first openly transgender actress.
She did grow up in Miami, before leaving for New York and starring in the seminal arthouse films Thrash and Women In Revolt. Woodlawn died in 2015 of cancer at the age of 69 after undergoing a revival. But her movies and later work lives on, as does her name.
“Candy came from out on the island”
Similar to Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling was a transgender actress who again through Warhol achieved fame in the movies Flesh and Women In Revolt. Reed had name checked Candy in the past on The Velvet Underground track ‘Candy Says’ in 1969 – the root of which is focused on somebody wanting to change the body they were born with. Earlier again, Candy was mentioned by The Rolling Stones in the chorus of their ’67 track ‘Citadel’. Darling died young at the age of 29 in 1974 of lymphoma. Her verse has the now notorious line that censors at the time missed:
“But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head..”
“Little Joe never once gave it away”
Little Joe is actor Joe Dallesandro, a one time sex symbol and gay icon. It is widely known that he is bisexual although he has married three women to date. That of course points to the fact he is still with us, although retired from acting having appeared in episodes of Miami Vice and movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club. A deeper fact and further connection to music is that it is in fact Dallesandro’s crotch that appears on The Stones classic album cover Sticky Fingers as well as his image on the cover of The Smiths’ debut album.
“Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets”
Sugar Plum Fairy AKA Joe Campbell appeared in Warhol’s 1965 movie My Hustler. In that he was cast as Sugar Plum Fairy hence the moniker that lives on today. In the late fifties and early sixties he was in a relationship with Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office until he was assassinated in 1978. Campbell lived until 2005, though not much is known about him or why indeed Reed chose him for this song. In many ways, it is perhaps the aspects of the film character Reed is paying homage to and not the actual person.
“Jackie is just speeding away”
Jackie Curtis is one of the more successful people who came out of the underground sixties art scene. In 1967 she gave Robert DeNiro his first acting break in her own penned production Glory, Glamour and Gold, and made her debut on stage two years previous alongside newcomer Bette Midler. Though she would sometimes appear as a woman or man when the need arose, she was first and foremost an actress playing a role. A writer herself of poetry along with plays and sometimes music, fate led to her leaving this world in 1984 from a heroin overdose.
And now, in a whole new light, listen to ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ by the one and only Lou Reed.