Right from the early days of The Velvet Underground, Brooklyn born Lou Reed had taken the location, people and elements of New York, usually the darker elements, and put them to a unique musical backdrop in order to tell a story. Take for example, I’m Waiting for the Man from Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), a song about purchasing $26 worth of heroin in a Harlem brownstone near the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, written from the perspective of the purchaser.
In the late 1960s, Reed (along with other members of The Velvet Underground: John Cale, Stirling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, together with Nico) was a regular at Andy Warhol’s Factory. In 1966, Warhol set his sights on the world of rock music, sponsoring The Velvet Underground. From The Factory, Reed drew inspiration for many of the Velvet Underground’s songs, setting the ‘low life’ characters that were an integral part of the scene and the goings on inside The Factory to music. Take for example, Heroin (from Velvet Underground and Nico) and later, Candy Says (from The Velvet Underground, 1968).
Candy Says is a precursor to the themes expressed on one of Reed’s best known songs, Walk on the Wild Side, from his 1972 David Bowie produced classic, Transformer. Candy Says tells the story of Candy Darling, a transgender Warhol Superstar who starred in Warhol’s films Flesh (1968) and Women in Revolt (1971). Four years after Candy Says, Darling would also become one of Reed’s muses for Walk on the Wild Side.
Jayne County said of Reed’s transfixation with characters such as Candy Darling:
“Lou Reed was fascinated with trannies, transsexuals particularly. He loved transvestites, he’s fascinated with transvestites. But Lou, at one time actually had a girlfriend called Rachel and she was a transsexual. It’s only natural that Lou would write a song where three of the characters are drag queens”.
Reed struggled with his own sexuality throughout most of his life. When he was 16, his parents consented to Reed being given electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to cure his homosexual feelings. Reed appeared to blame his father for what he had been put through and wrote about the incident in his 1974 song Kill Your Sons, from the album Sally Can’t Dance.
In an interview with Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain for the book Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996), Reed said of the electroconvulsive therapy:
“They put this thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland State Hospital to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again”.
For Walk on the Wild Side, Reed remembered the transsexuals and transvestites of Warhol’s Factory scene and painted a tale of how they had come to be in New York. In the first verse of the song, we are introduced to Holly: “Holly came from Miami, FLA”. Holly refers to Holly Woodlawn, a transvestite born Haraldo Santiago Franeschi Rodriguez Danhakl, born in Puerto Rico, 1946 who “Hitched hiked her way across the USA, Plucked her eyebrows on the way, Shaved her legs and then he was a she”. Holly is best remembered for starring in Warhol’s film Trash (1970) alongside Joe Dallesandro, whom I shall mention later.
In the second verse, we see Candy Darling return into Reed’s songwriting: “Candy came from out on the Island”. Transsexual Candy Darling was born James Lawrence Slattery on Long Island, New York in 1944. Candy Darling died of cancer in 1974.
In the third verse, “Little Joe” who “never once gave it away” refers to Joe Dallesandro, born in Pensacols, Florida in 1948. Dallesandro was the ‘straight’ butch Brooklyn street kid who had turned to gay hustling before his discovery by Warhol and director Paul Morrissey, hence the lines, “A hustle here and a hustle there, New York City is the place where …” Warhol and Morrissey used Dallesandro’s universal sex appeal to their advantage in several full-length cinema projects, most notably Lonesome Cowboys (1968); Trash (1970) and Heat (1972). Later Dallesandro crossed over into mainstream films, playing the part of Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano in The Cotton Club (1984) alongside Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Bob Hoskins. He is now considered to be an icon of underground cinema and of gay subculture.
“Sugar Plum Fairy” in verse four, refers to actor Joe Campbell and not to a drug dealer, as often mistakenly thought by listeners. Campbell, who’s nickname was the “Sugar Plum Fairy” appeared in a few of Warhol’s films, including My Hustler (1965) and Nude Restaurant (1967). Campbell was also known for being in a relationship with openly gay politician Harvey Milk. Campbell passed away in 2005 following a lengthy battle with AIDS.
“Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day …” refers to drag queen Jackie Curtis. Curtis was born John Holder Jr. In 1947 and performed both in and out of drag in films, most notably Warhol’s Flesh and Women in Revolt, as well as onstage. He was also a prolific writer. Curtis has also been credited for, in some part, inspiring the glam rock movement of the 1970’s due to his use of lipstick, glitter, bright red hair and ripped dresses and stockings during drag performances. Warhol once described Curtus as follows: “Jackie Curtis is not a drag queen. Jackie is an artist. A pioneer without a frontier”. Curtis was also a heavy drug user, hence the aforementioned lines alluding to speed and its effects and the following lines, “Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that bash”. Curtis succumbed to his addiction to heroin and various other drugs and died following an overdose in 1985.
Amazingly, for a song that concerns itself with such subject matter and contains phrases such as “giving head”, Walk on the Wild Side was never banned by the BBC or by most US radio stations because they simply did not understand the references. Walk on the Wild Side did however see some edited versions at the time, but instead of taking out the reference to oral sex, various edits replace the line “And the coloured girls say” with “And the girls all say”. This could simply just be because many radio stations in 1972 were limited to a time frame of 3 to 3 and a half minutes per song, which the full version of Walk on the Wild Side lasts 4 minutes and 12 seconds. Speaking about Walk on the Wide Side in Victor Bokris’s biography Transformer: The Lou Reed Story (1994), Reed said: “I always thought it would be kind of fun to introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet”.
Reed continued to use the backdrop of New York and its people, often those caught on the outside of society, in his songs throughout his career. The Transformer album notably features several songs written about the New York scene that he loved, including Andy’s Chest, a song with a Dadaist lyrical structure written for Andy Warhol following his failed assassination attempt by Valerie Solanas in 1968.
The album also notably includes New York Telephone Conversation, a rather sarcastic song about the spreading of tittle-tattle by telephone in “the city of shows”.
Later in his career, Reed would use the imagery of New York, still using inhabitants regarded as ‘low life’, to great effect on his 1989 album New York. Whilst the New York album is highly regarded for the strength and force of its lyrics, it drew much criticism at the time for its apparent pedestrian “truck driver” musicianship. However, the music of the New York album is purposely simplistic in order to not distract from the frankness of the lyrical content. Throughout the fourteen songs featured on the album, the lyrics are profuse and carefully woven into a concept album. In the liner notes for the album, Reed directs the listener to hear the album in one sitting “as though it were a book or a movie”.
On New York, an older Reed seemed more much more bitter towards his once beloved city. Take for example, the lyrics in one of the album’s tales of life in a New York Slum, Dirty Blvd. “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em, That’s what the statue of bigotry says, Your poor huddled masses, Let’s club ‘em to death, And get it over with and just dump them on the boulevard”, says Reed with more than a hint of sarcastic anger. These lines are a play on the 1883 poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which in 1903 was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the second verse of which reads:
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!””
Elsewhere on the New York album, we find the song Romeo Had Juliette, a song about New York’s hopeless, hopeful, innocent, violent and greedy. Romeo Had Juliette is a dark and bitter modern day take on Romeo and Juliet but also a poem to the beautiful but dirty and wrecked city that Reed adored, complete with the awe-inspiring opening lines, “Caught between the twisted stars, The plotted lines, the faulty map, That brought Columbus to New York”. Elsewhere, Reed tells of how “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock, Into the filthy Hudson, what a shock, They wrote a book about it, They said it was like ancient Rome”, expressing Reed’s concerns that like Ancient Rome, New York had become too big for its own good.
Also on the album is the song Halloween Parade, about the annual gay celebration in Greenwich Village and to all intents and purposes, a dark sequel to Walk on the Wild Side. Halloween Parade is a post-AIDS crisis tribute to those who had fallen. “There ain’t no Harry, no Virgin Mary, You Won’t hear those voices again, And Johnny Rio and Rotten Rita, You’ll never see those faces again” says Reed solemnly.