Music is a refuge from the stress and turmoil of everyday life for many people, even Your Sexy Librarian. While listening to a local radio station one morning, Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ played. I have always enjoyed this song and picked up on the meaning of the lyrics the first time I heard the song played (blame Coolest. Mom. Ever. for giving me unlimited and uncensored access to all things written). Let’s take a look at the man and the story behind this gem, which features drugs, prostitution and transvestites.
Lewis Allan “Lou” Reed was born on March 2, 1942, in Brooklyn, New York, into a middle-class Jewish family. In 1952, Reed’s family moved to a suburban house in Freeport, located on the south shore of Long Island, where Reed and his younger sister Merrill spent the majority of their youth. According to his sister, the move from social Brooklyn to isolated Freeport is what would drive Reed to music, possibly as his own refuge from the world around him.
Several print sources from the 1970s have identified Reed as being homosexual and has having struggled with his sexuality when he was a teenager. Medical care was approached differently in the 1950s. When Reed’s doctor suggested electroshock therapy for 17-year-old Reed, his parents went along with the doctor. These treatments caused Reed to suffer memory loss and have trouble concentrating.
In 1960, Reed began to study at Syracuse University. He started playing music in bands and started using drugs more heavily. He would make his way to New York City. Reed was the guitarist, vocalist and principal songwriter for the band Velvet Underground.
Artist and film producer Andy Warhol’s studio, called the Factory, was located on a fourth floor loft on East 47th Street and was the epicenter of New York pop culture. Warhol’s film-making partner, Paul Morrissey, had seen Reed perform with The Velvet Underground and invited the musician to the Factory. Reed’s time at the Factory would influence his music and songwriting.
Reed would eventually become an iconic musician, singer and songwriter who would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. David Bowie credited Reed with being a “huge inspiration,” not just to Bowie himself but for many others as well. Reed’s solo career would span several decades.
Not a big monetary success for his record label as a solo act, Reed was teamed up with Bowie and his guitarist Mike Ronson by RCA in the hopes they could help Reed bring in some bucks. The trio recorded the album Transformer in just 60 hours over 10 days’ time. The album was released in 1972, and included the biggest hit of Reed’s career, ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’
Reed had been playing his blockbuster hit for a year before he recorded it with Bowie and Ronson. Despite lyrics deemed scandalous by some people at the time, Transformer reached #29 on the charts in the United States and #13 in the United Kingdom.
RCA changed the ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ lyric of “all the colored girls say” to “all the girls say” for the U.S. radio market. Even with this change, the song was considered to be politically incorrect in certain markets. Nonetheless, many American DJ’s opted to play the unedited version of Reed’s song and its popularity in the United States grew.
Reed died of liver disease on October 27, 2013, but his music lives on as new generations discover Reed’s works of art.
‘Walk on the Wild Side’ is Reed’s memoir of his years spent at Andy Warhol’s Factory surrounded by some of the stars in Warhol’s late 1960s movies. After the release of his blockbuster song, Reed had been concerned about his friends’ reactions to being named in his creation. He was fearful they would be mad at him. He need not have worried: his song did not harm any of his friendships.
The title of the song itself, which appears throughout the song, was the pick-up line prostitutes used on their customers. The song opens with the lyrics:
“Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she.
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side …”
This set of lyrics refers to Holly Woodlawn, one of the first transgender celebrities. Woodlawn was born on October 26, 1946, in Puerto Rico as Haraldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhakl in Puerto Rico.
Woodlawn left home as a teenager and actually hitch-hiked to New York. She shared this story with Reed and became the inspiration behind the opening lyrics to his infamous song. She starred in films by Warhol and Morrissey and performed in theatre and cabaret. She made her nightclub debut in 1973 at New York’s Reno Sweeney’s.
The producers of Tootsie (1982) hired Woodlawn to coach actor Dustin Hoffman in the art of being a man acting as a woman in films for Hoffman’s role in the movie.
“Paul Morrissey made me a star, but Lou Reed made me immortal,” Woodlawn told a reporter in 2013. Two years later, at the age of 69, Woodlawn died in hospice care on December 6, in California after battling brain and liver cancer.
“Candy came from out on the island
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head …”
Somehow these lyrics about Candy Darling escaped the notice of the BBC censors as Reed’s blockbuster climbed the charts in Great Britain.
Darling was born James Lawrence Slattery in Long Island, New York, on November 24, 1944. Darling’s first drag name was Hope Slattery. She would eventually start working at Warhol’s Factory taking messages before she became a transgender film star.
Reed sang about Darling in the Velvet Underground song ‘Candy Says,’ which was released in 1968. It is rumored that Darling inspired The Kinks song ‘Lola,’ which was released in 1970. Darling teased Reed, telling him that she had memorized all his songs so she could make a Candy Darling Sings Lou Reed album.
Darling’s dream of singing Reed’s songs would not become reality. In 1974, at the age of 29, Darling died in New York City of lymphoma.
“Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there
New York City is the place where they said:
Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side …”
Joe Dallesandro was a famous sex symbol of the underground film and gay culture in America. He was born on December 31, 1948, in Pensacola, Florida, to teenaged parents. When Joe was just five-years-old, he and his younger brother were placed into a New York adoption facility after their mother was sent to prison for auto theft and their father decided he was unable to care for the boys. They were raised in a series of foster homes, and both boys became frequent runaways. At age 15, Joe followed in his mother’s footsteps and was caught stealing a car. He was sent to juvenile detention and escaped from the facility, ending up in California, where he was accepted into the gay scene.
Dallesandro began posing nude for various photographers in the mid-1960s, quickly becoming one of Henry Mizer’s most famous models. Mizer published Physique Pictorial which he passed off as a bodybuilding publication but which was actually the visual homosexual equivalent to Playboy.
After returning to New York during the summer of 1967, Dallesandro was invited to sit and watch Warhol and Morrissey in Warhol’s apartment building during shooting of an impromptu movie. Morrissey discovered the 18-year-old Dallesandro in the audience, filmed him and propelled him to stardom.
In the film Flesh (1968), Dallesandro became the first actor to offer the audience extensive full-frontal nudity. Since the audience consisted of mostly women and gay men, this helped launch Dallesandro into mainstream success. In 1971, Dallesandro made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. His crotch, having been filmed via Polaroid, was featured as the cover art for the Rolling Stone’s album Sticky Fingers, released in April 1973.
Morrisey’s films, including the X-rated cult films Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974), were highly regarded in Europe. As a result, Dallesandro was placed on an erotic pedestal. In a departure from erotic roles, Dallesandro made regular guest appearances on American TV shows Miami Vice (1984), Wiseguy (1987) and Matlock (1986).
In February 2009, Dallesandro received The Teddy Award, an honor recognizing filmmakers and artists “who have contributed to the further acceptance of LGBT lifestyles, culture and artistic vision.”
Unlike the other stars of ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’ Dallesandro was able to fully cross over to the mainstream as a movie star who appeared on magazine covers. His crotch was featured as the cover art for the Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers. Dallesandro is still alive today. A father of three, he currently lives in California.
“Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the street
Lookin’ for soul food and a place to eat
Went to the Apollo
You should have seen him go, go go…”
Joseph “Joe” Campbell was Reed’s Sugar Plum Fairy. The name derived from the role Campbell played in Warhol’s 1965 film, My Hustler.
Campbell, born on November 4, 1936, discovered he was homosexual at a young age. He struggled with being homosexual at first, but eventually would have several long-lasting relationships. One of his earliest relationships was with Harvey Milk, who would later become famous for being the highest profile gay politician in the United States.
For Valentine’s Day, Campbell had given Milk a pair of fan-tailed pigeons, one male and one female. The birds had made a love-nest in a closet in the couple’s home. Much to the amusement of Milk and Campbell, the birds turned out to be a pair of males.
After he and Milk separated, Campbell had a relationship with Billy Sipple, who became famous in September 1975, after he stopped would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore’s attempt to shoot Gerald Ford.
Campbell died in California is 2005 from complications of AIDS.
Last, but not least, in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ is Jackie. Her inspired lyrics slipped by the censors of the BBC as well.
“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…”
Jackie Curtis was a transvestite performer who was born in New York City on February 19, 1947, as John Holden, Jr. She lived with her grandmother for much of her life above “Slugger’s Ann,” her grandmother’s bar.
Curtis excelled in playing melodramatic female roles, both in film and on stage. In 1973, Curtis appeared at the New York Cultural Center in Cabaret in the Sky — an Evening with Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, which was attended by the community and the straight community alike.
Not just a stage and film success, Curtis sang and wrote both poetry and musicals. Robert de Niro’s first stage role was in Curtis’ 1967 play Glory, Glamour and Gold. Her poetry focused on her fascination with stardom, glamourous divas and broken dreams. Curtis was well known for her glitter-and-lipstick style and is thought to have been the inspiration for the glam-rock look.
In May 1985, at the age of 38, Curtis died of a heroin overdose. She was supposedly buried in a dark suit under which was a black Sicilian slip like her mother and grandmother would have worn and a pair of marabou mules worn during her last performance, which wrapped up not long before her death. At her burial plot, her friends covered her grave with enough red glitter that the plot was visible from the road.
Reed immortalized his friends in verse after Warhol and Morrissey turned them into film stars. Many of these stars have said these films didn’t make them any money, but they were submerged in glamour and fame as a result of their roles in these films.
Darling, Curtis and Dallesandro all starred in the Warhol produced, Morrissey directed and written film Flesh (1968) in which “a man desperate for money … turns prostitute and interplays with a variety of customers and hustlers.”
Woodlawn, Darling and Curtis all starred in Morrissey’s film Women in Revolt (1971), a satire about the women’s liberation movement in which the three leading ladies were all transvestites.
As we listen to music for enjoyment or for refuge from personal stress, we should pay closer attention to the stories often buried in lyrics. These stories add to the collective stories of our personal histories, which interweave to create part of our sexual history as a whole.