I know a little about Lou Reed, but only a little, really. Enough so that I felt sad about the revolutionary rocker’s passing earlier this month. Nothing like when John Lennon was murdered or when George “All Things Must Pass” Harrison died. But sad, nonetheless. Not a melancholy born of the inevitable passing of the man or the musician, necessarily, but one owed to a sentimental attachment to that smash-hit Reed unleashed on a generation – 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” from Transformer, Reed’s second solo album, which was produced, incidentally, by David Bowie.
Because of “Walk on the Wild Side,” news of Reed’s death at 71 took me back. Such is the power of some songs. You know what they say: Each time you hear certain songs you remember the circumstances around the first few times you listened. “Walk on the Wild Side” is one of those tunes. If there were such a thing as the soundtrack for a teenager’s life in the early 70s, then “Walk” would have to be on it. At least it would be on mine.
Ask me what I knew about Reed prior to his death and I’d say three things: Some band called The Velvet Underground; “Sweet Jane;” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” That’s about it. I have one cassette tape (yeah, a cassette – tells you how much I kept up with his recording career) of Reed’s New York, which has a couple of good, clever songs, including, “Dirty Boulevard,” which caught my ear on the radio one day and lured me to go out and buy the tape.
But “Walk on the Wild Side” is one of those tunes that was seared into my mind when I was just into my teen years and, so, exceedingly vulnerable to the music and cultural moods and influences of those historic times. Never mind that I didn’t realize at first what the song was really about – that its characters and taboo deeds were based on colorful people who hung out with Andy Warhol and Reed; that the song was about a transvestite and oral sex.
When I hear “Walk on the Wild Side” even now I remember the very first time I heard it, sitting on the front steps of my family’s Cape Cod-style home in Massachusetts. There’s a lot going on or soon to be going on. It’s the year that the last ground units are leaving Vietnam. “Pong” introduces the video game craze. The Black September terrorists attack Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Bobby Fischer beats Boris Spassky. The U.S. launches a Christmas bombing campaign against Hanoi.
But this particular day is sunny. It’s mid-morning in the summer, and I am of an age where I am pretty much disinterested in the world at large. What I’m not disinterested in I am disillusioned by. I am full of dread for not having anything much to do. Too young for a job and too old for traditional games, I’m wondering about and pouting over what other kids might be doing and what I could be missing out on.
I want to be older, and fast, so I can drive and leave high school behind. My home and yard aren’t a home and a yard. They are a way station, like an airport terminal that I’m waiting in for a connecting flight to the rest of my life. I don’t understand it, but I’m pretty confused and insecure in general, owing to adolescence, and it seems as if a life, my life, lasts forever and ever, and not necessarily in a good way.
The heat of the day is just getting started. And it’s already too warm and too humid. I’m squinting – hard; the morning is too bright. The windows are fully opened in the house and in the cars speeding by, each with its own passing hint of a DJ talking, or commercial jingling or guitar hook playing. Maybe Bachman–Turner Overdrive.
And then I hear THAT song coming from the radio in my house. The double-bass intro with the electric bass and the upright bass overdubbed: boom, boom-boom, boooooom-boom…boom-boom, boooooom, boom…”Holly came from Miami, F.L.A (boom-boom); hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A…”
If you don’t know all of the lyrics, you know some of them, especially the then-scandalous lines about male prostitution, drugs, oral sex, and “the colored girls” that go, “Doo do doo do doo do do doo…” RCA released the single in the United States using an edited version of the song without the oral sex reference.
And then there’s the other highlight of this infectious song, that delicious, magical sax solo, which sashays and churns, and cuts to the soul, running in and around your brain’s auditory cortex until you feel like you could taste it and hold it.
Reed was as they say, a character. Angry, recalcitrant, feisty and uncertain, he imagined in his body of work a sound that might change or at least shake up the world. It didn’t. And he didn’t. His music never moved the masses. Just because he felt like it, Reed once recorded a double album of feedback and later told an interviewer that even he couldn’t listen to the thing all the way through. He had a following, though, and the history of music will cite his influence on the affectations and poses of a later legion of punk and alternative rockers.
I wonder if Reed was one of those musicians who grew to hate their biggest hit, who are understandably loath to perform that song over and over and over. Does “Walk on the Wild Side” haunt Lou Reed? Who’s to say? What does it matter now?
I remember a day all those years ago when the song rode out of my bedroom window on a soft, warm breeze, on a not so extraordinary morning.