Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side

L’artista newyorkese ci guida nella notte più selvaggia e libertina degli anni Settanta con testi che presentano una galleria di personaggi eccentrici come artisti, truffatori e disadattati.

Molly Malcolm

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Walk on the wild side

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An unlikely radio hit in 1972, Walk On The Wild Side was Lou Reed’s only charting song in the US. Including references to cross-dressers, transsexuals, oral sex and drug use, the track was taken from Reed’s second solo album Transformer, co-produced by David Bowie. Each of the five verses tells an anecdote about the misfits who frequented artist Andy Warhol’s Factory studio in New York. 

Inspired by a novel

Inspired by Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel of the same name, which describes the New Orleans underworld, the song opens with transvestite model Holly Woodlawn’s journey to the Big Apple. Further characters introduced are transgender actress Candy Darling from Long Island, who used to “give head” (slang for oral sex) at a local night club, and “Little” Joe D’Allesandro, a gay actor who appeared in a Warhol film as a rent boy.

Another Warhol film mentioned is Sugar Plum Fairy, a euphemism for a drug dealer. The final verse is about drag queen Jackie Curtis, with “speed” and “crash” being wordplay references to drugs and actor James Dean’s death in a car crash.

The lyrics and the grammar

Lyrically, as befits its storytelling format, the song is largely in the past simple. The chorus features scat singing inspired by the 1960s Motown girl groups, but was performed on the record by a trio of white girls from the UK. The word ‘coloured’ was edited from the song by some radio stations for reasons of political correctness — surprisingly this was the only edit to its controversial lyrics. Commenting on his signature song, Lou Reed said: “I thought it would be fun to introduce people you see at parties, but don’t dare approach.”

An excerpt from the song

Holly came from Miami, FLA
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 says, “Hey, babe
Take a walk on the wild side”
Said, “Hey, honey
Take a walk on the wild side”
Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head

Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there
New York City’s the place
Where they said, “Hey, babe
Take a walk on the wild side”
I said, “Hey, Joe
Take a walk on the wild side”
Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets
Looking for soul food and a place to eat
Went to the Apollo
You should’ve seen them go, go, go
They said, “Hey, sugar
Take a walk on the wild side”
I said, “Hey, babe
Take a walk on the wild side”, alright.

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