Lou Reed didn’t invent the notion of injecting a literary style into songwriting, but with The Velvet Underground he both developed a narrative style that would be emulated so often that it now seems totally ordinary (“Candy Says,” “Lisa Says,” “Sweet Jane,” “The Gift” to name a few) and he introduced frank references to heroin, addiction, trans people, sadomasochism, and general chaos in ways not previously seen before in rock—this was in stark contrast to the airy and spiritual references to the LSD culture of the time. With Reed at the helm, The Velvet Underground only released four albums—the first two, with violist John Cale, were so avant-garde for their time that they basically invented the roots of punk; the last two, without Cale, focuses more on songwriting and a more typical rock structure (“The Murder Mystery” being the giant exception).
Reed’s debut solo album Lou Reed consisted of 8 unreleased Velvet tracks and 2 original tracks (the original tracks were recorded with Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe of Yes). It was his second solo album Transformer, released six months later and co-produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, that brought Reed into a bigger spotlight and made him into a folk/cult hero. The album contains the cult hits “Perfect Day” and “Satellite of Love” (though I think the outtake recording of the latter with the Velvets is much better), but the instant classic track is “Walk on the Wild Side.”
“Walk on the Wild Side” is by any metric a perfect song—it’s catchy but in an unusual way for a pop song, with its violin, its saxophone, and its stand-up jazz-sounding bass; its construction is odd but the result sounds oddly familiar (Reed and Bowie were masters at this), which cements its timelessness. It is a continuation of Reed’s Velvet years in that it is a short story constructed song about the outcasts and characters from the early Factory days of Andy Warhol, and of New York City in general, that he personally witnessed, while also acting as a bridge point to the more experimental and decidedly non-mainstream catalog that would define Reed’s catalog until he died a few years ago. Reed has always had a singsong style that, in the wrong hands, would add too much remove from its subjects and themes. Maybe that’s why it was so easy for him to write and sing about taboos and hard drugs: his voice lent itself to being a don’t-give-a-shit cool kid testing your limits with subject matter but there was always a humanity to it that could make one care about this perspective, to be curious about it in ways that transcended any surface level coolness about it. If Lou Reed had become a journalist instead of a singer I would not be surprised if he would have wound up being like David Carr. Someone consumed with giving you everything he had with a story and be unflinching about it.
A song with a title of “Walk on the Wild Side,” if I never heard the music yet, would signal to me some amount of energy contained within it. I would probably think of something like “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, especially considering the year of release. I would assume that a guitar solo occurs. And then if, having still not heard the song, I learned that it references a trans woman, fellatio, a hustler, and hard drugs I would have assumed that the music would have attempted to hit you on the head with a hammer so as to line up with the taboo subject matter. Instead, Reed begins the song with “Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.” with the cadence of a midnight disc jockey set to a mellow and matter-of-fact soundtrack with which these character vignettes are comfortably enveloped by. Even when Reed breaks the fourth wall about the colored girls before the choruses it all seems so natural.
The best art is when the artist takes you places you’ve never been and you don’t question it. Their impulses and their details make sense in ways that no one was able to show you before that moment. When I was growing up “Walk on the Wild Side” was not played very often on the radio but when the classic rock station would randomly play it always stopped me in my tracks. Amongst the numerous replays of “Kashmir” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (I mean, they’re good songs but seventeen times a day? C’mon) here was this song… this great little short story of a song with a sound so different to my ears. He sounded like the coolest guy in the world to me in a totally normal way. I could tell without seeing a picture of Lou Reed that he didn’t look like Jimmy Page, or a ’70s one-hit wonder guy like Terry Jacks. He sounded like a dude who was cool in ways that Page and Daltrey and Lennon weren’t. The Beatles reinvented pop, the Stones reinvented rock, Dylan reinvented songwriting—Lou Reed reinvented everything else.