Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Walk on the Wild Side - People You Know?

Lou Reed's tale of New York debauchery was a paean to Andy Warhol's Factory crew. "Little Joe," for instance, refers to Joe Dallesandro, a Warhol Superstar from Andy Warhol's Flesh and also Trash, which Rolling Stone called the best film of the year (ahh, leave to RS to extol the virtues of a well-made, unwatchable film). The "Sugar Plum Fairy" is the nickname for actor Joe Campbell; while "Holly," "Candy," and "Jackie" are Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis, all real-life drag queens from Warhol's 1972 film Women in Revolt.

Reed discussed the subjects' proclivities in a matter-of-fact monotone starting with Holly from Miami who, somewhere on I95, I suppose, “Plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she.” Pretty racy for 1972.

Candy Darling at the Chelsea
Candy, Reed extols, is from Long Island (possibly Fire Island), and in the back room, "She was everybody's darlin'." Little Joe, on the other hand, "never once gave it away," and Jackie "thought she was James Dean for a day"(Curtis was obsessed with the idea of playing James Dean in film). On the surface, before weeding through the vernacular, she is tempted by 70s drug use, but refrains, despite the fact that "Valium would have helped that bash." Instead, "speeding away" is a drug reference to an amphetamine high, that Valium would have mellowed and prevented the "crash." 

Meanwhile, the Sugar Plum Fairy was "looking for soul food and a place to eat," before ending up in Harlem at the Apollo. "Wild Side" is rock's first real subterranean expose, the rock equivalent of On the Road. Let's sum it up. In 4:12 we get transsexuals, drug use, male prostitution and fellatio; nothing groundbreaking there.

It was the reaction of the characters involved that Reed feared. "I thought they would all claw my eyes out when I got back to New York," he admitted. "Instead, Candy Darling told me he'd memorized all the songs [from Transformer] and wanted to make a 'Candy Darling Sings Lou Reed' album. It probably wouldn't sell more than a hundred copies!" It wasn't the first time Reed had written a song mentioning Darling. "Candy Says" opened the third Velvet Underground album but did not attract anything like the attention "Wild Side" got.

The title of the song comes from the Nelson Algren novel and film of the same name.

The unmistakable musical hook for "Wild Side" is a sliding bass line devised and played by session musician Herbie Flowers on an upright double-bass. The saxophone solo was not played by album producer David Bowie, as many assume, but by jazz musician Ronnie Ross, who had tutored a 12-year-old Bowie. Bowie booked Ross for the session but didn't tell him he'd be there. After Ross nailed the solo in one take, Bowie showed up to surprise his former teacher. Mick Ronson credits his production and arrangement teaming with Bowie as "pretty sharp," which is reflected in the speed at which the project was completed. "Records were done very quickly back then...we recorded the whole thing in 10 days, six hours a day. We recorded the whole thing in 60 hours and it was mixed and that was it." "Walk on the Wild Side" was one of those occasions when lyrics, production, the hook and the instrumentation gel, and the result, despite the heavy-handedness of radio censorship, is iconic and remains so forty years on.

The B-side of the single shows the diversity of the Transformer LP with "Perfect Day," Reed's romantic, possibly even sentimental, love song. Detractors of that analysis usually point to the final, fatalistic line, "You're going to reap, just what you sow," expostulating the denial of the heroin addict, who knows full well that the perfect day is but one brief, if perfect, moment that will come tumbling down horrifically. Woah, are you kidding? All that on a 7545.