Meet the Characters Immortalized in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: The Stars and Gay Rights Icons from Andy Warhol’s Factory Scene

Lou Reed weath­ered his share of bad press in the decades after leav­ing one of the most influ­en­tial bands in rock history—either for his famed iras­ci­bil­i­ty or his spells of lack­lus­ter song­writ­ing. Some­how, he always had a way of bounc­ing back, prov­ing again and again his cul­tur­al rel­e­vance. For exam­ple, when it seemed like he had cashed in all his cred­i­bil­i­ty with the godaw­ful “Orig­i­nal Rap­per” in the mid-eight­ies, he returned in 1989 with the grit­ty clas­sic rock and roll of New York (and played the White House at the request of his long­time fan and friend Vaclav Hav­el). Reed was a true sur­vivor of a down­town scene that claimed more casu­al­ties than it made stars, and he most­ly made sur­vival look pret­ty good.

When he released his first solo album after quit­ting the Vel­vet Under­ground in 1972, how­ev­er, it seemed like­ly Reed was head­ed for obscu­ri­ty. Lou Reed is most­ly a great col­lec­tion of (most­ly over­pro­duced) songs, “but it isn’t a ter­ri­bly inter­est­ing” record, writes Mark Dem­ing at All­mu­sic, “and it stands today more as a his­tor­i­cal curios­i­ty than any­thing else” for its ear­ly ver­sions of songs like “Berlin.” Not so the fol­low-up, Trans­former, an album boast­ing what may well be some of the best record­ings Reed ever made, like “Per­fect Day” and “Satel­lite of Love.” What made the dif­fer­ence? The influ­ence of David Bowie, who pro­duced with Mick Ron­son, didn’t hurt one bit.

Trans­former also hap­pens to con­tain the only song that broke Reed “through to the main­stream,” notes the Poly­phon­ic video above, the “rock clas­sic” hit, “Walk on the Wild Side.” The song draws its nar­ra­tive strength and its “incred­i­bly sub­ver­sive” nature from its sub­ject: the 60s Fac­to­ry scene sur­round­ing Andy Warhol, which, in effect, made Lou Reed, Lou Reed when Warhol took the Vel­vet Under­ground under his wing. The song reminds us that Reed was at his strongest when he told the tales of his milieu, whether that be the world of junkies, hus­tlers, and sex­u­al out­siders, or of fringe down­town artists unafraid to exper­i­ment with new iden­ti­ties and per­sonas.

These were shared worlds, and Reed knew them well enough to cap­ture them in a lit­er­ary frame pro­vid­ed by Nel­son Algren’s nov­el A Walk on the Wild Side (1956). Rather than cre­ate an adap­ta­tion of the book as he first intend­ed, Reed wrote about six com­pelling Fac­to­ry char­ac­ters, “Super­stars” in Warhol’s coterie, who embod­ied the edgy, coura­geous cool Reed made his theme. First up is Hol­ly Wood­lawn, a trans­gen­der woman who moved to New York from Mia­mi to escape dis­crim­i­na­tion. Warhol dis­cov­ered Wood­lawn work­ing the streets, and put her in films, “where she thrived,” the video notes, becom­ing “an impor­tant fig­ure in LGBTQ his­to­ry and, thanks to Lou Reed, in music his­to­ry, too.”

The next verse intro­duces us to anoth­er impor­tant mem­ber of Warhol’s inner cir­cle, Can­dy Dar­ling, who was also trans­gen­der and a star of Warhol’s films, and who inspired not only “Walk on the Wild Side” but “Can­dy Says” and, quite pos­si­bly, the Kinks’ “Lola.” Dar­ling is already famil­iar to those who know the Fac­to­ry scene, as is the sub­ject of the third vignette, Joe Dalle­san­dro, whom Warhol turned into a cult star in films like Flesh, and who—unlike most of the Fac­to­ry artists—actually achieved main­stream suc­cess, with roles in The Cot­ton Club and The Limey. (He also served as the crotch mod­el on the cov­er of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fin­gers and the “top­less tor­so” on the cov­er of The Smiths’ debut album.)

As the video out­lines brief biogra­phies of each “Walk on the Wild Side” muse, we see that Reed wasn’t only pay­ing homage to his artis­tic com­mu­ni­ty of ori­gin, he also was also pre­serv­ing a pan­theon of cul­tur­al fig­ures who were impor­tant to the gay rights move­ment in one way or anoth­er, as well as to the 60s Warhol aes­thet­ic and the birth of glam rock in the 70s. “Walk on the Wild Side,” notes Poly­phon­ic, “gives us a great lit­tle glimpse into a his­tor­i­cal scene, and it helps us under­stand the peo­ple around Lou Reed that influ­enced the great artist he was.” With­out a doubt, Reed’s most endur­ing work comes from his sym­pa­thet­ic por­traits of the artists and hang­ers-on who made the world he wrote of so sexy, dan­ger­ous, com­plex, and intrigu­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lou Reed Cre­ates a List of the 10 Best Records of All Time

Lou Reed Sings “Sweet Jane” Live, Julian Schn­abel Films It (2006)

Lou Reed and Lau­rie Anderson’s Three Rules for Liv­ing Well: A Short and Suc­cinct Life Phi­los­o­phy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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