In 1972, a single was released that was unlike anything in the history of AM Radio. Lou Reed’s, Walk on the Wild Side spoke of transgression, otherness and addiction. It also casually mentioned “giving head,” which, for some reason, went over the heads of the notorious radio censors of the day. It was a howl from the other side,a bulletin to the square America that there were whole other cultures walking among them and damn-near invisible.
The New York of this song was grimy and dangerous, the same New York that, two years later, Martin Scorsese would mine for the shattering Taxi Driver. New York City was dangerous, subversive, and the last thing we had resembling Bohemia. It was the New York of Warhol’s Factory where, of course, The Velvet Underground was nurtured and unleashed on the world. And right at the forefront of all of it was Lou Reed.
He’d studied philosophy at Syracuse and was a student of the great American poet, Delmore Schwartz. In the whole time I knew Lou, he was never not reading poetry. He loved haiku, Rilke, Artaud, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valery. You name it, Lou read it. He was also fascinated by the city of New York, kind of the same way I am by Chicago, and I loved when he told me stories of the city in the early ’70s and late ’60s and the tidal, cultural changes that he, himself, helped foster into being. . .the places like Max’s Kansas City, CBGB–the emergence of punk and the roiling and whirling energies that brought it all to bear. He was witness to all of it.
New York was a dangerous place. Forty-Second Street before the invasion of the Disney crowd, was lurid and grim and shiny whore candy for blocks at a time. One of those place that was scary even in broad daylight. And Lou sang of its people in terse and unsparing lyrics. “Walk on the Wild Side” was the beginning of an enormous cultural shift in a bankrupt city of hunger.