One night in Manhattan, my friend, Bob Chase, and I met up with Lou Reed to attend a benefit for Prospect 1, the first-ever New Orleans Biennial. It was at the Core Club, a kind of fancy-schmancy, arts-positive club that had graciously agreed to host the event. While standing outside, Lou told us of how “Walk on the Wild Side” came into being. It was initially written for a musical based on Nelson Algren’s novel of the same name. When the financing failed to materialize, Lou switched out Algren’s New Orleans demimonde for Warhol’s Factory denizens and achieved the only top 40 hit of his career.
Never before had Top 40 radio had a song that spoke so clearly to the “other”–junkies, gay people, and other square pegs who existed in the margins of American life.
The first time I heard it I was in seventh grade, wearing black pants, a white shirt and a red tie (the Catholic school uniform of St Pius X)and I remember thinking that I didn’t know completely what this song was about, but I knew it had something to do with me.
It was one of those moments that set me free and let me know that there was another side.
It probably isn’t Lou’s best song, or even his best-known song, but it is the one that reached into the white-bread heart of America and announced that the freaks and misfits and others who chose a life outside of the lines weren’t going anywhere to hide any more, and this was not a small thing. Lou broke down the door, and the rest of us got to walk through it.