NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final product exactly.
Episode 54, October 20, 2018: WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Please note that while this episode of the show does not use explicit language, there are some adult themes discussed, which you may want to discuss further with your children later. Especially if you didn’t understand something I talk about, and you want them to explain it to you.
Well, hello there! You’ve found the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and sometimes I say doo, di-doo, doo, doo-di-doo
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It’s got cross-dressing, male prostitution, drug abuse, and a touch of racism, but Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” still managed to make it onto the radio and into the Billboard Top Twenty.
Lou Reed had left the Velvet Underground in 1970 to strike out on his own. The Velvet Underground was a pretty influential band, but not an especially successful one from a commercial standpoint. Reed’s first album had pretty much tanked, but he still managed to enlist some high-powered talent to assist him with putting together his second one, which was called Transformer. Two of those people were David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who produced the album.
Bowie, of course, was at the cutting edge of Glam Rock, which has always had a tinge of sexual ambiguity to it, and this was a facet of the entertainment industry that audiences were drawn to as an entertainment form, if not a specific lifestyle choice. Now, while Lou Reed wasn’t really struggling with his sexuality by then, he understood the hassles that the LGBTQ community—who didn’t even have that name yet—went through on a personal and professional level. So he decided to write a song that would introduce some of these people to an audience who may not have had a real idea what some of these people were about, and either hadn’t met before, or perhaps hadn’t even considered meeting.
[WILD SIDE OF LIFE](Hank Thompson)
The title for the song has a more convoluted parentage than most songs. Reed himself has said that the direct inspiration for the song’s title was a novel by Nelson Algren, titled “A Walk on the Wild Side”, but that book got its title from a song from this song from 1952, called “The Wild Side of Life.” Now, “The Wild Side of Life” has nothing to do thematically with Lou Reed’s song, but the book has a little bit more of an alignment. Reed once said that “Walk on the Wild Side” came out of a request that he score a musical for the book. However, over the year that followed, as the show became more remote, the stories of people he actually knew, rather than characters from the book, started to make their way into the lyrics.
[WALK ON THE WILD SIDE]
So who are the people named in “Walk on the Wild Side”? Well, all of them were members of Andy Warhol’s studio, which was known as The Factory. By that time, Warhol had moved The Factory from its original location on East 47th Street, down to East 16th Street near Union Square Park. Warhol was really cranking out his work at that time, and he brought in a bunch of people to assist him with production of his art and his films, most of whom were drag queens, socialites, musicians and drug addicts. And Warhol called all of these people his “Superstars”. And Reed, as one of the Superstars, started working other Superstars into “Walk on the Wild Side”.
The first verse refers to someone named Holly. That would be Holly Woodlawn. Holly was born as Haroldo Santiago Franceschi Rodriguez Danhaklin, in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami Beach, Florida, where she came out at a pretty early age. This sort of thing didn’t go over very well in Miami—not in the early 1960s, anyway—and she was bullied pretty regularly. So in 1962 when she was 15, she sold off a lot of her stuff and started making her way north, making it to Georgia before she ran out of money. So, she began to hitch-hike the rest of the way, and during that journey, like the song says, she learned how to pluck her eyebrows. In her autobiography she writes, “At the age of 16, when most kids were cramming for trigonometry exams, I was turning tricks, living off the streets and wondering when my next meal was coming.” It wasn’t until 1968 that she met up with Warhol and joined The Factory. Whenever she performed she had kind of a look somewhere between Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich, but she never bothered changing her voice. New York Times critic Vincent Canby once wrote that she sounded more like Phil Silvers than Marlene Dietrich.
[SILVERS AUDIO CLIP]
Unfortunately, Holly Woodlawn died in December 2015 of liver and brain cancer.
The second verse tells us about Candy, who was everybody’s darling. That was a pun on Lou Reed’s part, since he’s talking about Candy Darling, who was born James Lawrence Slattery in New York City. Candy grew up in the town of Massapequa Park, on Long Island and, like Holly Woodlawn, came out at an early age and was bullied for it to the point where she was nearly lynched. She dropped out of high school after that and went to a cosmetology school. She met up with Warhol in 1967 and he cast her in his movie titled Flesh. Candy also makes an appearance in the Velvet Underground song, “Candy Says.”
Candy Darling died of lymphoma in 1974 at the age of 29. This verse in the song is the most curious one, in the sense that it has the line referring to oral sex, which seemed never to be censored by the radio stations. But as far as anyone can tell, that’s because the program directors simply had no idea what the phrase “giving head” meant, and by the time they figured it out, the song had been played so many times that censoring it at that point would have been meaningless. It’s kind of like the Who’s “Who Are You”, which drops an F-bomb repeatedly. There is supposedly a version of the single that doesn’t have the reference to oral sex, and replaces the phrase “and the colored girls say” with “and the girls all say”, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy nowadays.
“Little Joe” would be Joseph D’Alessandro. D’Alessandro was born in Florida, and moved to New York when he was a child. As a teenager, he was expelled from school for punching the principal. He continued to get into trouble until finally he was sent to a rehabilitation camp in upstate New York in 1964. Year later he ran away from the camp and supported himself by doing nude modeling. D’Alessandro met Andy Warhol in 1967, and immediately became one of Warhol’s superstars. In addition to the Andy Warhol films, D’Alessandro has appeared in several mainstream properties, and guest-starred on several television shows. D’Alessandro has also appeared on two album covers. The cover of the Rolling Stones album sticky fingers features a close-up photograph of the crotch bulge of Joe’s tight blue jeans. The photograph was taken by Andy Warhol, and was just one of several photos in a stack, rather than being a photo made specifically for the album cover. The other appearance happened in the 1980s when the British band the Smiths took a still from the film “Flesh” featuring D’Alessandro and used it as the cover of their debut album. D’Alessandro turns 70 later this year, and at last report was living in Los Angeles.
Jackie Curtis was born John Curtis in 1947 in New York City. Throughout her career she performed as both a man and a woman, and in the late 60s produced a lot of her own place which frequently featured others in the Warhol superstar stable such as candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. Her parents and the song features both her drug addiction and her fascination with the actor James Dean. She died from complications of HIV in 1985.
The sugarplum fairy was a reference to an actor named Joe Campbell, who appeared in a 1965 film by Andy Warhol titled “My Hustler.” And again, a drug reference managed to slip past censors because a sugar plum fairy is another term for a drug dealer.
[CENTRAL PARK ARREST]
So who are the colored girls who go “Doo, di-doo, di-doo, doo-di-doo”? Well, as it turns out, they were a British trio known as Thunder Thighs, and oddly enough, they were all Caucasian. They got a lot of work in the 1970s singing backup for different artists including Arthur Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Mott the Hoople, and they managed to record a few singles of their own. This one, called “Central Park Arrest,” made it to Number 30 in the UK.
[WALK ON THE WILD SIDE END CLIP]
And no discussion of “Walk On The Wild Side” would be complete if I didn’t talk about some of the musicians on the song. There are two bass lines on his record and they provide most of the propulsion on the song. One was an electric bass and the other was an acoustic double bass, and both of them were played by Herbie Flowers. According to an interview that Mr. flowers did in 2005 with the BBC, the idea behind the twin bass line was that, as a session musician, he would get paid double playing two instruments on the same track. But the fact is, he only got 17 pounds for the session, not 34.
Also of special note is the saxophone solo at the end of the song, which often gets cut short in some single versions. Those same versions also cut out at least one of the verses, but it’s strictly a time cut rather than a censorship one. At any rate, the saxophone was provided by Ronnie Ross, who was a childhood friend of David Bowie and taught him to play the sax when they were kids. The story goes, however, that Ross had no idea that Bowie was even there until after he’d finished recording his part.
The single was released in November of 1972 and by early 1973, “Walk on the Wild Side” went to Number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached Number 10 in the UK, and it did pretty respectably in other countries as well, though it never got above 100 in Australia.
Now, this is kind of interesting. Lou Reed said once that he was worried about the reactions that Warhol’s superstars were going to have to the record, but when he got back to New York, it turned out that they were all pretty excited about the song and really liked it. However, in 2017 a college in Ontario, Canada included the song on a playlist at a campus event, and then decided they needed to issue a public apology for it the next day. The apology essentially suggested that the song is transphobic, reading in part “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgment.’ The student group also promised to be more mindful in their music selection for future events. Now, Lou Reed himself was already dead by this point but his producer Hal Willner told the press “I don’t know if Lou would be cracking up about this or crying because it’s just too stupid.” He continued, “The song was a love song to all the people he knew and to New York City by a man who supported the community and the city his whole life.” Another friend of Reeds, Jenni Muldaur, who also did some backup singing for him, noted that “Lou was open about his complete acceptance of all creatures of the night,” pointing out that the album is called Transformer. “What do they think it’s about?”
The song has never truly been covered, although the bass line is frequently sampled by the hip-hop crowd. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch took the instrumental line and set up a rap song called “Wildside”—all one word—but the lyrics were completely different. Having said that, the words to Marky Mark’s version are also referencing real people.
And the band U2 vamped a couple of lyrics during the 1985 Live Aid concert, getting the audience to sing the “doo, di-doo” part. Then Bono walked offstage while the band finished playing.
Oddly enough, the band thought the performance was a low point in their career, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the entire show.
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