Take A Walk On The Wild Side

Or may be not.

I first heard Take A Walk On The Wild Side  in in 1978, at the David Bowie concert held at Lang Park (now known as Suncorp Stadium) in Brisbane. The song was played over the PA system before the start of the concert that featured The Angels as the support act.

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Photo courtesy take a walk on the wild side via Photopin and Creative Commons

Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,
Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey baby, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
And the coloured girls go,

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo

And apparently lots of others, who were not at the concert, heard it too. Queensland Government minister Russ Hinze (who was known as the ‘minister for everything’) said that “the newly-formed noise abatement authority will investigate complaints that the Bowie concert at Lang Park disturbed the peace. It was reported that the noise was loud enough to be heard 6kms away. Residents of the suburbs of Paddington, Bardon, and Milton described it as intolerable.”

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Photo courtesy bowielive.net

This was my introduction to Lou Reed, and a few years later I learned that he was a founding member of The Velvet Underground. From then on, I predominately associated the music of Lou Reed, firmly rooted in his Warholian past, with the 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico, featuring German singer and collaborator, Nico.

And this is why I was so keen to read Notes From The Velvet Underground The Life of Lou Reed, a recent biography by Howard Sounes. But I got a lot more than I expected – the biography covers Lou’s angst-ridden teenage years right through to his death from a failed liver transplant in October 2013, aged 71.

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Howard Sounes, an accomplished biographer, has written detailed and revelatory books on a wide range of extraordinary personalities – including the author Charles Bukowski (Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life), the murderers Fred and Rosemary West (Fred & Rose), and the musicians Bob Dylan (Down the Highway) and Paul McCartney (Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney). Notes From The Velvet Underground The Life of Lou Reed adds to this significant canon of work.

Writing a good biography is not easy. Not every one wants to share their thoughts with the author. Laurie Anderson, Reed’s widow, chose not  to participate. But if the biographer is sincere and persistent (as Sounes was), they will get people to talk, while retaining the advantage of having the freedom to write a book that is not censored or influenced by interested parties. The result, for me at least, was a compelling, if somewhat depressing, book. It also made me question whether bad behavior is ever acceptable, even if the person is brilliant, famous, and generally regarded as a genius.

Granted, lives are messy, and Reed’s was definitely messier, but Sounes lets the facts speak themselves. After less than a year at university, a teenaged Reed had a nervous breakdown and received Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), which according to some was to cure his homosexuality. Whatever the reasons, the ECT treatment created life-long tensions with his parents. However, his parents supported his creative aspirations, allowing him to live at home, and his father even went as far as to employ Reed as a typist in his insurance office on Long Island.

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Photo courtesy http://www.hippowallpapers.com

Around this time, Reed began to write a song in praise of a new habit – an ecstatic itemisation of the nullifying effects of heroin. He was using and dealing, but he was also in thrall to the mythology – a grimy world he had encountered by way of writers such as William Burroughs long before he first plunged a spike into his arm. Like his literary heroes, he wanted to get it down on paper, to find a way of logging a psychic as well as a physical realm.

The seminal song was written and the band soon followed. Reed took a job in a hit factory, a sort of sweatshop for bubblegum pop where his most lucrative contribution was a song called The Ostrich. The band brought in to record it (in New York) included a young Welsh viola player, John Cale. Reed introduced Cale to heroin, and in return Cale introduced Reed to the city’s avant-garde music and film scenes: the foundational exchange of The Velvet Underground. Reed definitely got the better deal.

Along the way, they gathered the other group members: guitarist, Sterling Morrison, and a self-taught drummer in the form a Catholic schoolgirl called Maureen (Mo) Tucker, which was really unusual in the late 1960s. Andy Warhol, the leading figure in Pop Art, took on the management duties in tandem with Paul Morrissey.

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Photo courtesy fanart.tv

Interestingly, it was this management that foisted the unwanted presence of Nico (who was also a singer-songwriter, lyricist, composer, musician, fashion model and actress), onto The Velvets. Nico was a spectacular Nordic beauty, but initially she was not welcomed into the group for many reasons – the fact that she was deaf in one ear which made her grasp of pitch uncertain probably didn’t do much to endear her to her fellow musicians.

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Photo courtesy Velvet Underground via Photopin and Creative Commons

The result? The Banana Album is one of the most prophetic rock albums ever made. Cale introduced the power of pulse and drone, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Mo Tucker played with tribal force, and Nico brought an icy femininity to the heated ennui in Reed’s songs.

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Photo courtesy The Velvet via Photopin and Creative Commons

Although Reed began not liking Nico, he went on to have an affair with her. But Sounes’ biography makes it clear that Reed was sexually ambiguous. He had long-term (and sometimes ‘open’) relationships with women, married three times, and his last union of 21 years with experimental musician Laurie Anderson was a happy one.

But in the wild, drug-fueled 1970s, Reed also had a ‘commitment ceremony’ with his transvestite partner of five years, Rachel. This might not seem like such a big deal in today’s world which is more accepting of gender fluidity, but it was ground-breaking 40 years ago. Sounes’ diligent research reveals very little about the true identity of Rachel and her fate remains uncertain, but the reader gets a poignant glimpse of her in the late 80s: gaunt, homeless, and possibly dying of an AIDS-related illness.

Sounes’ research was extensive. He conducted around 140 interviews with Reed’s family, band mates, wives, lovers, school friends, college contemporaries, drug buddies, business associates, employers and employees. He also drew upon published articles and several previous biographies of the notorious rock star. And while it would be unfair to suggest that no one has a good word to say about Lou Reed, several words do crop up repeatedly: “nasty”, “mean” and “prick”.

In commercial terms, Reed was a niche artist with relatively modest record sales. Yet he is a towering figure in pop history – one of rock’s most audacious lyricists, and a pioneer who saw no limits to potential subject matter. He pushed the form into new areas of poetic literacy while simultaneously creating a down and dirty template for edgy art rock, with the sludgy aesthetics and uncompromising intensity of The Velvet Underground.

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Photo courtesy Pug and Lou Reed via Photopin and Creative Commons

The central mystery of Lou Reed’s life appears to be how to reconcile the empathy and awareness of his work with the unpleasantness of the person. But, perhaps it doesn’t need to be, because the work not only speaks for itself, it has a life of its own.

Sounes’ biography notes that Václav Havel, the Czech writer, philosopher, dissident, statesman, and former president of Czechoslovakia, was an admirer of Reed’s music. The songs Lou Reed created in semi-obscurity in the 1960s affected people in far-flung places he didn’t know and in circumstances he had never imagined.

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Photo courtesy kultura.zpravy.idnes.cz

Havel gave Reed a gift of a hand-printed book containing the lyrics of his songs translated into Czechoslovakian, and explained that there were only 200 of these printed because it was very dangerous to own one, and people found with a copy were sent to jail.

Reed remains an enigma, who took his secrets to the grave, which is surely what he would have wanted. And as he once said, “I see myself as a writer.  Whether I’m a nice guy, whether I’m a liar, whether I’m immoral, should have nothing to do with it.”

 

3 Comments on Take A Walk On The Wild Side

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    October 15, 2016 at 3:42 pm (9 months ago)

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  2. url
    November 5, 2016 at 3:25 am (8 months ago)

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