Considered as a sharp loving group portrait of the misfit boys and midnight darlings of New York City, this song was written in 1971, when Lou Reed was asked to compose the music for a theatrical adaptation of A Walk on the Wild Side, a realistic novel about addiction and prostitution by Nelson Algren; nevertheless, the production never got past the planning stage.
In order to try to understand this song clearly, it is necessary to examine separately what exactly the “Velvet Underground” was. In brief, a rock&roll band which was born in 1967 and which lasted with Lou Reed as a member only through 1970. They took part in the creation of a new wave in music that is still imitated nowadays, more than 30 years after.
Andy Warhol helped the band during its beginnings. For them he created “The Factory”; it was their place of work and inspiration, namely, there, they were mixed all sorts of drugs with the art and madness of a “subterranean New York”. Reed mines his Warhol/Factory experiences for much of the material on this song.
By listening to the song we are placed in the Factory environment and we learn details about the lifes of its people. Lou Reed talks us about five characters. If we look at the lyrics scheme we will identify them clearly. They are:
Holly Woodlawn (1)
Candy Darling (7)
Joe Dalessandro (14)
Sugar Plum Fairy (20)
Jack Curtis (27)
All of them existed and were a sort of “changelings” or transexuals, you alredy know: men who pass for women (by using make-up and female dressing) in the world of prostitution and show-business.
Analysing the text, we find explicit references of this ambiguity on lines 3-4 and 20 (in contrast with 23, him).
Likewise, we find a metaphoric mention to drug addiction and overdosis between lines 27-30. At first sight, we think that Jackie has died because he/she was driving fast (27) and consequently had a crash (29) but, if we look at the vocabulary we notice that there is another meaning for “speed”, in the same way, we get the clue on line 30: by using Valium, Jackie would have reduced the effects of the drug he/she had had.
To conclude, I would like to mention a detail only noticeable if you listen the song until the end: the closing baritone-sax break is performed by Ronnie Ross, the sax teacher of David Bowie.
Now, please listen to the song and read it carefully. In case you have any doubt, you may look at the vocabulary in the footnote.
Holly came from Miami, Fla
Hitchhiked her way across the USA.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was she
She says:”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 givin’ head
She says: “hey Babe, take a walk on the wild side”
Said: “hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
And the coloured girls go
Little Joe never once gave it away
Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there
New York city is the place where they said:
“Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
I said: “hey Joe, take a walk on the wild side”
Sugar Plum Fairy came and hit the streets
Lookin’ for soul food and a place to eat
Went to the Apollo
You should have seen him go go go
They said: “hey Sugar, take a walk on the wild side”
I said: “hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
All right, huh
Jackie is just speeding away
Thought she was James Dean for a day
Then I guess she had to crash
Valium would have helped that bash
She said:”hey babe, take a walk on the wild side”
I said: “hey honey, take a walk on the wild side”
And the coloured girls say
Hitch-hicke (2): to travel by asking for free rides in other people’s cars, by standing at the side of the road and trying to get passing cars to stop.
Pluck (3): to pull out hairs with your fingers or with tweezers.
Give sb. their head (10): to allow sb. to do what they want without trying to stop them. Also blowjob.
Hustle (16): busy noisy activity of a lot of people in one place.
Hit the streets (20): to become widely available for sale.
Soul food (21): the type of food that was traditionally eaten by black people in the Southern USA.
Speed (27): an illegal amphetamine drug that is taken to give feelings of excitement and energy.
Bash (30): a hard hit.