The Day Lou Reed Set Me Free
Lou Reed studied literature 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 Rilke, Artaud, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valéry. You name it, Lou read it. He was also fascinated by the city of New York, the same way I am by Chicago, and I loved when he told me stories of the city in the late sixties and early seventies 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.
One night in Manhattan, my friend Bob Chase and I met up with Lou to attend a benefit for Prospect.1, the first-ever New Orleans biennial. It was at the Core Club, a fancy-schmancy, arts-positive club that had graciously agreed to host the event. While standing outside, Lou told us 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 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 to hide anymore, and this was not a small thing. Lou broke down the door, and the rest of us got to walk through it.
Tony Fitzpatrick grew up in Lombard, IL, the son of a burial vault salesman. Fitzpatrick was routinely suspended from Catholic School on bad behavior. On those days he would ride along with his father to sales appointments and listen to stories of life and of Chicago. Birds were especially important...