The Epic Track: “Take A Walk On the Wild Side”

coney island baby

Editor’s Note: There are certain tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them.


In the world of pop music, Lou Reed was more venerated than in vogue. For half a century, he was a suave prince of darkness, pushing boundaries and celebrating societal misfits. He helped spearhead punk, glam rock, and avant-garde music, beginning in 1964 with his connection to Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground.

Reed’s music has been a niche favorite but tended not to hit the pop music airwaves. That is, until 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

From his second studio LP Transformer (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson), “Walk on the Wild Side” is a gloriously wacky track that takes us on an odyssey with five Warhol “Factory” legends. Today, these characters might read as merely quirky but at the time of the track’s release they were iconoclasts.

“Walk on the Wild Side” opens with Herbie Flowers’ springy bass line and concludes with an evocative urban sax solo by Bowie’s childhood music teacher, Ronnie Ross. In between we get introduced to some colorful souls as they make their way through the gritty streets of artsy downtown New York City in the early 1970s. Transgender themes prevail, along with drugs, oral sex, and male prostitution, an absolute first for a song that found its way onto the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #16.

Reed’s laconic delivery pulls us in as he introduces us to his heroes:

-“Holly,” the “he” who became a “she” after some brow-tweezing and leg shaving on a hitchhike from Miami. “She” was Holly Woodlawn, the transgender Warhol superstar whose madly-arched eyebrows and endearing overbite became a legend in Warhol’s films Trash and Women in Revolt.

-“Candy” was Candy Darling, Max’s Kansas City backroom legend and Velvet Underground muse. She was a tragic transgender beauty unfazed by what she gave to club patrons, in a lyric that inexplicably made it past radio censors.

-“Little Joe” was Joe Dallesandro, perhaps the best-known Warhol male star, with a long list of X-rated film credits. Joe eventually went mainstream (it was his jeans-clad crotch on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers cover). According to Little Joe, Reed did not know him personally when he wrote the song and based his verse on the ever-hustling gay prostitute character that he played in Flesh.

-“Sugar Plum Fairy” is actor Joe Campbell, who “came for soul food and a place to eat.” He portrayed a drug dealer in Warhol’s My Hustler and was a one-time boyfriend of Harvey Milk, the first publicly gay politician to be elected to office.

-“Jackie” was Jackie Curtis, a Warhol actress and muse who created and popularized the decadent “trash glam” look. Curtis was an acknowledged drug addict and James Dean obsessive, referenced in the lyrics.

Who would have thought that a subversive song like “Walk on the Wild Side,” which celebrates outcasts from a very specific place and time, would remain a favorite? Rolling Stone deems it the 223rd greatest song in rock history.

The hypnotic opening bass line and hooky “Doo do do doo do do do…” by Reed (and the female backup trio Thunderthighs) have been making fingers snap for generations. Reed’s empathy and fondness for the characters is palpable.

The title highlights a prevalent sex work theme. “Hey baby, take a walk on the wild side!” was a frequent pitch of prostitutes to potential clients of the era. Reed expands the meaning, honoring artists who take mad, hazardous risks, often at their peril. Out of everyone mentioned in the song, only Joe Dallesandro still walks among us today.

But “Walk on the Wild Side” lives on. It’s loved as a rebellious anthem by eccentrics and normies alike. Reed took a vintage group of Andy Warhol muses who could have been lost to history…and made them immortal.

-Ellen Fagan

Photo: Lou Reed (Getty Images)

Other Posts You Might Like

9 comments on “The Epic Track: “Take A Walk On the Wild Side”

  1. Eoghan Lyng

    Very nice!

  2. It’s also worth mentioning that bassist Flowers doubled his bass lines…one on upright and another on electric…which helps give the song even more of a unique bottom end…

    • Ellen Fagan

      What a spectacular detail! Perfect way to flesh out the sound further.

  3. David S.

    I’ve been listening to – and singing along with – this since I was 12 years old. Took a long time before I realized with what I was singing along! Now I get the warm fuzzies about the “empathy and fondness” for these characters. You’ve made them come to life for me with this article; thank you.

    • Ellen Fagan

      That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you so much! I always loved the good-hearted curmudgeonliness in his music.

  4. A magnificent track, and you do it proud, Ellen! It’s not just an eerie tune with an off-key singer and fretless bass, but a chapter out of the 60’s/70’s history book that could only be written by the likes of Lou Reed. Bravo!

    • Ellen Fagan

      Many thanks, Laura! That was beautifully expressed. Kudos to that fretless bass.

Leave a Reply (and please be kind!)

Love the Beatles? Get this eBook FREE when you subscribe.

It turns out there's a lot to say. Just say "yes" to get yours.