You’re So Vicious: Lou Reed’s Transformer Turns 50

For many rock fans, the NYC Man’s 1972 glam slam was a real eye opener

Transformer magazine ad (Image: eBay)

For many of us – and I guess I should say specifically teens raised in the suburbs, exurbs or country with an ear peeled to AM radio in the early ‘70s – Lou Reed’s Transformer was a major eye-opener.

And it all came to me, as I’m sure it did for most everyone, via “Walk on the Wild Side,” the most improbable hit single of all time, a song which came spinning out of my Top 40 radio station with some frequency back then. 

It was this weird, droll, half-spoken/half-sung song about these trans women, who came from different places to end up in New York City. Like Candy, who never lost her head even though she was giving head. What?! On the radio?! And Jackie? She was just speeding away. It wound down with a smoky sax coda and “the colored girls” at the going “doo-doo-doo/doo-doo/doo-doo-doo.” It sucked me and made me go, “Huh? What’s this now? Where did this come from?” 

The album it came from was released Nov. 8, 1972, making it 50 now. Me, I bought it, probably spring of the following year when “Wild Side” became a hit, alongside Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree,” Johnny Nash’s “Stir It Up,” and The Sweet’s “Little Willy.” (Which, after thinking it a silly bubblegum pop song, I found out years later, was about this English guy’s irrepressible, ever-erect dick – “Little Willy won’t go home!”) So, that was the context for me initially, the Top 40 stew.

 

VIDEO: Lou Reed performs “Walk On The Wild Side” at Farm Aid ’85

And, though I’d like to be ultra-hip and say of course I listened to the Velvet Underground when I was 12 – and “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” were part of my music DNA before puberty – that was not the case. This was really my introduction to Lou Reed.

As it was for Suzanne Vega, three years my junior, miles away. Nine years ago, we were talking about her entrée into the Lou world. The occasion was she had joined many others who played a Lou Reed / Velvet Underground tribute show in Austin. She discovered Reed and the Velvet Underground, as many did, in retrospect, after hearing “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou’s lone Top 40 hit on the radio. I asked her about it. Did she get it?

“It only took a minute for Lou’s work to sink in,” Vega told me, “But then I became a real fan. So, transitioning from later Lou to the earlier VU was fairly easy.” What she heard, Vega adds, “enticed” her. “It made me feel that nothing was taboo in terms of subject matter, and that excited me.”

After the Top 40 exposure came the album purchase Dollars were doled out with some caution during those low-budget teenage years, but I rolled the dice, even if it was outside of my Who, Stones, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult realm.

I put the needle down on the first song on side one, “Vicious,” and thought, “Well, this is some kinda flower power, we got here.” You know, “Vicious, you hit me with a flower” – quick abrasive electric guitar grind – “You do it every hour” – same grind – “Oh, baby, you’re so vicious.” It was a catchy, corrosive little number. A tad gay. And then you flip disc and you’re hit with “Make Up,” and “Now, we’re coming out/Out of our closets/Out on the streets …”

I didn’t know the word “demi-monde” when I was 16, but that’s what Lou was introducing me to. 

Lou Reed Transformer, RCA Records 1972

In 1972 and 1973, my AM radio was my constant companion, as I guess it was for much of the youth of America. It was the source of much musical info and pleasure – a cornucopia of musical styles from pop to soul to country to reggae to R&B to novelty songs to, well, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Slinky and sexy and all about gay or trans or bisexual life in New York City, about as far from my insular world as you could get. I was a straight guy, girl crazy. Was I pro-gay/trans/bi in 1972? Again, I could say “Of course, I’ve always been open-minded!” but those were different times and the reality was, “No, not really.” Not hostile. Just not interested. No one I knew had those proclivities, at least not that I knew.

Yet … the music drew me in, the web of decadence from a distance. There was this trio from ’72, all connected to David Bowie. His own The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars LP; Bowie, along with Mick Ronson, producing Transformer; Bowie producing Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes album (as well, of course, as penning the title track). I didn’t think Ian Hunter was gay – the first song of side two on the album was “One of the Boys,” a rowdy number about male bonding and scrapping.  

Like Vega suggested, a real door opener.

As a grown-up rock critic, I interviewed Reed a lot over the years and, and oddly enough, or maybe not, since Transformer was so by the boards when we talked, it only came up in passing. Though when he and Laurie Anderson started dating in the ‘90s his thoughts about her (and them) were woven through Set the Twilight Reeling his 17th solo album and he told me, “I have seen the theme of the album as being about change, growth and how good that is. It’s all transformation. I was actually thinking of calling it Transformer Squared, and then I regained control of myself.”

Coulda worked. The idea being you’re moving from one self into another. Lou’s life certainly encompassed a lot of selves.

But Reed did address Transformer in a 1998 documentary, Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart: “Glam rock, androgyny, polymorphic sex – I was right in the middle of it. Some say, I could have been at the head of the class.”

Before we get ahead of ourselves about all this poly-whatever, let’s look a couple others: “Satellite of Love” and “Perfect Day.” The former is this lilting, chiming song about observing lovers exiting your orbit – the ex being “bold with Harry, Mark and John.” In the song, Reed is the jealous, but passive (aggressive) observer who “likes to o watch things for a little while” and “loves to watch things on TV.”

“Perfect Day” is one of Reed’s most heartfelt songs. It was written after a walk in Central Park with then fiancée (later wife, then ex-wife) Bettye Kronstad. I don’t read anything particularly gay or straight about it – Reed sings to “you.” It’s his best mix of light and dark and it became one of his signature songs, given new life in the Trainspotting, movie in 1996, among many other films and TV shows. It is the most bittersweet of uplifting tunes. Reed sang (as the song swelled), “It’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you” – it sounds completely genuine and true. But it takes a twist, the perfect day touched by tension, unease. “You just keep me hanging on,” he sang in the chorus and it had an ominous, foreboding close: “You’re gonna reap just what you sow.” Perfection, about to be tarnished.

Reed died nine years ago and digital sales of Transformer, “Walk on the Wild Side”, and “Perfect Day” all rose more than 300%, according to Billboard. “Walk on the Wild Side” dinged the new Billboard Rock Digital Songs chart at No. 38. Transformer endures.

 

VIDEO: Lou Reed performs “Perfect Day” on Later…With Jools Holland 2003

So, that’s my straight-guy/glam-fan take. For perspective on what it meant to a gay kid growing up in Reading, England, check out Simon Doonan’s new book, Transformer: A Story of Glitter, Glam Rock & Loving Lou Reed, out Nov. 8, the 50th anniversary of the album’s release. 

Doonan, who’s four years older than me, was at an ideal explosive age for Transformer. It truly rocked his world in a way it’d never been rocked.

“Stylish and modish and gay positive,” Doonan writes, “his album is the soundtrack for the new, shiny, draggy, tarty, silver-snakeskin electric-blue satin fabulosity that is central to my world.” 

Why did he love it so? Because “not only is it original, funny, swinging, acidic, stupid, poignant, sentimental, ridiculous and thoroughly enjoyable,” he liked that it lacked the “dour” quality of the Velvets music and required no knowledge of Reed’s influences, poet/mentor Delmore Schwartz or avant-garde pianist John Cage. (I wouldn’t say you needed that, but I get where Doonan’s coming from.)

Gay actor/writer/singer John Cameron Mitchell – creator/star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch – blurbs the book thusly: “Doonan’s droll, concise yet action-packed hosanna to the personal and salutary joys of Lou Reed’s glam rock classic Transformer. Both Simon and I were, in effect, created by everything Transformer stood and stands for.” 

Is Transformer the Reed album I go back to most after all these years?

No, that would the follow-up, Berlin, the most radical, bitter, despairing and ornate albums ever, with characters that are sado-masochistic, solipsistic and drug addled – making for one sublime, haunting and gorgeous record. 

But without Transformer as a hit, maybe no Berlin. Remember, Reed’s first solo album, the eponymous post-Velvets record, was a stiff. Who knows how far RCA would have taken Lou?

And I like the ch-ch-ch changes Transformer put me – and a whole lotta other people – through. Doors opened, untapped curiosity and emotions were tapped and a trans-positive song was an American hit. In 1973. It still kind of bewilders me, but in a very good way.

 

 

 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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