the facts of the era have been burnished and improved on extensively enough... that hardly anyone knows what actually happened anymore.“It’s been so mythologized,”
The Real-Life Stories Told in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’
Snagged from among the thousands of condolences, recollections, posthumous mash notes and encomiums launched into the Twitter slipstream last week was a message from the actress Virginia Madsen to her 74,656 followers. Lou Reed was a “cool cat,” the award-winning indie star observed. What is more, Ms. Madsen wrote, the singer’s biggest hit and most famous lyric, “Walk on the Wild Side,” once served as “encouraging words for a young Virginia.”
Encouragement is where you find it. Plenty about Mr. Reed’s 1972 song, from the David Bowie-produced album “Transformer,” flouted convention, beginning with the lyrics’ overt reference to prostitution, transsexuals and oral sex. Released as a single, the song went on to unlikely success as the biggest mainstream hit of the singer’s long career; more curious still, the ballad of misfits and oddballs — a hustler, a speed freak, a passel of drag queens — became an unlikely cultural anthem, a siren song luring generations of people like Ms. Madsen to a New York so long forgotten as to seem imaginary.
Yet those people existed, a ragtag band of “superstars” and assorted cosmic trash spinning in Andy Warhol’s orbit in the late 1960s. As Mr. Reed himself once said of the era and milieu evoked in “Walk on the Wild Side,” it “was a very funny period with a very funny group of people doing almost the same thing without anyone knowing anybody else.”
One of those strangers was Holly Woodlawn, the drag-queen eminence whose loopy hegira is recounted just after the hypnotic, elastic bass opening lines of Mr. Reed’s song: “Holly came from Miami, F.L.A./Hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A./plucked her eyebrows on the way/Shaved her legs and then he was a she.”
Speaking from her home in West Hollywood last week, Ms. Woodlawn said, “Paul Morrissey made me a star, but Lou Reed made me immortal.”
Ms. Woodlawn was one in a ceaselessly fluctuating cast of Factory characters — Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Ondine, Brigid Berlin, Rotten Rita, Andrea (Whips) Feldman, Ultra Violet, Taylor Mead — each a creation of a time that seems increasingly distant from the New York of today.
Even were another Candy Darling miraculously to appear, hair dyed ash blond (or “Blonde Cendre” as she liked to say); husky, affectless purr aping Kim Novak’s in “Picnic,” it is hard to imagine where she would find a place, as she did working at the Factory taking messages for Mr. Warhol from people like Luchino Visconti.
There is nothing, for that matter, resembling the Factory or Max’s Kansas City, Mickey Ruskin’s fabled nightclub and restaurant on Park Avenue South. There are no longer even the “rich people parties” that, as the Warhol superstar Viva explained last week, “were where we were supposed to go every night to ‘bring home the bacon’ ” — business art being, as Warhol always said, the best art.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter, Viva added. Hardly anyone but Warhol himself brought home any bacon: “The bacon stayed in the fridge.”
For the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, a Reed intimate who came on the scene as a young Columbia student and went on to become its essential documentarian, this was substantially so. “Lou is probably the one person from the Warhol Factory who survived to become a great star in his own right,” Mr. Greenfield-Sanders said by telephone following Mr. Reed’s cremation. “If Lou hadn’t written that song, none of these characters would be remembered.”
By “characters,” Mr. Greenfield-Sanders meant the performers who appeared in underground films directed by Mr. Morrissey and generally credited to Warhol — evanescent creatures like Ms. Darling, né James Lawrence Slattery, or Jackie Curtis, né John Curtis Holder Jr., or Joe Dallesandro, who entered pop cultural history (not altogether wittingly) as the male hustler Little Joe.
“That’s not the truth about me,” Mr. Dallesandro said this week. “Lou took my character from “Flesh” and wrote about it in the song,” he added, referring to a 1968 film. “He didn’t know me. He hadn’t even met me yet when he wrote that song.”
Just as fiction became a kind of truth, the facts of the era have been burnished and improved on extensively enough, say those who were part of the scene, that hardly anyone knows what actually happened anymore.
“It’s been so mythologized,” Viva noted from her home in Palm Springs.
Still, she said, who ever heard of anybody running around with an inkpad saying unzip your pants, dip your penis and make a print — referring to a tome compiled by the Warhol intimate Brigid Berlin (the book was later bought by the artist and bibliophile Richard Prince for $175,000). “Nobody would ever do that anymore,” she added.
“That was the era of fun for fun’s sake — fun art,” Viva said, referring to the world and city of “Walk on the Wild Side.” “I have no idea what kids do for fun anymore.”
The Real-Life Stories Told in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ - NYTimes.com