Sunday, December 27, 2020

Transformer: The beginning of a long friendship

Transformer, released a few months after I graduated from high school, sent shock waves into my system that would reverberate for about three decades.

I haven't listened to Lou Reed much in the past decade or so, especially not since he died seven years ago. I'll trip across the occasional Velvet Underground track during a Pandora session now and again, or I might toss up a Reed album every few months for nostalgia's sake. That's about it.

But from that day in late 1972 when I first heard "Walk on the Wild Side" until a year or two after Lou's well ran dry at the turn of the century, my music universe revolved around him. I went off in a lot of different directions during that time, but I always dropped everything to come back home for a spell whenever the man beckoned with something new. Lou was prolific throughout those years: in retrospect, some of it good, some of it bad, some of it in-between. But he always had something to say, and I always listened intensely.

Back to the beginning: I had KSHE on for some background noise that fateful afternoon. All of a sudden I realized this low-key, talk-singing voice on top of a funny little sliding bass-guitar riff and a lightly brushed snare drum was seeping into my brain. "Hmmm, this is interesting. What is this?"

And then, "The colored girls what? What in the world ...?" I snapped to attention because I did not want to let this one slide. As soon as that out-of-the-blue saxophone solo faded away at the end, the DJ told me I just heard a new song by Lou Reed. He said it like I was supposed to have some kind of idea who Lou Reed was.

I didn't have a clue. Never heard of the guy. But I knew I needed to fix that. It wasn't more than a day or two before I had my copy of Transformer on the record player. It was the most beautifully weird thing I had ever heard. The more I listened, the more that wonderfully detached voice merged to my spine. I replayed it constantly. I played it for all my friends. If I listened to that album 100 times in that first month, I desperately wanted to find the time to get to 101.

I learned pretty quickly who Lou Reed was and why I should have heard of him before. But the Velvet Underground never got much radio play in St. Louis, so that whole thing just slipped by me. My mission over the next couple of months to get up to speed was a successful one.

Transformer was the second of Lou's 20-plus studio albums. At least a half-dozen of them would rank higher on a list of my favorites. I'll get into that later. But that Lou Reed hit single and the Mick Rock cover photo are so iconic and burned into our culture, it's impossible to minimize that album's impact. And for me, it's where it all started.

Lou's hit single: Reed released close to 100 singles during his career, but "Walk on the Wild Side" was the only one that cracked the Billboard Hot 100, reaching No. 16 in 1973. The second verse of the album track, which references Candy Darling "giving head," was trimmed for the single at Reed's suggestion. "Perfect Day," the B side, was rerecorded with several guest performers in 1997 for the British charity BBC Children in Need. That one was a No. 1 single in the United Kingdom. 

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